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Epiphany 3 (RCL not Cof E), Yr B, 22.01.2012
Jonah 3.1-5, 10: Ninevah repents (Jonah hopping mad)
Ps 62.6-14:  God’s steadfast love is our (only) hope
1 Cor 7.29-31: unattach yourselves [see gospel]
Mark 1.14-20: calling of Simon & Andrew. James & John (1167)

God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives,
and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free
to praise you in Christ our Lord.

(To become a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is to make God and his love our centre.)

          Today we are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian unity when we are reminded of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John’s Gospel: ‘that they may be one’.  Each week we take bread and wine to remember Jesus and our calling as his disciples.  Now our Gospel for today is taken from Mark.  As I see it, Mark focuses on these same two things.  First and foremost is the presentation of Jesus and right behind it is the question of discipleship.

          In telling of Jesus Mark emphasises his total dependence upon God. Thus Jesus rejects being called ‘good’ and says that no one is ‘good’ except God; he claims no leg of his own to stand on by submitting himself to John’s baptism of repentance, and he commits himself wholly into God’s hands in the Garden of Gethsemane when he calls on God as ‘Abba, Father’.   Because of this dependence upon the Father all that Jesus says and does is in keeping with the Father’s will, so it is not surprising that Mark presents Jesus in terms that in the Old Testament pertain to God, as he does in today’s gospel which tells of the calling of the first disciples. In this gospel we learn what it means to be called to be a disciple, and, it turns out, that what disciples are called to is very much like Jesus’ own calling, even identical to it. 

          As is usual with Mark, there is a lot more going on than simply meets the eye at first glance.  So before we look more closely at the gospel, let me ask you to consider a traffic light.

          If you had never seen a traffic light, what would you think it was if you suddenly encountered a vertical steel box on top of a steel pole with three round discs on the side of the box, one above the other.  As you watched it, the top disc became a green light and vehicles started moving.  After a minute the green light went out and the middle disc briefly became a yellow light just before the bottom disc became a red light and all the vehicles stopped.  Unless there was no traffic at all it probably would not take you very long to figure out what the whole thing was about, including that green means go, yellow means caution, and red means stop.

          When commenting on TV dramas the reviewer frequently says that the storyline fits a standard formula, that is, in effect, that all the standard characters and line of events are present.  Well, today’s gospel is a highly stylised account of the call of the first disciples.   Like our traffic light with its lights, we need to figure out the significance of the four things that are happening.  These are (1) Jesus in motion, that is, passing by, (2) his looking at the would-be disciples, (3) his calling them, and (4) their immediate following him.

          First of all, in our reading Jesus is ‘passing by’.  In the Hebrew OT God reveals himself to Moses in the Book of Exodus (33) and to Elijah in 1 Kings in ‘passing by’.  And this revelatory ‘passing by’ motif is strengthened and added to in the widely used Greek version of the OT known as the LXX.  So when in our reading Jesus is said to be ‘passing by’, he is being presented as the very presence of God.  So that when he ‘looks’ at the disciples, it is with the electing look of God, and his ‘calling’ is the call of God, followed by an immediate response of obedience.  In the case of Peter and Andrew they leave behind their livelihood, that is, their means of support; in the case of James and John, they leave behind their father’s authority for a new Father, God.  And all this is part of Mark's presentation of discipleship as involving dependence upon God through Christ.   To put it mildly, we are being called out of our comfort zone.

          Note that the setting for the stories is called the ‘Sea of Galilee’  In Mark this body of water is always called 'Sea' (not 'Lake'), for in Mark, it represents the chaotic world, as in the chaotic, unordered sea of Gen 1.2, which is why Jesus calls the disciples to be 'fishers of men' in the next verse.  The metaphor  ‘fishers of men’ is a judgemental one, as for example, in  Jer 16.16: 'Behold, I will send for many fishers, says the Lord, and they shall fish them'.  We can find further references to fishing and fishers  in Amos 4.2; Hab 1.14-17; Ezek 29. 4 f.,  all of which use fishing metaphors for judgement.  The whole notion of being called to be fishers of people means that one is not called to follow Christ simply for ones own welfare but for the welfare of others.

          This ties in with our reading from Jonah, for in the verses that follow our reading Jonah is hopping mad that the Ninevites have repented and God isn’t going to clobber them.  The Book of Jonah, like the Book of Ruth, was a tract for the times, and both were written to counteract those who like Ezra and Nehemiah, after the return from the Exile in Babylon favoured a narrow inward-looking Judaism that shunned foreign wives, etc.  And Jonah is one such figure.  We are called to be unlike Jonah.

          The motif of leaving behind livelihood and earthly obedience is further echoed in the urgency of our reading from 1 Corinthians with its theme of sitting lightly to our earthly possessions.

          So, to become a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is to put God at the centre of our lives without allowing possessions or human loyalties to obscure this focus, and part and parcel of becoming a disciple is to look to the welfare of others as ‘fishers of people’.  As you have heard me say in the past we are not so much baptized for ourselves as we are baptized in order to serve others.

          Understanding Jesus in the way of the cross is spelled out in terms of discipleship in chapters 8, 9 and 10.  For there is only one way to do that, and that is to follow him – following him precisely in going in the way of the cross, in self-denial, in total dependence on God, in outgoing service and love to our fellow human beings.  That is how we enter into the expression of this Epiphanytide, this season of showing forth the wondrous love of God made known in Jesus.

          In short, we are to manifest that God is love.  For as our psalm has emphasised, God’s steadfast love is our only hope, and it is a hope to be shared with everyone, just as we would rejoice to be able to share our bread and wine at this table not only with our fellow Christians but with all the peoples of the world.