the beginning of discipleship

The story this week was that haunting story of Jesus calling the first disciples by the lakeside. There’s much food for thought here, many places to linger. At Bethany, we wondered together about irresistible grace and the power of Christ at work in our hearts–which sounds like really heady stuff, but is really just the question of how on earth did Simon, Andrew, James, and John get up and follow?

Audio’s below and the text is after the jump.

We’ve been talking about beginnings. Two weeks ago our text was the story of the wise men following the star. We wondered, do we dare to believe that God could do a new thing in the world?

Last week we moved from a cosmic scale to a personal one. Could God do a new thing in us? Do we dare to trust in our baptism, to repent, to believe that we could be a new creation?

Today, though, things really get started. Jesus is fully grown, baptized, and on the move.

Of the four gospels, Mark moves the fastest. The pace is relentless. Our snippet for today is a prime example. It starts with a brief note marking the time, “after John was arrested.” Wait. What?

Chekhov would have been proud of Mark. This little intro is like seeing a gun on a table at the beginning of a movie, and you know before the movie’s over, that gun will have been fired.

This little phrase reminds us that this will not be a story without consequences.

But that’s later. Now we’re ready to hear Jesus’ first public words: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.”

We could linger with these words all day, for a lifetime even. We won’t though. I promise.

The kingdom of God has come near.

Jesus starts by telling us not what is going to happen, but what has happened already. Make no mistake: this is not metaphysical or philosophical speculation, but a frank reality claim.

The kingdom—the realm, the dominion, the rule, the reign, the order, the new reality—of God has come near—is at hand, is so close you can almost touch it, you can see it if you squint. This new beginning we’ve been chewing over for two weeks is here.

These words still stand in our midst. They might lead us to ask, what kingdom are we living in? And is it different than the kingdom of God? Would I know the kingdom of God if I saw it?

Keep asking those questions. The whole gospel of Mark and our entire journey of faith is tied up in that search, in following Jesus as he reveals the kingdom of God in our midst.

The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.

Repent. We talked about this last week. Turn around. Change paths. Change your mind, your outlook.

When you travel to a foreign land, there’s culture shock. You have to change, to live in the new world. So, too, with this new realm.

Believe the good news. Believe is to trust, to stake one’s life on. It’s not ultimately a matter of intellectual assent, but a whole heart leap. That’s what Jesus invites us to. Trust the good news—reality is different than it was. In this topsy turvy world lepers will be clean, broken people healed, strangers and enemies will sit and eat together, and God Almighty will be found in weakness.

Open your eyes, says Jesus, believe what you see.

This is the core message. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.

But what does that mean? In real life? If it all seems a little abstract, Mark gets right to work, showing, not telling. (Mark would have made a great screenwriter.)

What does God’s kingdom look like? How does it begin? It starts like this:

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

That is what the beginning of God’s kingdom looks like. Two quick observations and then a third, underlying one.

First, the kingdom of God looks like more than one person. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God by finding some folks to share it with. Take note: in God’s kingdom self-sufficiency and independence are not the point. And, if we think we’ve found God’s kingdom, and we look around and are all alone, we’ve missed something somewhere.

Second, the kingdom of God looks like Simon, Andrew, James, John. Fishermen. Workers. They were not the holiest guys in town. Or maybe they were. It doesn’t seem to have mattered one way or another.

Which means that all of us normal people might want to be awake. Jesus could come calling. Even if we’re not ready. Even if we don’t have our lives figured out or our stuff together. Even if we don’t feel spiritual, or aren’t sure what we believe.

Because, here’s the third thing about what the kingdom of God looks like—it’s the really radical part about how the gospel begins in our lives—it’s not up to us. It’s not.

It’s up to Christ to call.

The thing that I’ve always wrestled with in this story is the way these four just go, just follow, immediately. Because I am 99% certain that if some stranger were to come in here today and say, Follow me Sarah, I would not follow. Certainly not without some discussion. Best case scenario, I’d consider it. I might even go talk it over with Joseph, pray about it, think about it, mull it over. I honestly can’t, in my wildest dreams, imagine following immediately.

Maybe you’ve wrestled with that part of this story, too.

Maybe it’s led you to have this nagging doubt in the back of your mind—maybe I’m not really a good enough Christian if I wouldn’t have gotten up and gone. Surely I’m not as good as those four guys were.

But here’s the thing: Simon, Andrew, James, and John followed not because of their own readiness or goodness or faithfulness. They followed because Christ called them.

