Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Christ the King, NormalMark 1:14-20

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, as he went down to the Jordan River, along with throngs of his fellow Palestinian Jews, to be baptized by John the Baptist, and he heard the approving voice of the God the Father and was anointed by the Holy Spirit. His response to the Father’s call and the ministry he then gave himself form the pattern for our response to God’s call and the ministry God wants us to give ourselves to. Last week, then, we looked at the compelling story from the Old Testament of the Lord revealing himself to the boy Samuel, and how Samuel came to “know the Lord” and went on to do great work for the Lord. Our experience of Christian worship and service will be dry and lifeless and boring until we also come to “know the Lord” personally, and are moved to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” Call, vocation, ministry—these things have not only personal implications for each of us individually, but communal implications as well—that is, how can Christ the King as a congregation, as a parish family, be ever more faithful in discerning and doing that which God has in mind for you?

Today, as we forge ahead into this post-Epiphany season, the themes of vocation and discipleship continue to dominate our field of view. Mark’s gospel presents us with a pithy and terse but really quite amazing narrative. First, Mark has Jesus walking around Galilee just doing spontaneous public preaching, raising his voice to whomever would listen, saying—and I’m paraphrasing here, of course — “Time’s up. God is about to take charge. So turn your life around and trust me that this is really good news!” In today’s society, he would be in violation of several local ordinances and sections of the civil code, I’m sure, and would probably need more licenses and permits than he would have been able to afford. But he did it. He must have gotten the whole range of reactions from those who encountered him. Remember, he hadn’t started his healing ministry yet, so there was no obvious inducement for people to pay attention. As he drifted off to sleep at night, he must have thought to himself, “This is sure a change of pace from the old carpenter shop.” Here he was, thirty years old, walking away from the only life he had ever known and risking everything, absolutely everything, in order to follow what he knew to be God’s call on his life.

Now, it would be one thing if Jesus did all that and kept it to himself. But he didn’t. He recruited others to join in him in his crazy crusade to talk and act as if the Kingdom of God were really at hand, to talk and act as if God really was in charge. He walks along the lakeshore and sees two sets of brothers—Simon and Andrew, James and John—who are busy plying their trade as commercial fishermen. He says, “Follow me, and I’ll give you something more exciting to fish for; I’ll let you fish for people.” He doesn’t make small talk. He doesn’t invite them to a seminar or ask them to look over a written proposal and get back to him. He just says, “Follow me.” And he apparently means “Right now!” as both sets of brothers quit right in the middle of their commercial activities. They literally drop everything and follow him. Now, those who are of a mind to read a passage like this in a strictly literal sense have seen the scandal that it implies, and have rushed in with rationalizing explanations that make it all more palatable, like that these four disciples had already met Jesus and had extensive contact with him, and he was now appearing on the scene just to close the deal, to say “It’s show time, boys. Let’s go.” Any or all of that may or may not be true, but if we go down that road, we miss the point that Mark is trying impress on us, which is that Christian vocation and discipleship require us—require us as individuals and require us as a church community—Christian vocation and discipleship require us to turn away from all the voices calling us to walk some other path. Christian vocation and discipleship require us to put everything else at risk in answering the call of Jesus to follow him. As we read the gospel account, it sounds like the call of Christ was a crisis for Simon and Andrew and James and John. It’s supposed to sound like that, because the call of Christ is always a crisis, no matter who hears it.

So, what are some of those competing voices? What is it that we need to filter out if we want to hear and answer the call of Christ? Some of this is obvious. Most of us, in different degrees, live somewhat at the mercy of various appetites and urges. It takes discipline to not be controlled by these appetites and urges. The word “disciple” and the word “discipline” come from the same root, and it’s not hard to see why, because discipleship certainly requires discipline. The call to discipleship affects what we do with our bodies. The world tells us our bodies are our own. We need to ignore that voice, because the call of Christ tells us we are slaves to him. The call to discipleship affects what we do with our money. The world tells us that if we acquire it legally, it’s ours to do with as we please. But we need to ignore that voice, because the call of Christ tells us we are stewards and will have to render an accounting. The call to discipleship affects how we use such power and influence as we might have. The world tells us how to get ahead in a competitive environment. But we need to ignore that voice, because the call of Christ counsels us to live not for ourselves alone, but for him who loved us and died for us, and for all those whom he loves.

Like I said, all that should be obvious. There are many examples of Christians having the faith and fortitude to live victoriously in these areas—falling at times, or even often, but each time repenting, receiving the grace of forgiveness, and moving on. But the greater danger, I believe, is more subtle, and more deceptive. More than we are attached to power and influence, more that we are attached to money, more than we are attached even to our appetites, we are attached to respectability. We want others to think of us as normal; not kooky, not eccentric, not crazy in any way, but respectably normal. And in order to be normal, we’re attached to prudence and caution —or what we take to be prudence and caution, at least. And this is our potential undoing, my friends, because discipleship is not about respectability. Jesus died the most unrespectable death any Jew could imagine for himself, but he had crossed the respectability line long before he ever got to the cross.

When Jesus walked up to those four fishermen on the lakeshore and said, “Follow me!” he was not only calling them to leave their present tasks undone, he was not only calling them to leave their jobs and families behind; he was calling them to let go of the idea of being respectable or normal or prudent or cautious. He was calling them to follow the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is not for normal people; it’s for kooks and eccentrics and crazies. St Paul calls it being a “fool for Christ’s sake.”

Now, it’s hard enough for an individual to embrace foolishness for Christ’s sake, but it’s even harder for communities like church congregations. And Episcopalians are probably more invested in respectability than any other variety of Christian! We like to think of ourselves as the very image of establishment, the very definition of normal. And we’re certainly known for our prudence and our caution and our aversion to risk. So, the call of the first four Christian disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is a great stumbling block to all Christians, but particularly to Episcopalians. It challenges us in our tendency to be overly cautious in our ministry and mission. It calls us to repent of being driven by fear or timidity. It challenges us to embrace a radical discipleship that is willing to let go of everything else, to leave business-as-usual behind, to wean ourselves from all our props and sources of supposed security—to risk everything in order to be what Christ calls us to be and do what Christ calls us to do, here in the metropolis of Bloomington-Normal, and throughout central and southern Illinois and to the uttermost parts of the earth. There are no guarantees of smooth sailing. Jesus’ own discipleship led him to the cross. But what could be grander or more glorious than abandoning all pretense of respectability and telling people—through what we say and by how we live—that God is about to take charge, and that’s gospel, that’s good news. Amen.

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