Following Christ

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 21, 2024

Jesus called out to them, ‘Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!’
—Mark 1:17

I’m pretty sure that I’ve mentioned in at least one sermon that, when it was originally written, the Bible wasn’t divided into chapters and verses. That process wasn’t completed until the 1600’s. And so if we disagree on how exactly to separate the different parts of the Bible from each other, it’s not that big of a deal. The original Bible didn’t necessarily tell us how that had to happen.

And today’s reading from Mark is a good example of how we might disagree about which sentence goes with which story. And specifically I want to talk about the first two verses of this morning’s passage. They tell us that “later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. ‘The time promised by God has come at last!’ he announced. ‘The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!’”

Now if you look in your pew Bible, it is plain that the editors of our translation have placed these sentences with what came before—that is, with Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness. And one of my commentaries definitely agreed with this—and that was the article on Mark in the New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon 1995) written by Pheme Perkins (a professor at Boston College).

But the other main commentary I read, called Mark for Everyone (Westminster John Knox 2004), put these two verses with what came after—that being the call of the first disciples. And this commentary was written by N.T. Wright, a retired Anglican bishop who is a renowned New Testament scholar.

Where we place this little section—that is, whether we place them at the end of one section or the beginning of another—doesn’t really change their meaning. But it does influence the context of the story we place them in.

Now, one thing remains constant. And that is that Jesus’ baptism and God’s claim on him, followed by his trial in the wilderness, came just before the beginning of his ministry. Together, these events obviously singled Jesus out to begin teaching and healing.

But if we place the arrest of John and the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry as the beginning of today’s reading—which is what the Common Lectionary has done (and what N.T. Wright did in his commentary), then it might influence our interpretation of what might have happened that day on the lakeshore.

What I mean here is that John’s arrest might have been one of the reasons that Jesus began his ministry at that point in time. And it might also explain the response of these four first disciples.

What a lot of Christians don’t seem to know (or maybe choose to forget) is that John the Baptist was incredibly popular in his day. It seems to be the case, in fact, that he was more well known than Jesus (for at least part of this time). And when the authorities removed him from the scene, people felt his absence. He was to them like a return of the Hebrew prophets of old. People flocked to him in the wilderness, heard his message of repentance, and showed that they wanted to part of the coming change by being baptized by him.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John were probably very much a part of the society in which they lived. It’s very likely that they knew full well who John was. And it’s very possible that they’d gone to hear him themselves. And if they had, then why wouldn’t they have been baptized by him? And most important of all, they would’ve been devastated by his arrest. They would’ve felt his absence from the scene and wondered if his message of change was now meaningless.

Into this void came a young man named Jesus. He came announcing the Kingdom of God. He came calling people to change, just as John had. But somehow Jesus was different. His appearance was not the same as John’s. And though his message of repentance was the same, he taught a new understanding of God’s law.

If we understand it this way, then we might hear his call differently. When he said, “Follow me,” he was not speaking to people who had no understanding of his message. In fact, if John was as well known as we think he was—if we take seriously the Bible’s claim that John came to pave the way for Jesus—then it might well be the case that these four fishermen were hoping for just such an invitation. Jesus said, “Follow me,” and they dropped their nets and followed. They’d been waiting for him… or at least they’d been waiting for the One John had prepared them for.

I think one of the biggest differences between John and Jesus was that people had to go to John to hear his message. To hear John, they had to seek John in the wilderness—sort of like Jesus did before after his baptism. We’re told that what Jesus did, he did for us. And here maybe we see that’s true: Jesus brought the wilderness God to where the people were. No longer did they have to seek God in faraway places. In Jesus, God sought—and found—them.

One way or another, everything we read in the gospels is important. And this goes double for Mark’s gospel, which is shorter and much more compact than the other three. And so when Mark tells just before the call of the first disciples about John’s arrest, then it’s probably to provide us with context—context which might tell us something important about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and about the call of the first disciples.

Context. We can see that it was entirely possible that, even before Jesus came to the lakeshore and said, “Follow me,” God was already at work in Peter, Andrew, James, and John. I can imagine that, when they heard about John’s arrest, they felt lost. The kingdom they thought was at hand suddenly seemed farther away than ever. And then came Jesus, preaching the same kingdom, and inviting them not only to become part of it, but to make others part of it, too. They weren’t going to be passive observers. They were going to be an integral part of God’s plan.

And so at the call of Christ, they repented.

To repent in the Bible isn’t just to be sorry for your sins. It’s to turn your life around. I know I’ve talked about what a good modern translation our pew Bibles are, but here in this case, verse 15 adds something that’s not there. It tells us that Jesus said to “repent of your sins.” But the original Greek just said repent—μετανοειτε—a word that means to change direction. It often implies turning away from sin, but it doesn’t have to. For example, we don’t tend to think of Jesus as sinful before his baptism. And in the wilderness, we saw him successfully fight off temptation. And yet he repented: He changed the direction his life was headed; he turned from the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth so that he could move toward the Kingdom of God.

And that’s exactly what these fishermen did. Fishing for a living was good, honest work. It wasn’t inherently sinful. And though I’m sure there was an element to turning away from sin in their following Jesus, their main change in direction was from the everyday life of fishermen to the extraordinary life of discipleship.

So what’s our context today? What’s mine, and what’s yours? We all have one. And everybody’s is unique. Christ’s invitation to change course, to start something new, to follow him still goes out, and people still put down what they’re doing and respond to the call.

If you’re wondering what the summons consists of, Micah (6:8) actually answered that question long before Jesus even appeared on the scene: The Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

To follow Christ is to reach out to others, to be forgiving, to be part of something bigger than yourself. This is what is good. It’s what it means to be a disciple, and it’s what it means to be part of a community of faith. But even if we’ve been coming to church our entire lives, there needs to be an encounter with Christ—on a lakeshore, in an office, on a factory floor, during morning devotion or evening prayer, in a classroom, or (!) in a sanctuary like this one—when the Lord invites us to follow and we say Yes: Yes, I will stop living my life for myself and live it for you; I will stop serving myself and serve others.

Lord, you have come to the lakeshore
looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones;
you only asked me to follow humbly. 
 O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
and while smiling have spoken my name;
now my boat’s left
on the shoreline behind me; 
by your side I will seek other seas.*

—©2024 Sam Greening
*Cesareo Gabaraín (1979), tr. Gertrude Suppe