“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
No matter how many times I read it, it still startles me: just how quickly Andrew and Simon, and then James and John, are swept up and off. How effortlessly it seems their hands release their familiar grasp. How instantly their mended nets fall to the shore of the lake and the deck of the boat. Mark leaves no doubt: it all happens immediately.
But it’s not just the nets that drop. It’s a way of being. It’s a life they’ve mended and tailored just so. It’s an engrained pattern. It’s a set of motions and actions practiced over time. It’s an entire network of muscle memory they had developed since the first time they stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the first time Zebedee showed them the mechanics of casting.
Neuroscientists tell us that when a movement or a motor skill is repeated over time, a long-term procedural memory – or “muscle memory” – is created for that task. I think of my son riding his bike for the first time. He progressed steadily. There was plenty of time spent with me clumsily running by his side. We developed a little mantra we would say before each try: “Pedal fast. Look ahead. Trust yourself.” And as much as I hoped for the scripted moment when I would release him into the sunbeams breaking through the trees in Fisher Park and watch him ride off confidently, when it finally happened, it was almost by accident. There was little thought, and no help from me. He was just balancing in the driveway as I watched out of the side of my eye. He pedaled once, catching himself, then twice, catching himself, then going a little farther, when suddenly, he realized it was in him. He could do it himself. And he was off.
Riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard or texting on a phone, playing a melody or phrase on a musical instrument, and yes, casting a net – over time, with practice, first one motion then another, and the task becomes smooth, effortless, unconscious. It’s in you somewhere. So well-rehearsed is the motion that it can be returned to after an absence, like when the disciples return to their nets in those moments between crucifixion and resurrection when they wonder if Jesus is coming back to them. They pick up the nets and it’s as if nothing has changed, because the motion was effortless, rehearsed, memorized: Bend at the waist, gather the net, extend the arm, bounce in the legs, the motion left to left, the release of the net at the peak of its arc, again and again and again.
And I think this passage startles me, because I recognize how many times I’m just casting my nets. Bending, extending, the familiar motions repeated over time, the muscle memory effortless and unconscious, on the shores we’ve always known, the boats that have been passed down to us, and the waters we’ve navigated again and again. That’s where Jesus found them. And that’s so often where he finds us.
Mark doesn’t tell us much about that first meeting. The shortest of our canonical gospels is the “Cliff’s Notes” version of the story. There’s little character development. Few narrative details. Everything is strung together with Mark’s favorite adverb – immediately. There’s no time to linger or sightsee. There’s something about Jesus that demands immediate attention. So Mark is constantly moving the reader along swiftly, writing with the urgency and rapid motion that leaves much to our imaginations all these years later.
If Mark took more time – if he wrote like a historian, for instance – he could have described much more about the setting. He could have written about how Jesus and this quartet of disciples he recruits lived in a tough world. Jewish aspirations for freedom confronted the reality of Roman imperial exploitation. Families lost their land. Children scattered in search of work and opportunity, many finding themselves in poverty. Traditional structures crumbled under cultural and economic stress. Many found themselves destitute. These were the waters they fished in. These were the realities that impinged on them as they mended their nets by the Sea. And this is the situation in which they look up to see the arrival of the wandering rabbi, walking down the shore and crying out his very first words in the gospel of Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Jesus begins with two declarations: the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom is near. Then he moves to a command: repent and believe the good news. The command is tied to the declarations. Repent and believe, because the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.
It’s quite a thing to say to these fishermen on their familiar shores with their all too familiar troubles and concerns. To them he says, “The Kingdom of God is near to you.” You don’t have to go someplace else to find God. You don’t have to clean up your life for God to dwell with you. God is among you. Right here where you are, God is with you.
It’s the good news of the gospel, especially for those of us who happen to feel like, for whatever reason, life is lived out on the edges. Perhaps someone has told you, or you have come to believe that whatever God is doing in this world that is true and meaningful, you’re not a part of it. You’re not in the middle of it. You’re somewhere out on the edges. The good news – maybe some of the best news – of the gospel is that in the Kingdom of God, there are no edges. It’s near to you.
So repent. Turn your life around. Repent not hoping that some day God might come near. Repent because in Jesus God has come near.
And believe. Believe in your wildest hopes. Believe not hoping that one day God might come among us. Believe because in Jesus God is among us.
It’s enough to make them drop their nets. But of course, it’s not just nets that they drop. It’s not just family and workers they leave in the boat. It’s also a whole network of assumptions about what would sustain them. It’s also a slew of predictions about what their lives would be. It’s also all of the things that had been passed down to them and ingrained in them. All of their plans and rehearsed actions. So many unconscious motions. Immediately they drop. They leave. They follow into a whole new way of understanding themselves and being in the world.
And here is what I believe is so core to the gospel of Mark, placed right up front so urgently and loudly so we can’t miss it: your life can be more than you knew it could be. It can become something you did not even imagine for yourself. And it can happen immediately.
