Third Sunday after Epiphany
The best guess scientists have about where life as we know it began is in water. There are some who argue for cold water and some who root for hot water, but the general idea is that life comes from water. Whatever the explanations for biological life, we know that we can trace our Christian lives back to the waters of Baptism. Jesus’ own baptism initiated his earthly ministry, and our own journeys as disciples began in the waters where we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
An early Roman theologian named Tertullius wrote: “And we little fish, like our icthe Jesus Christ, are born in water, and it is only by remaining in water that we are safe.” [The reason fish are a Christian symbol is because the first letter of each word in the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spells out ichthe, and so the fish became a code among Christians facing persecution.]
It is always helpful to me to remember that the Bible was written by and for people in a land that consists of so much desert terrain. It makes Scriptural images of water, and the idea of new life springing from it, extra-powerful, considering how valuable a commodity it was.
One part of the landscape not lacking water, however, is the area where Jesus began gathering his disciples according to Mark’s Gospel—around the Sea of Galilee. The first people Jesus enlists to help him spread the good news of God’s radical love were fishermen who made their living from and on the water. They lived wet, so Jesus uses a familiar image to call them to what he’d like them to do. He tells them he’s going to teach them how to fish for people—in other words, how to seek out, gather, and collect other people who will be part of God’s mission. And these fishermen leave behind their nets and their families and follow Jesus.
Maybe they think that the skills they’ve acquired from regular fishing will easily translate to their new line of work. Or maybe they know that they’re entering something completely new, where they will be out of their depth. Either way, Jesus immediately plunges his followers into nothing like the kind of fishing they were used to. Without contradicting the rivers of teaching his Jewish followers grew up internalizing, Jesus leads them into entirely new waters, deeper and wider than they’d ever imagined.
Wherever he goes, Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick, and feeds the hungry. He talks earnestly and endlessly about the coming kingdom of God, when all the world will operate the way God envisioned it at creation—where every living thing matters, and all people, with patience and humility, express concern and respect for everyone and everything else. Jesus echoes and builds upon everything they ever heard about how God’s way was like a stream of justice, a river of life, a cool cup of water on a hot day.
Despite the fact that they watch Jesus expressing the love of God up close and personally every day, the disciples—especially in Mark’s Gospel—usually miss the boat. It’s mildly comforting to me that the original disciples were as bad at following Jesus as we sometimes are, thousands of years later. Just take the brave and/or foolish ones we first encounter in this story. We know that later, when Jesus needed him most, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. And after Jesus resurrection, Peter famously carried on a nasty inter-church struggle with the followers of Paul. James and John, the Sons of Thunder, are remembered best for bickering over which of them would have the better seat in heaven. These disciples and the others Jesus collects exhibited moments of doubt and frustration and supreme stubbornness even with Jesus right there next to them, so it’s not surprising we struggle too.
Following Jesus is still difficult and still essential if we are to be “little ichthes.” More important than believing the right doctrines or adhering to the most rigorous piety, Mark’s Gospel makes the point over and over again that being a disciple means following Jesus. It means going where Jesus went—to the margins of society, the places where people were poor and sick and sad. It means doing what Jesus did—eating with the outcasts, listening to their stories, defending them against anyone who treats them as less than the children of God they are. It means defying all the forces of this world that try to say money is what counts, or that some people matter more than other people, or that being good is what makes God love you. Following Jesus means speaking truth to power, questioning those in authority, breaking laws if they are unjust, and being willing to accept the consequences. Following Jesus means taking time to pray and to nurture relationships.
People who take following Jesus seriously are often in danger. If sources are correct, nearly all of Jesus’ 12 disciples were publicly executed, just as he had been. Many followers of Jesus throughout the centuries have suffered similar fates. This week I can’t help but think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other members of the civil rights movement who lost their lives trying to follow Jesus.
Author James Baldwin once wrote, “Any real change implies the breaking up of the world as one has always known it…the end of safety.” Following Jesus can be dangerous and costly. It can threaten established relationships and systems. Could this be why, when his boys leap out of his boat and take off after Jesus, the fisherman Zebedee just shakes his head and opts to stay behind with the hired help. I have to say I understand him.
I like to hope that eventually he discovered what his sons already figured out: You CAN’T be where Jesus is if you stay in the boat. It’s risky to go with Jesus, because you’ll encounter political and religious opposition. Socially, you might find yourself at odds with people you don’t like to disappoint. Jesus family even worried that Jesus was mentally unwell, and tried to convince him to stop what he was doing.
The Good News is that in our baptisms, not only were we called to follow Jesus, we were also entrusted with all we need to do so. We were promised that matchless promise that nothing could ever separate us from God’s love. A seed of faith in that love was planted in us, which is nourished by worship, prayer, and our fellow Christians when we get together. A yearning for justice, implanted by the Holy Spirit and fueled by the words of the prophets and poets of Scripture, runs through our veins and prods us forward. No darkness, no cynicism, not even death, can squelch the promises of God’s presence with us at all times and in all places. Yes, it’s dangerous to get out of the boat, to leave the safety of the darkness, the security of the familiar, and follow Jesus. But Jesus promises that in losing our lives, we’ll find them.
When we need to be revived, we can return to the waters that gave us birth and wash again in our identities as Beloved Children of God. We can recommit ourselves to figuring out what following Jesus means in this time and this place, both collectively and personally. We can eat the meal of love and forgiveness that Jesus offers, and gain strength to face the day and the night.
As we get out of the safety of our boats, let’s recall that Jesus has led the way, no matter where we go or what happens to us. Even when it begins to look like death has the last word—even there—Jesus extends his hand to us and helps us to follow. Resurrection is one more invitation to a new adventure, one more calling to a new life, a new way of seeing, a new way of being.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider