Matthew 4: 12-23
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
This passage immediately follows Jesus’ time in the wilderness and describes Jesus’ first acts of ministry. The wilderness was a critical time of discernment for Jesus and helped him clarify just what it meant for him to stay turned toward God in real life. He comes out of that experience to discover that John had been arrested. Jesus’ first move is to withdraw to a safer place and then to take up John’s call for repentance. Then he begins to call disciples to likewise turn toward God and to follow him. Finally he initiates his own ministry—” teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
Jesus’ invitation to follow him was a big ask—and remains so today. Often when we discuss the call of the disciples, there is a temptation to idealize the disciples “yes” to Jesus—especially John and James who left both their livelihood and their father. In this way of thinking, the gold standard of discipleship is to give up everything to follow Jesus. But such thinking all too easily makes discipleship a kind of performance art instead of an expression of our willingness to lean into God. Staying to help Zebedee in the boat can be just as faithful as leaving job and family to “prove” our unflinching loyalty to God.
It is a bit of whimsy to think that discipleship would have been easier had we been there with Jesus in the first century. It is important to remember that there was nothing that Jesus ever did that was so compelling that all who saw, believed. There has always been room for doubt and different interpretations of the same event. How and when we see God is more of a function of our orientation toward God than any go-pro recording of Jesus’ life. A case in point is Zebedee. Zebedde was on the boat with his sons when Jesus encountered them. Zebedee, however, did not join them and I rather doubt he was enthusiastic about their choice. Whatever plans he had to retire and enjoy his golden years were almost certainly disrupted. We have no idea what became of Zebedee but I am confident that discipleship for Zebedee would have required his leaning into God—even as his life was being turned upside down by his sons’ departure. Like his sons, he would have had to live in uncertainty and find his safety in God.
Saying yes means moving forward on the promise of God’s presence—without knowing how that will happen. We choose to acknowledge our limitations and our dependence. It means choosing uncertainty and mystery—trusting that God’s way will offer possibilities we can not imagine. Following Jesus (discipleship) means choosing to live like love will prevail. That is a huge faith claim in a world in which human entitlement and self-centeredness is literally destroying our planet, where genocide is a regular occurrence in our history, and where our first human reaction is to fear difference, to protect self and to seek an idolatrous self sufficiency. At this point in his ministry, Jesus, his newly called disciples, nor Zebedee knew what was coming but each had the choice to choose to place their safety in God’s hand.
Choosing to live like love will prevail was one of my biggest takeaways from my kayaking trip to the Bahamas. The incredible beauty of creation was juxtaposed with the knowledge that our human sense of entitlement is inexorably destroying our planet left me grieving and melancholy. Being God’s chosen people does not protect us from destruction. The Israelites found that out the hard way. I believe we are hastening our own extinction and I fear that we are perilously close to a point of no return. And, as I see that tipping point approaching, it is harder to believe that our efforts to live in relationship with our world and each other will make any difference. But in real life, the future is an unknown mystery. The call to follow Jesus remains whether or not we can foresee positive outcomes.
On a much more personal level, aging itself confronts us with our limits. We are creatures. We live and die in a nanosecond of God’s time. No matter how hard we work, our bodies will fail us. And, if we live long enough, we will die completely helpless. One of our Faith in Real Life members said that he hoped he would die competent and continent. Many agreed. We do not like to face such radical dependency. But unless we are going to pull the trigger, the mode of our death is not a choice we really have. For many of us our personal extinction is within sight. What does it mean to follow Jesus in such circumstances?
There is a fine line between our obligation to do all that we can and the belief we can do anything if we try. These are not new thoughts but as I age they are much more visceral. It is no longer “everybody dies”; it is now “I will die”. I will likely be disabled in ways I would never choose. The more visceral the knowledge of our limits becomes, the harder and the more important it is to lean into God. That takes faith and that takes courage.
Borrowing a question from my week in the Bahamas, I asked the Faith in Real Life group to describe a time they were courageous. These were the responses:
I am always amazed at the journeys of people in real life. When these stories are unpacked, they include many hard times and some unhappy endings but each are living testimonies of discipleship. These are the journeys that are often unspoken but are journeys that have been molded, guided and sustained by saying yes to God.
Say yes to God. Do what you can, knowing full well that we are dependent and interdependent people. We cannot go it alone. Trust that there are possibilities beyond your ability and beyond you imagination. Let it be so.