Christ’s call has power. It changes us. It enables us to do things we never could have imagined.

I read one commentary that suggested this story is Jesus’ first miracle.* In saying, Come, follow me, Jesus changed Simon, Andrew, James, and John.

They could have said no. They were free. What Christ enabled, though, was for them to say yes. That’s the wild part.

That’s what grace does in our lives. It enables us to say yes, yes, take my life. Yes, where you lead, I will follow. This is what the beginning of the kingdom looks like.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John set down their lives and took up new life with Jesus. They were able to start living with Jesus not because they were holy, or because they earned it, or because they believed the right things.

They set down their lives and took up new life with Jesus for one reason alone—because Christ called them, because Christ was at work in their lives even before they realized it.

It’s as if they couldn’t help themselves.

Maybe you’ve felt this kind of irresistible leading of grace in your own life. I was talking with someone this week who lived an itinerant life for a while—working a bit and them moving on, relying on the goodness of others, practicing a radical sort of interdependence on a daily basis. She told of hitchhiking and being picked up from time to time by drivers who confessed, I didn’t even mean to stop, the car just pulled itself over. Those drivers were called by grace into an act of love.

Sometimes we only discern this kind of thing in hindsight. We look back on a series of choices or a time in our lives and think, well I sure didn’t plan for it to turn out that way. But lo and behold a force truer, greater, more loving than ourselves was at work, enabling us to take part in something beyond our wildest dreams. We truly say, I didn’t do that. I was just blessed to participate.

Becoming a Christian is like this for many people. Anne Lamott tells of it beautifully in her book Traveling Mercies. She had no intention of being a Christian, and certainly not one who talked about inviting Jesus into her heart. But then Jesus showed up in the middle of a very dark night, and she found that she knew him. He had already called her.

It’s fashionable among some Christians to look down on these stories of being born again, but that’s a mistake. Life with Christ often begins this way, or is encouraged midstream. We feel our hearts strangely warmed, or suddenly the people around us seem to glow, the world shimmers and we find ourselves rising, setting aside our nets, and following.

If this all sounds a little like falling in love, you’ve got the right idea. What seemed unimaginable before, is suddenly possible, and indeed, we can’t imagine doing anything else. We have only to say yes to what is already at work within us.

This, friends, is how the kingdom of God comes to be in our midst.

We do not earn it. We couldn’t even if we tried. We do not have to find it. It’s already here.

Seeing that, trusting that this is how the kingdom begins sets us free. It changes the conversation. No longer do we have to wonder: will I be good enough? Will I be holy enough for God to use me? Instead, we can ask, what is Christ already doing in my life? What is Christ preparing me for, drawing me toward, leading me to long for?

Christ comes to us, calls us—and in calling us, Christ changes us, gives us the power to say yes, the desire to say yes. Our task is simply to follow that longing.

Beware, though, when you say yes, when you let Christ’s work begun in you come to life, things will change. John was arrested. Simon, Andrew, James, and John saw their relationships and careers change. When the new kingdom comes close, the old one may lose its luster.

Even as Christ calls us forward, we are called away from other things. We find our priorities are re-ordered, friendships look different in the new light, our desires and habits might change—all this is in that repentance to which Christ calls us. And it is not a one-time thing. This new life, the new kingdom which we enter if we say yes to Christ, it unfolds over time.

But that’s later. Today we’re still at the beginning. All of us. Whether we’ve been on this road a long time or totally new, even if you don’t think this is a road you want to be on—especially if you don’t think this is a road you want to be on, because this is how it starts:

Christ comes to us. He calls us, not because we are good or righteous, not because we’re ready or interested, He calls us simply because he loves us, and in calling us  Christ gives us the power to say yes, enables us to take those first steps, opens up just a little crack in our hearts for the light to flood in, unstops our ears and whispers, The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.

What is Christ calling you to say yes to? Where are you longing to follow? Will you say Yes to the work Christ has begun in you?

* M. Eugene Boring, Mark. (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 2006) 60.

by Sarah W. Wiles
January 22, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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2 Responses to the beginning of discipleship

  1. Keat Wiles says:

    Reminiscent of the following: 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. (Concluding paragraph, Quest of the Historical Jesus.) Not bad company to be in

  2. s wiles says:

    Yes! I thought about that passage a lot in my prep – one draft had that very quote in it. Alas – the things that end up on the cutting room floor.

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