Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 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.
There are some great cathedrals in Europe, and elsewhere, that have stunning stained glass windows depicting Jesus’ disciples. A common feature among them is their portrayal of the apostles as larger-than-life stained-glass saints with shining halos around their heads, presumably depicting an exalted degree of spirituality. The disciples have also been put on pedestals as magnificent marble figures, or portrayed in paintings like some kind of Roman gods. But from what we read in the Gospel, they were simply twelve ordinary men – human in every way. We need to remember who they really were.
Today’s scripture passage continues the story from last Sunday, which is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he calls his first disciples. Last week we heard Jesus call Philip and Nathanael. In today’s story he calls four fishermen at the Sea of Galilee — Simon, Andrew, James and John.
As far as we can tell, the people Jesus called to be his companions were ordinary men. As far as we can tell, Jesus didn’t do background checks to determine their IQ levels, their business sense, or their professional skills. We’re not told that they had any training in discipleship, or that they had particular gifts for following Jesus. Although James and John were old enough to be established in a trade, they were still young enough to have their father, Zebedee, in the boat with them.
The Gospel of Mark actually paints rather unflattering pictures of the disciples as being repeatedly uncomprehending of Jesus and his mission. Jesus’ disciples were anything but perfect. They often hesitated to follow him. Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him.
Yet these were the people who would continue Jesus’ work on earth after he left — ordinary people, like you and me. They were told: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And they just dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus.
So why did Jesus call them, ordinary as they were? Why would Jesus choose these particular men as his disciples?
Perhaps Jesus was simply following God’s lead throughout history. From the Hebrew scriptures we know that over and over again, those whom God chose were just simple, flawed, human beings. Moses was a wanted man, living in the desert, tending a flock of sheep, and God called him to deliver a nation. When Goliath was taunting the Israelites, nobody even considered David, a teenage shepherd boy, yet he defeated the giant and became the king of a nation. Nehemiah was living in Persia in complete obscurity serving as a cupbearer, and God called him to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. Surely Jesus recognized that his own mother was an ordinary girl living in Nazareth when God called her to be his parent, the mother of the Messiah.
Why did Jesus call such ordinary people as his disciples?
Maybe Jesus chose simple and unaccomplished disciples to follow him so that, when people saw the extraordinary things God was able to do with them, they’d be all the more impressed with the greatness of God’s grace.
May Jesus chose them so that the love of God and the work of the kingdom would be undeniably evident in an unbelieving world.
Maybe Jesus chose these simple tradesmen as living, breathing object lessons on the depths of God’s grace and the scope of God’s power. No one would be able to say that these disciples were privileged to walk with Jesus because of their résumés. No one would be able to say that the growth of the kingdom could be credited to their IQ. It was all God. Jesus’ invitation to the disciples wasn’t about them. It was all about God.
Can I assume that many of you – probably a bit on the older side – have at some point seen the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told? Or The Ten Commandments? Why is it that, when Hollywood tries to portray some biblical subject, the actors always sound like they’re reciting Shakespeare? Everyone stands up and gives these speeches in odd-sounding voices. They all get a sort of faraway look in their eyes, dreamy, overly dramatic. Hollywood doesn’t tell Bible stories the way the Bible tells them.
After all, who wants to hear a story about a grocery store clerk who tutors poor kids on his day off? Or a story about a widow who spends several hours a week volunteering at the hospital? Who wants to celebrate a retired person who works for Habitat for Humanity? Or the middle manager who spends time off with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America?
Who wants to hear these stories? We do. The church.
Each one of you here in church on this Sunday in January is another story of an ordinary person like Simon and Andrew, or James and John, who got called by God to be a disciple. If God could use them, think how much God can use YOU.
“See Jane Smith there? Ordinary kindergarten teacher? Well, just wait to see what I do with her as a disciple! Jane Smith the teacher, who’s also busy following me while she teaches children. Or how about Bob Jones? Ordinary nurse? Wait til you see what I’ve got in store for him as a disciple! Bob Jones the nurse, who’s following me as he inserts IVs and empties bedpans.”
God calls you. God calls you for the same reason God calls all disciples – because you make an excellent object lesson on the depths of God’s grace and the scope of God’s power. God calls you. You, with your rebellious heart. You, with your secret struggles. You, with your lack of faith and your long list of faults. You, who thinks deep down that you’re unworthy to tie God’s shoes let alone be called God’s child.
God calls you, and chooses you so that the world might look at you and see that God is indescribably merciful and incredibly powerful. God chooses the humble, the lowly, the meek, and the weak so that there’s never any question about the source of power when their lives change the world. Every day there’s an opportunity, as a disciple, for the world to watch in astonishment as ordinary, unschooled, imperfect people live as examples of God’s mercy and proof of God’s love.
Maybe you don’t often think of your little, ordinary life as an adventure in discipleship, but I think that it is. Discipleship isn’t always spectacular, just faithful. All Simon Peter had to do was leave his fishing nets and become the leader of Christ’s disciples and the rock of Christ’s church. All James and John had to do was stand up, leave their father behind, stumble along after Jesus, and turn the world upside down.
Maybe you don’t always feel like a disciple. Maybe you don’t always act like a disciple. While each of us would like to feel and act and think like a Christian, today’s passage reminds us that our feelings, our actions, our thinking aren’t really the point. Because it’s all about God. Jesus begins his ministry by saying that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” God is already here.
Our relationship to God is first something which God has done before we do anything. God offers us a sacred invitation – before we even ask to be invited! God chooses us before we choose God. Your being a disciple of Christ was God’s idea before it was yours.
So you can relax. You can take comfort that the God who called you will keep you. We are here at God’s gracious invitation. All we have to do is follow.
In the world’s eyes, these disciples going about their discipleship may seem like rather ordinary folks, doing rather ordinary things. But in the eyes of faith, we see God doing extraordinary things through ordinary people who are called. Great, profound purposes are being worked out through us. Through God’s calling of each one of us, God is busy changing this world for the better. The stories of the calling of the disciples tell us that God will choose whom God will choose, that God is doing through us jobs that are greater than we will ever know. God’s plan for the world is big. And God is busy blessing the world through our little church. Through you, and through me. Thanks be to God. Amen.