“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news… Follow me…” Jesus’ words as he recruited the early disciples are difficult to embrace when we take them at face value. Life today teaches us to be slightly more skeptical than they were, perhaps. What about the exchange or the circumstances would lead the men to drop everything ‘immediately’ and follow Jesus? This was the subject of discussion at Faith in Real Life this week. As Vernon writes, if we learn to trust and take flight having faith that if we just reach out we will be caught, we may find a brief encounter with the divine.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 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. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Mark is famous for his use of the word ‘immediately’. His Gospel is filled with urgency. He skips from one incident to another like a rock skipping across a lake. Each contact with the water is important and moves the story forward but there are significant gaps that we are left to surmise. Taken by itself, this passage is hard to imagine in real life. A solitary man, of no particular importance, announces: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The next thing that happens is that four ordinary fishermen, ‘immediately’ leave their nets and their families to follow. As written, this text is at least improbable.
The very first reaction in FIRL was “Did these men know Jesus before?” Why would they follow without question?” These are good questions but we cannot actually explain why these men responded as they did. We do not know if they knew of John the Baptist and were prepared by his words: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7,8). The preceding verses suggest such a possibility but it is still speculative.
Another ‘explanation’ is that this is an example of Jesus’ magnetic personality and his ability to influence people. That too could be true. There are lots of charismatic people who have devoted followers. But such leaders and followers are just as often the subject of suspicion as they are admiration. Jim Jones, a minister, called people to drink the Kool Aid—918 men, women and children committed suicide when they followed him. Most of us in FIRL would be far more cautious than these first disciples. If the implied measure of faith is the willingness to forsake all and follow, we would be a lot more hesitant than these four disciples
But this is a time when logical explanations interfere with Mark’s message. Mark’s was the first Gospel written and he wanted to forcefully communicate the time was fulfilled and the Kingdom was near. If as John promised, Jesus was the Christ and if, as the first century church believed, Jesus’ return was imminent, it was time to act! In God’s kingdom, our lives, our goodness and our righteousness depend upon God alone. There was no reason to hold on to what we know. This new faith leads to new life.
Henri Nouwen has a story that he uses to illustrate the point. It is about a conversation he had with a trapeze artist.
“One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, ‘As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.’ ‘How does it work?’ I asked. ‘The secret,’ Rodleigh said, ‘is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.’
“‘You do nothing!’ I said, surprised. ‘Nothing,’ Rodleigh repeated. ‘The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.’
Living the Christian life means letting go and trusting we will be caught. Answering God’s call means leaving what we know, leaving what is safe and giving up our ideas about what makes us valuable. It means relying upon God. That was Jesus’ first lesson in the wilderness and the first thing he asked of his followers. It is counterintuitive and in real life it is rarely immediate.
Trusting God, however, is not easy. It takes a lifetime of practice. It is a lesson I understood long before it became part of me. I was attracted to the ideals of Christianity, justice and love. I wanted a better world and a better life. I wanted to do something. I wanted to be the hands and feet of Christ. In the 60’s, I was tutoring in the ghetto and marching in the streets. But on the continuum of trusting God and trusting myself, I leaned hard toward trusting myself. But as I have aged and the losses of age have begun piling up, relying on my abilities and myself is less and less tenable. Like it or not, everything I hold dear will change. We cannot keep what we love—our lives, our health, our passion, our friends, our family and loved ones. Trusting God in such circumstances is answering God’s call in real life.
I have had two real life examples in the last couple of weeks. They describe devoted and faithful Christians who are becoming more and more frail. Neither like what is happening to their bodies and both seek very similar ways to explain what is happening to them. One, a woman who now has difficulty getting from her bed to the bathroom wondered if she ‘believed enough’. It became clear that she was wondering if the decline of her body was because of her lack of faith. Later in the conversation, she wondered if she had sinned too much. It is the same thinking in reverse. Her behavior influences God and her devastating physical weakness must be a function of her inadequacy or badness. She ‘knows’ neither is true, but viscerally she worries. She has to let go of her ideas about how God loves and trust that he would catch her.
Very similarly, a client is facing the fact that it is more and more unsafe for him to continue driving. He feels increasingly isolated. He has been active in his church all of his life but now he can not participate in the same ways. He has a good relationship with his pastor and I suggested he meet and discuss the fact that he could not participate in the church activities in the same way. I suggested he needed to ask that the church start coming towards him. His first reaction was, “I can’t talk about that right now.” That was too big of a loss—too much of a reversal of how he saw himself and his relationship with God. His pathway to God was his service and losing that capacity felt too hard for him. In order to be caught, he had to let go of his idea of how and why God loved him.
We, like the disciples, must give up what we know and enter an unknown future. It happens in big and dramatic ways when we are in crisis but it also happens in the small daily occurrences of ordinary life. Mark notwithstanding, it is rarely immediate. When life is bleak, it is hard to even start the day. When we are lonely, it is hard to believe we are worth anything. When we are in pain, it is hard not to explain it. Many changes—physical, personal and vocational are forced upon us that require walking new paths. Few of them are welcomed.
My client, whose driving was being restricted asked, “How can I learn to receive grace?” It is a very good question, and I told him if I had that answer I would be quite famous. But I can point in a direction. Recognize the seductive ways we try to manage God. Recognize the seductive ways we seek to make ourselves righteous. Confess them and wait. Trust the Lord with your unbelief.
The philosopher, William James, suggests that the religious experience is ‘noetic’. It is brief. The actual experience of trusting God is brief but hopefully reoccurring. But each time we survive one of these difficult times, we have an experience and a memory to help us through the next one. Each time we see a fellow Christian come out the other side of despair, we have an example of what is possible. And each time we remember the life and death of Jesus, we have the promise of new life. In real life there are lots of relapses. We discover how often we revert to trusting ourselves rather than God. But over time and in a community of believers we can slowly experience God’s steadfastness through all of life’s changes. God’s call leads us to new life.
We are called to believe that we are loved and called to live like love matters. That is the call to the disciples and it is the call to us. Give up your old ways and believe the good news. Let it be so.