(Sermon for January 25, 2009 || Epiphany 3, Year B, RCL || Mark 1:14-20)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is out for a stroll along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As he walks along, he notices the fishing boats tacking for deeper waters and trawling the shallows. He sees Simon and Andrew casting a net into the water. He sees James and John mending their nets in their boat. He calls out to them, “Follow me.” “And immediately,” says Mark, “they left their nets and followed him.” Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.
Now, I tend not to read the Bible metaphorically. Adding layers of interpretation to the words on the page usually serves to obfuscate rather than enlighten. This morning, however, I pray you indulge me one teeny-tiny metaphor. The four disciples Jesus calls in the Gospel leave their nets to follow him. They were fishermen, so working with nets came naturally to them. But, in landlocked West Virginia, we have little cause to handle fishing nets. So, I ask you, what are the “nets” to which we cling that prevent us from following Jesus? Put another way, what would be different about our lives if we left our nets and followed Jesus?
We could go into all the normal “nets” that ensnare us: grubbing for more stuff, distracting ourselves with the superficial glamour of the world, entering the wrong relationships. These certainly are nets, and they do trap us. But there is another, more insidious net that excels at holding us back from following Jesus.
This insidious net keeps us from practicing discipleship. The net entangles us when we confuse following Jesus with following the “idea of Jesus.” This is a strange turn of phrase, so let me unpack it. The “idea of Jesus” infiltrates our consciences when we forget that the events of the Gospel continue to play out today. The “idea of Jesus” disguises the person of the living Christ beneath layers of doctrine, history, and popular misconception, until he becomes a farcical shadow of himself, more akin to the Easter Bunny than the one true God. The “idea of Jesus” is so much easier to follow than the real Jesus because the “idea” makes far fewer demands on our lives and never asks us to become disciples. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship.”*
Think of it this way: A good portion of Americans love the “idea of soccer.”** They love that there is a sport that the world plays together. They love seeing small foreign children running after a ball in the dust on TV. They love the big leg muscles and celebrity status of David Beckham. But very few Americans ever actually want to play soccer. There’s way too much running and way too little scoring for most of us.
In the same way, we often find ourselves taken with the “idea of Jesus.” There was once this cool guy who said some great stuff about love and acceptance. He collected a lot of enemies because he made friends with outsiders. He kept the wine flowing at this wild party. This “idea of Jesus” looks great on paper. But, like paper, the “idea” is flimsy and two-dimensional. The real Jesus, the living Christ, springs from the page, full of three-dimensional vigor, and he calls us to a life of true discipleship.
This is where the net comes in. If we are deluding ourselves into thinking we are following Jesus while we go about our lives as if nothing has or will change, then we are following the “idea of Jesus” instead. Following the Jesus who calls his disciples away from their nets necessitates change. Again, Bonhoeffer says, “Following Christ means taking certain steps. The first step, which responds to the call, separates the followers from their previous existence. A call to discipleship thus immediately creates a new situation. Staying in the old situation and following Christ mutually exclude each other.”**
We run back to our nets because this newness frightens us. When I moved to Alabama at age 12, no one could understand my thick Rhode Island accent, I called the water fountain a “bubbler,” a dusting of snow was a blizzard, the Red Sox weren’t on TV, and I didn’t know that saying “sir” and “ma’am” was integral to my survival. My life was different and uncomfortable and humid. I just wanted to go home. But, in the slow march of years, Alabama became home.
When we leave our nets and follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of the illusory homes we have built for ourselves. We step out of our comfort zones, and hopefully we never get too comfortable ever again. As we strive to follow Jesus, we may wonder why we never reach a new normal, why that initial feeling of discomfort persists. Then we realize that following Christ means continual renewal, constant reshaping. Paul says that if “anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). As new creations, we are not new a single, solitary time, but every hour of every day. This newness keeps us from becoming complacent, keeps us from sitting in our boats as Jesus passes by. The discomfort propels us forward like dissonance in a Beethoven sonata. Indeed, a piece of music comprised of pleasing, consonant chords would be exceedingly boring. Likewise, following Jesus means dragging our comfort zones along behind us as we constantly step out of them.
Following Jesus is necessarily a nomadic existence. Our home is not a place, you see. Our home is a person. When we follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of our illusory homes for a true home by his side.
The flimsy “idea of Jesus” can only provide us a home built on the sand, which collapses whenever the winds and rains come. The “idea of Jesus” may bring us to church one day a week, but it will not instill in us the desire to seek Christ the other six. It will not demand that we encounter Christ in every person we meet. It will not motivate us to interrupt our net-mending to serve the poor or pray for guidance or praise God for the simple fact that we are marvelously made.
Because it makes no demands on us, the “idea of Jesus” causes us to mistake self-satisfaction for discipleship and comfort for salvation. But the real Jesus does not call us to be comfortable. He calls us to be free and invites us to use our freedom to choose a life of service in his name. If we do not actively seek to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, if we do not take seriously our role as disciples, then we will be complicit in allowing our Lord and Savior to drift into the obscurity of legend or tall tale. As Søren Kierkegaard puts it, “Discipleship…really provides the guarantee that Christianity does not become poetry, mythology, and abstract idea.”**** Following Jesus means offering ourselves as conduits for turning the abstract into the concrete. Put another way, as the Letter of James says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Jas. 2:15-16)
Jesus, the true Jesus, calls to us. He is not an idea or a design on a T-shirt or a cool guy who said some nice stuff once. Jesus, the living Christ, walks up to each one of us and invites us to a new life of hope and love and tears and pain and joy and freedom. He looks each one of us in the eye, says, “Follow me,” and radiates the abundant grace that allows us to do so. Join me in praying that each one of us will meet his gaze, leave our nets, and follow him.
* Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2001. p 59. (Italics mine)
** I borrowed this idea from the hilarious blog Stuff White People Like.
*** Ibid. 61-62
**** Ibid. 59 (in footnote)