Arcangelo di cola da camerino, chiamata di simon pietro e andrea, 1425.jpg created by Wikimedia Commons user Saiko, shared under a Creative Commons BY license
After John the Baptist is arrested by the ruler Herod Antipas, Matthew the Evangelist tells us, Jesus retreats to Galilee, further from Herod's reach. There his ministry begins in earnest: "From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’"
This Sunday we hear this story, along with the calling of his first disciples (last week we heard a slightly different version of this episode, with John directing his own followers to Jesus before John's arrest). Jesus sees Simon (who will be called Peter, 'Rock') and his brother Andrew fishing in the lake and tells them that they will fish for people. "Immediately," the Gospel recounts, they drop their nets and follow him. James and John, the sons of a man named Zebedee, do the same thing, leaving their father in the family boat.
With the benefit of hindsight, we might not see these stories as especially challenging. Jesus is the Messiah and his work of teaching and healing will, in a way, justify the decision of his first followers to leave their homes and their trade to join him. But it's safe to assume that none of that was obvious to Simon and the others in the moment. Here is an itinerant preacher, not native to the area, probably identified with John the Baptist and echoing his message about the nearness of the Kingdom but having no following of his own and no impressive track record of miracles to vouch for his authority. In fact, in the episode that immediately precedes this story, Jesus has been tested by the Devil, who invites him to seize power over the human heart and mind by working dazzling miracles (or by pledging fealty to the Devil himself), and Jesus--alone, with no one to admire his determination--has rejected that shortcut to power. He will start from the beginning, with nothing but his message and the words of calling.
As with many of the New Testament "call stories," this one tempts me to imagine that there were unrecorded others who said 'No' first. What if Gabriel had visited a hundred girls in Galilee before Mary said 'let it be with me according to your word'? What if the first dozen fishermen or tradespeople Jesus approached all looked the other way, thought he was nuts, or didn't have time to listen? In Luke's Gospel we have a vivid episode about would-be disciples, people Jesus calls who try to stipulate the terms of their answer, and we have the story in other places of the rich young man who can follow the ethical requirements of the Law but who can't bear to part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus. In those cases the call doesn't come again. It's an unconditional call, but Jesus does take No for an answer.
These stories were especially important to German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is most famous for his opposition to the Nazi regime and his eventual execution at its hands. In his book Discipleship (its most famous English version was titled The Cost of Discipleship) he insists that there can be no inducement and no goal of one's own that is met by the act of following Jesus. It is, as Jesus says, an act of taking up one's cross. "When Christ calls a man," Bonhoeffer famously summarizes, "He bids him come and die." The disciple recognizes the intrinsic authority of Jesus to claim his life for the Kingdom and answers the call without hesitation or negotiation.
Other writers with different perspectives have treated this episode differently. There is an obvious continuity between Jesus's ministry and John's, and both seemed to be at odds with the Roman imperial order that kept Herod on the throne and the population of Galilee (and many regions like it) subjected to the economic needs of the wider imperial system. The Galilee fishery was not a subsistence industry or just a local market; fish was salted and exported for use in the cities and by the armies. To put it in our terms, the people around Simon and John and their families were part of a globalized economy in which they did not set the rules. Raj Nadella, a professor of New Testament at Columbia Seminary, describes this episode at Workingpreacher.org:
Jesus moves quickly to invite the first set of disciples to join him with the promise of making them “fishers of men.” The phrase connotes challenging structures of power just as John had done and Jesus began to do.1 It is a transformative and dangerous mission that Jesus inherited from John and is inviting disciples into it. And they leave their families, livelihoods and instantly join him for little in return. The disciples were apparently inspired by the mission and made radical commitments to the movement. The Roman empire relied on threat, coercion and enticements to recruit people into its military. The new kingdom, on the other hand, inspires them to participate in it.
The second "generation" of Christian proclamation needed to deal with the question of why people follow--or, in the case of the churches planted by Paul and others, why they "heard" and "believed." Paul insists in this Sunday's lesson that he did not come preaching with plausible words of wisdom, "so that the cross of Christ would not be emptied of its power."
This is a challenging word for people who do what I do. "Plausibility" is part of the business plan. It doesn't need to be "words of wisdom" in the sense Paul is talking about, which refers to the Greek philosophical tradition of teaching about the nature of the world and the human place in it. But we do feel the need to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ plausible in some way--emotionally effective, poignant, politically and culturally relevant, expressible in "life principles" that will help you get ahead at work or have a safer debt burden or raise obedient children. I myself feel the need to make the Gospel we proclaim an answer to whatever question you're already bringing here.
But the difficult truth is that the Gospel, and the calling to discipleship, doesn't exist to meet a practical or emotional need we already know we have. Rather it comes to us to transform us, to make us want and hope for better things and ask better questions and seek a better goal. "Only the one who believes obeys," as Bonhoeffer put it, but at the same time "only the one who obeys believes." Simon and Andrew and James and John get up and follow first, and only later could they really understand what they were doing, what their real motives had been, and what the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus proclaimed to them would really look like.
So on Sunday, listen for this note of believing and following, and be assured that if you take that step of following, your questions and your motives can always catch up.
God's Work. Our hands.