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” our translation reads this morning. A former professor of mine, Ted Smith, has argued that this translation misses something about the call of Jesus. It understands fishing for people as a task, when in fact fishing for people is a new identity. Rather than “I will make you fish for people,” we should read, “I will make you become fishers for people.” Maybe it’s just a subtle change in language, but it’s a significant change in meaning, because “I will make you fish” gives us one more activity to make space for in our schedules. “I will make you fish” gives us something to work into our lives, but “I will make you become fishers” gives us a whole new life. “Follow me and you will become fishers. Follow me into a new way of being.” (1)
Which leaves us asking what those four must have asked: do we want that? Do we want that new life? Do we want that kind of transformation? We who can so often be startled by change? We who grasp the familiar in our lives? Do we want the Jesus who inserts himself right into the middle of these four ordinary lives and says follow me, immediately?
Will Campbell was an iconoclastic Baptist minister and activist, he called himself a bootleg preacher, and he prided himself on never working for an institution, which meant, in a sense, he could say whatever he wanted, or whatever he felt the Gospel wanted from him. Like when he preached famously at the Riverside Church in New York. Situated on the northern tip of Manhattan Island, on the Hudson River, Riverside was built on a hill by John D. Rockefeller in the early 20th Century – a great cathedral of Protestantism, which still stands today as an important and vibrant witness. But Will Campbell just didn’t have much use for Rockefeller’s cathedral. He was invited to preach in the 1980s by his old Yale Divinity School classmate and Riverside pastor, William Sloane Coffin. And in his Tennessee drawl he said, “Bill tells me you want me to hear about how to follow Jesus…But you don’t want to hear about that… “ and he looked up at the ornate gothic nave, the stained glass, the fine mahogany pews, the sacred art and said, “You want to hear about how to follow Jesus, while keeping all of this.” (2)
And isn’t it true of me? Isn’t it true of so many of us? We’ve all got our nets that we’re gripping, mended and tailored just to our liking. We want to follow Jesus, but usually we want to maintain the state of things. We want to see a kingdom come to earth, but usually we assume it preserves all the things we value and doesn’t ask us to change.
How many of us stand by that lakeshore? Reticent. Still holding firm to the nets in the midst of passing time? No one learns a new set of motions at my age, we might think. New muscle memory can’t develop nearly as easily after age 21, we start to believe. No one develops a new way of being after what I’ve done, if only you knew. Or maybe we think, I’ve got too much invested in these nets, this business. I’m too indebted to my father, Zebedee. I’m too patterned in this habit, too ashamed from this mistake, too weighed down by these burdens, and so often we continue in the same boat, same shore, same water, same nets.
And so often we seek the Jesus who will enable that – polite, kind, reassuring, and waiting for us to get around to following eventually. But if that’s who we’re seeking, there’s really no point in reading the rest of the gospel, because there, instead of the mild-mannered one who doesn’t expect too much of us, we meet the transforming one who expects more from us than we ever could of ourselves.
Alexander Baumgarten is a missiologist and global health advocate, whose book, God’s Mission in the World, includes the story of a visit he made to the southern tip of the Sudan in Africa. The war had taken its toll on the city of Juba. Once a thriving river port and transportation hub for Africa, Juba in those days resembled a ghost town. Gone were the schools, hospitals, clinics and all but a few miles of paved road. Running water and electric generators existed only in a handful of places, and nearly every building still standing appeared on the verge of collapse.
In spite of all this, and in spite of Sunday afternoon temperatures well past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, that Sunday the Episcopal cathedral in Juba was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people in their Sunday best singing their praises and offering thanksgivings to God.
Baumgarten says that in a quiet moment, he remarked to his friend, a Sudanese priest, that he marveled at how the Church in the Sudan inspires such faith among people who have been through so much and seem to have so little from Baumgarten’s vantage point.
“That’s easy, my brother,” Father Joseph replied. “Faith comes easily to those who have so little because we know we need God, and we know that God needs us. God needs us because God intends to work through us to heal and reconcile our land, to see the Kingdom come near.”
But then he continued, “I might ask you, my brother, how is it that your church inspires faith among people who have so much? How do you convince them that they need God, and that God has put them here for a purpose, and to see the kingdom near?” (3)
That’s how Jesus finds them. And it’s so often how he finds us. Having everything just so. Bending, extending, casting, and listening as we do for that call that will so startle us that we have to drop our nets just to steady ourselves and walk forward.
Hear it this morning. “Follow me, I will make you to become fishers for people. All those motions you’ve learned and memorized, your bending and extending and casting and releasing, well now I will teach you how to extend your arms to bless. I will show you how to bend your back to stoop down and serve the most vulnerable in this world. Instead of the same waters and the same boats, I will show you how to cast yourself widely out on the world. And I will show you how you can gather people up and help them to know me, to see me, to hear me. So come and be with me, follow me, and rehearse new motions and skills. Sure they will be stiff and clumsy at times, but then, one day, first one motion, then another, and you’ll realize it’s happened. It’s in you – the work of God, the kingdom near. And you’re off into all that is ahead.”
“So follow me,” he says to us, “and you will never be the same. Follow me, and you will become more than you ever knew you could be.”
- From a profile of Will Campbell, “The First Church of Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” in Rolling Stone (December 13-27, 1990)
- “Mark 1:14-20” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1
- In the Introduction of Baumgarten’s book, God’s Mission in the World: An Ecumenical Study Guide on Global Poverty