Notes for Sunday's sermon on Mark 1: 14-20
There’s something fishy about this story of the call of the disciples – and I don’t mean Peter, Andrew, James & John themselves.
At first hearing we probably wonder how they did it. We imagine ourselves, going about our ordinary everyday business: just as the fishermen were.
Jesus walks along the shore and says, almost casually ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people’. And immediately they leave their nets, and James & John leave their father, and follow Jesus.
We might wonder what someone would have to say to us to get us to drop our whole lives like that, and follow. And John the Baptist has just been arrested – so maybe this isn’t a good time to be associating with his cousin Jesus, the one who John has called ‘the lamb of God’.
These fishermen – how brave, how daring, maybe how foolish. Could we be that brave? That daring? That foolish?
But the first fishy thing is that this story of Jesus, the one whom they will learn to call rabbi, teacher, is all the wrong way round. Rabbis didn’t go looking for followers: people who wanted to learn from a rabbi sought out a rabbi to follow. It’s as if Jesus doesn’t understand about the traditions of religious teaching of his day.
Here is the system – as Jesus knew all too well.
From the age of about 6 until about 10 every little Jewish boy would have gone to the local synagogue school, where they would have learnt the Torah – the Law – the first five books of Holy Scripture. They would learn the whole thing by heart, so that they could read and recite the Torah.
For some boys, education stopped then and they would leave formal learning and begin to learn their family trade: farming, fishing, carpentry. The brighter boys would carry on learning until they were 14 – they would learn all the rest of the scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – the books of history and poetry and prophecy. And they would learn to answer questions with other questions, not just to give answers by rote. Of course we are used to hearing Jesus answer questions with other questions as an adult – but we also have at least one example of him doing that as a 12 year old, when he gets lost and is found in the temple – deep in discussion with the teachers of the law – meeting questions with questions. It seems that Jesus progressed to this higher form of learning.
Then at 13 or 14 the boy who knew all the Scriptures would, if he wanted to progress, go and look for a rabbi from whom he could learn still more. A young man would find a rabbi he respected and say ‘rabbi, I wish to become your disciple’. The rabbi would test the boy with lots of questions to make sure that this was someone he could teach – someone with the right calibre of mind for the task. And if the young man performed well, and the rabbi agreed to accept him as a student, the rabbi would then say ‘Come, follow me’.
Those who are advanced, and bright, and keen, seek out the rabbi. If he thinks they are good enough he says ‘follow me’.
That’s the usual way that it worked in Jesus’ day.
Meanwhile, back on the beach – are four fishermen. We don’t know how old they are. We don’t know whether they had any schooling beyond the age of 10 – but we do know that they weren’t seemingly looking for a rabbi.
They weren’t the grade A students jostling for a place with the finest rabbi of that time. They were doing their very ordinary job – not a very glamorous job, either – hard work… outdoors work… smelly work, if we’re honest.
And something incredibly fishy happens. Out of the blue comes the strangest of rabbis, who cuts out all the interview stage and jumps straight to the ‘job offer’ – “follow me and I will make you fish for people”.
Very fishy. Very strange. And what makes these definitely NOT grade A students follow? Well, that’s the other fishy thing about the story. Mark tells it very simply - Jesus said "’Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Strange, and yet a pattern Mark is going to use a lot.
Later in this very same chapter Jesus meets a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. Jesus says “‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”.
A little while later Jesus has a man with leprosy come up and beg him for help. Jesus says “‘Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”.
Jesus says ‘follow me’ and they follow.
Maybe it’s not so fishy after all. Jesus is so much more than a rabbi – he is the one who speaks healing and it happens. When he speaks of the kingdom of God – it is here. When he says ‘follow’, even the second-rate and fishiest amongst us are given the strength to follow.
This is not, after all, a story about how four men find the courage the follow Jesus the rabbi.
This is the story of how in Jesus we see God acting in our world. He comes to us – he calls us – even the least likely of us. He accepts those whom the world might reject and his call gives us the power to follow him. This is the story that shows us what Jesus can do for us: take us, transform us, and make us an amazing part of his wonderful project – building the kingdom of God. Listen for his call – and receive his power – today.
Thanks be to God.