012620 Epiphany 3
I Cor. 10:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he knew that it was his turn now; the ball was in his court. And he knew that his mission to create a new unity around God’s inclusive love threatened the powers that be. If John could be arrested for carrying out that mission, so could he. He needed to be smart. He needed time; and the closer he lived to the center of power, the less time he would have. So he went as far from Jerusalem as he could – to Galilee of the Gentiles. Jewish theology saw Galilee as a land of darkness – the region and shadow of death. That served Jesus’ purposes just fine. There he could let his light shine without immediately being arrested.
The other thing Jesus knew is that, to assure that his mission would be accomplished, he would need to gather a community of followers. Sooner or later, he would be arrested, or worse. He needed to form a community that would continue the mission beyond his lifetime. So he did two things. First, he demonstrated what that new unity around God’s inclusive love looked like. People had to experience that love in concrete ways to be energized by that vision. So, Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people.
Then, he started calling people to follow him, and told them to fish for other people who would respond to the same call. He had to form a critical mass to support the mission of building that unity of love, and to carry it on after he was gone. Calling disciples was common in the Middle East. Usually, a person with a grievance invited people to join in resolving the grievance. Jesus was grieved to see the way his religion had been twisted to exclude people from God’s love rather than usher them into it. When he called the two sets of brothers to follow him, their hearts resonated with Jesus’ grievance. So, they dropped everything and followed him.
We see this happening around the world today. People are responding in massive numbers to the call to join in resolving grievances in places like Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico, and Iran, and in tiny places where the whole populace has taken to the streets to demand justice. If we believe that Christ is the Spirit that sets people free, then behind and underneath those movements we should expect to find the spirit of Christ. If we believe there are grievances needing to be resolved in this country, we must respond to Jesus’ call to follow him and become fishers of people.
In the City of Corinth, Chloe’s people went to the Apostle Paul with their grievance about partisanship in the Christian community there. Paul received that grievance as a call to action, addressing the divisions in the church as a threat to the witness of the cross. He wrote about unity of mind and purpose, even in the midst of differences. He didn’t expect them to agree about everything; but there were to be no divisions regarding their overarching purpose of inviting people into unity around the inclusive love of Christ.
Today in the United States, partisanship is one of the most threatening grievances facing this nation. The picture of the impeachment hearings going on in the Senate should be enough to release multitudes of fisherfolk into the streets. Traditionally this country has been able to overcome most divisions; but that is no longer guaranteed. We are divided on almost everything. Even our rare moments of unity seem to be politically motivated, since it takes a majority to win. On one side, the partisan element is based on patronage to a particular leader, as in Corinth. But everywhere there are new orthodoxies: progressive, moderate, conservative, pro-life, pro-choice. Those are all legitimate as positions, but not as rigid orthodoxies. When we don’t feel free to have even minor disagreements with those who share the same label, we are in danger of a unity based on common enemies rather than convictions. That kind of rigid unity destroys forward movement and growth.
What will it take to get people in this country to take to the streets as is happening in other countries? In the language of today’s Gospel, what does it take for people to leave their nets and follow Jesus? Part of the answer is simple: it didn’t necessarily take much. Sometimes all it takes is for enough people to think, There must be something more than this. The truth is, many folks are dissatisfied with their lives as they are. That was part of Andrew, Peter, James and John’s motivation. They weren’t docile, obedient citizens, satisfied by bulging fishing nets. They had longings that went beyond that, even if they couldn’t tell their father about them. If their brothers were willing to take the risk, they would too. They knew that a livelihood is not the same as a life. Maybe Jesus’ eagerness sparked their youthful spirit; maybe his tenderness awakened their love; maybe his authority evoked their loyalty. But, another part of their motivation wasn’t that simple. They were drawn in by Jesus’ grievance. They felt discriminated against for living in Galilee. They knew what it felt like to long for God, and to have that longing trampled on by religious rules that kept them on the outside. All of this tapped into something that turned their world upside down; so they left their nets to follow Jesus to turn the world around them upside down.
We don’t know if this was the first time the two sets of brothers had met Jesus, or if they had met him before. Either way, leaving their nets was a leap of faith. It meant leaving the known for the unknown; abandoning something they were skilled and trained for, to do something they did not even understand. It wasn’t just intellectual calisthenics. It was action. But it wasn’t anti-intellectual either. A leap of faith isn’t the same as blind faith – belief without proof. Rather it was trust without reservation. That kind of faith doesn’t shut down the mind; it limbers it up. By taking us beyond familiar ground, it gives us more to think about – certainly more than staying home and mending nets.
Andrew King asked this question through a poem entitled: Why you Leave your Nets and Follow
Because your hope for that kingdom has teased the edge of your thoughts the way waters tease the edge of the shore, because his words stir that hope in the depths of your soul the way wind stirs the waves of the sea, because you sense that his love, like a sea without bounds, is as large as the needs of the world and because he’s called you by name and the heart in you swims toward that love, toward joy, toward home
Those words describe Bryan Stevenson, who has inspired many of us recently in Just Mercy. The book and movie tell the story of how he left Harvard Law School to go to the deep south to take a low-paying job and help form a community legal organization. No one could understand why he would give up so much. But his soul had been stirred up, and he could not say no to it. People don’t understand soul language at first. Only after a person faces failure after failure and keeps getting up do people begin to recognize a calling at the soul level. But other people weren’t the only ones who were awakened. Along the way, Bryan Stevenson had to discover what happens to an entire culture when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy. He found it intolerable, and has never been able to stop fighting it. Anthony de Mello described it well: Enlightenment is complete co-operation with the inevitable.
Most of us don’t go to Harvard. We may not even be that enlightened. Another poet wrote a Haiku that describes a positive response to today’s Gospel that is available to most people. It shows why hundreds of thousands of people, in nations around the world have taken to the streets: Some fisher-people, without much to leave behind opt to go with him. Discarding their nets and all other cords that bind, to follow the light.(© Ken Rookes 2020)
During this Epiphany season of light, I know many of you are already following the light, and some of you are taking to the streets. What are the nets that keep us tethered to things that don’t allow us to give ourselves fully to Jesus’ call? Keep listening to Jesus speaking to your soul. Seeing the need usually isn’t enough to move us to action. Being touched at the level of soul adds the missing ingredient. May God grant us the gift of that touch.