Following and Fishing
Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 25, 2015
On this day of our annual meeting I wanted to think about what it means to be church, and it turned out that the assigned gospel reading in the lectionary is the story of the call of the first disciples in Mark. What does Jesus say? “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” That about sums it up, doesn’t it? Being church is about following Jesus and fishing for people. The two questions Harbor Church needs to ask as we evaluate ourselves are: (1) Are we creating people who actually follow Jesus in everyday life? and (2) Are we drawing people to Jesus with nets of love?
This story is the very first thing that happens in Jesus’ ministry. Mark tells it in very brief units: he was baptized, he contended with Satan in the desert, and the next thing you know he’s walking along the lakeshore in Galilee telling people to follow him. Prophets didn’t say that; they told people to follow God. Teachers of wisdom didn’t say that; they waited for people to come to them and ask to become students. But Jesus says, “Follow me.”
And people do! That’s the really surprising thing here: immediately they left their nets and followed him. These are not aimless young adults who don’t know what they want, turning against their parents and joining a cult. These are established members of the community with boats and homes and families, and in spite of the claims of real life on them, they leave it all to follow Jesus. We don’t know anything about any previous contact with Jesus, and Mark doesn’t want us to know. He wants us to hear it just the way he tells it because that’s the way it happens to many of us: when you finally hear the voice of Jesus it has such authority and promise that you are ready to do anything to follow him. John Greenleaf Whittier said in the hymn we sang
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.
Most of you know something about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who resisted the Nazis and the German Christians who supported them, formed a seminary in the midst of that culture, and after a period in prison was executed. His most famous book—which you should all read, or read again—is The Cost of Discipleship. He says that we all want to explain why the disciples would immediately obey Jesus, to make up a back-story, but the gospels refuse to say a word about that. The cause behind the fishermen or the tax collector getting up and following Jesus is Jesus himself, nothing else. The gospel writer says nothing to praise the disciple’s decision. All the focus is on Jesus and his authority. Mark wants to present this reality to us: there is no road to faith or discipleship except obedience to Jesus.
We are not being called to a doctrine or an institution or a set of ethical guidelines. Listen to Bonhoeffer:
And what does the text inform us about the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me! That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. It is not a cause which human calculation might deem worthy of our devotion, even the devotion of ourselves [p. 62, 1959 edition].
Of course we are not called to walk literally down the beach following a physical person, but it is that same authority that we have to respond to. Or not. Harbor Church does not exist first of all to promote any cause or values or program. We are not here to stand for peace and justice and forgiveness, first of all. That is a consequence of our obedience to that person we follow. The first response is to a call that is, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “void of all content.” The first reason we are here is to follow Jesus, and the second reason is to make disciples—to help other people respond to Jesus and obey him.
David Garland of Baylor points out that Jesus didn’t put a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board and wait for volunteers to sign up. He didn’t even hold a class and wait to see who showed up as the rabbis did. Jesus called people one by one or two by two and they responded to his initiative and his authority. He says here in Mark that he is going to make these fishermen into fishers of people; your goal in life is not going to be catching fish but catching people. You can’t press that analogy very far because Jesus doesn’t want us to catch people so we can eat them or sell them. But as Garland says, “Jesus models what he calls them to do as fishers of men. They have been caught in the nets of God’s grace” [NIV Application Commentary, Mark].
What Jesus doesn’t tell them yet is that they are not just called to leave work and property, but they are ultimately called to leave their selves behind. Later on, Jesus begins to tell even the public, “If you want to follow me, you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Bonhoeffer’s most famous line is “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We give up our own plans for our lives, which we imagine to be certain but are really uncertain, in exchange for the life that Jesus gives us as we walk with him even in the face of opposition and suffering. That life, which appears hazardous and uncertain, turns out to be the one thing of which we can be certain because it is rooted in the Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Will Percy was a planter’s son from Greenville, Mississippi, who was well known as a poet in the 20’s and 30’s and was the cousin and guardian of the novelist Walker Percy. He wrote a poem which became the text for a hymn in the Episcopal hymnal, which starts off happy and bouncy but then acknowledges the cost of discipleship and true peace:
They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown
Such happy simple fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down.
Contented peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God That fill'd their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing -
The marvelous peace of God.
Don’t come to Jesus seeking a life without conflict. Don’t take off after Jesus imagining that he is leading you to Beulah Land with no stops in between, or that his way leads to a happiness that avoids suffering. He is ultimately calling you to union with himself, a spiritual union, that makes you want to live as he lived.
Dallas Willard, the recently deceased philosophy professor at the University of Southern California, probably wrote as helpfully as anyone in recent years about what it means to be a disciple or student of Jesus. Listen to him for just a minute:
As a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means how to live within the range of God's effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I.
To repeat, I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life. Note, please, I am not learning from him how to lead his life. His life on earth was a transcendently wonderful one. But it has now been led. Neither I nor anyone else, even himself, will ever lead it again. And he is, in any case, interested in my life, that very existence that is me. There lies my need. I need to be able to lead my life as he would lead it if he were I ["How to Be a Disciple," Dallas Willard. Adapted from The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. Reprinted in The Christian Century, 1998].
So the question for us in trying to follow Jesus is first whether we make a decision to respond to his call by following him, obeying him. The second question is ‘What Would Jesus Do?”—but what would he do if he lived on Block Island in 2014 and had to deal with controversies over the medical center and wind farms. What would Jesus say not to Pharisees but to people with no use for the scriptures at all? How would Jesus live if he were in my body, 62 years old, white and privileged, living in a powerful and materialistic nation rather than in an oppressed and occupied nation? The answers to those questions are never going to become clear to us without a personal encounter with Jesus and a decision to follow him—that decision that is at first “void of all content”—and then learn from him through what he says in the gospels, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount.
It’s not an easy thing to let go of the identity we get from work and place and money and family in order to follow Jesus wherever he goes. The decision is hard, and staying on the road with him is harder. It’s one thing to write a sermon about following Jesus and it’s another thing to actually do it. It’s one thing to study your Bible and another thing entirely to live it out.
The movie Wild just came out and is up for an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. It’s based on the 2013 memoir by Cheryl Strayed, who decided to take a 1500-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. She did it, she said, to redeem her life from the self-destructive path she’d been on for several years—and from the fear and rage that had lived in her heart since the sudden death of her beloved mother when Cheryl was only 20. In the book she writes about her commitment to that journey as a journey in itself. This is how the book begins:
There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it.
There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time.
There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the Trail crossed a highway.
At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.
And then there was the real live truly doing it.
You know where you are on that journey: the flip decision, or not even there perhaps, the decision to follow Jesus, the preparation for the trip, the saying goodbye to your old life, the transition to a new place in your life, the doing it followed by the realization that following Jesus is impossible. And then there is the real live truly doing it.
Over a century ago, Albert Schweitzer, a great organist and Bach scholar, then in his second career a New Testament scholar, wrote these words before he started medical school in his thirties in order to follow Jesus by serving the least of these in a part of Africa without hospitals:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is [The Quest for the Historical Jesus, translated 1910, last page].