“They went off to follow him.”

When Jesus calls us to follow, what is it that me must leave behind?  What keeps us from following? Jesus doesn’t force himself into lives other wise occupied.  Dare we open ourselves to his coming into our territory and declaring that the Kingdom of God is near? 


January 25


Mark 1: 14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.


A couple of  things struck me immediately when I read this brief passage. 1. Jesus didn’t enter Galilee until John was arrested and when he did he continued John’s ministry, using the same call to repentance and belief,  without the part about baptism. 2. He declared that he kingdom of God was near, no longer distant and unreachable. 3.When he called Simon and Andrew to follow him – they left behind nets. When he called James and John – they left behind their father, an identity, a business and a way of life. 



Context might be helpful. Capernaum wasn’t the little village we might suppose. It was the largest seaport on the Galilee with boats carrying passengers and cargo across the Sea of Galilee. Under the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas, anxious to make his backward region productive for Rome by both taxes and exports, and with the development of preservative techniques in which hauls of sardine and carp could be pickled or salted, the pressures of a wider market was altering the Galilean economy. Romans like the taste of salt-fish. Spicy sauces and fish stews were highly valued as both condiment and medicine. Magdala, lakeside hometown of the disciple Mary, became a kind of factory town nicknamed Taricheae, or the “Town of Salt-Fish.” The Galilee, little more than a large freshwater lake, was becoming virtually industrialized. The fishing industry changed very little from then until 1948.  Today there are some 65 small fishing boats on the Galilee, four large vessels for seine fishing, and about 150 fishermen working during peak season. We have no reason to believe that more fishing boats were present on the Galilee in the first century. All of the fishermen on the Galilee would have known each so any news would have traveled quickly among the fishermen on the Galilee. Today you can buy a decent fishing seine for three to four hundred dollars, not a great sum.  If with it you supported your family you probably would own several. If you operated a fishing boat, your investment would be quite a bit greater and would be the result of generations accumulating the necessary resources to keep the boat and accessories serviceable,  and supplementing family members with hired help. 

It would have been possible for Mark to have proceeded straight from 1:15 to 1:21. Instead Mark reports the call of two sets of disciples, Simon (Peter) and Andrew and James and John. This is surely intentional. According to Mark Jesus was not a solo act. The ‘good news of the kingdom’ is about what happens to people and it is also about people, about community. The calling of Simon and Andrew and  James and John to leave all and follow serves as a protest not against life at home, but more generally against societal structures which simply perpetuate the past and trap people into the service of the status quo and its gods. But Jesus’ socially disruptive call upset the system not only for those called but also for those left behind. It called for a new way of looking at life, wherever you are. There is a new set of priorities. This means changed values, but it is more than that. It means a new god, or better, a return to the God of compassion and justice. Can you imagine the huge difference the response of these four men made in the lives of their families?  Responding to Jesus’ call whenever or wherever people all demands major disruption in patterns of life as usual.


Kristin Johnston Largen in her look at this passage asks: “What does it mean for us today to say, “the kingdom of God has come near?” She suggests that if we look at this statement more closely, we will find that it in fact points to two very important truths that affect our whole way of life, our whole attitude about the world.

First, we should to take the statement at face value, and assume it means the same thing today that it meant 2,000 years ago: despite all appearances to the contrary, the kingdom of God is near us! In Jesus, new life and salvation have dawned; in Jesus, new life and salvation are here; in Jesus, the light of life and salvation has broken into the darkness of the world with radiant power, shattering the chains of sin and evil.

What must not be forgotten is that this experience of God’s kingdom is not a temporary event, an offer available for a short-time only, which, unfortunately, expired at the same time as did Jesus. Instead, this in-breaking revelation of God’s kingdom affected a permanent change in reality, and it is as much with us today as it was for the disciples so long ago. If we overlook this, if we make the mistake of thinking that we missed our chance to experience the kingdom we end up creating some yet to come future end of time for which we must wait and we close off the possibility of experiencing the transforming power of Jesus Christ that is pulsing in the midst of our daily lives right now.

Through the Holy Spirit, God’s kingdom continues to be present to us, sometimes in the most unlikely places, in the most unusual situations—even, and perhaps especially, in those situations of despair, destruction, and violence. The promise that the kingdom is near means that God is not impotent, impassive, or indifferent to what is going on in the life of the world right now. Instead, wherever you are, God is already there, working to bring to restore fullness to life.

Her second point,  is that the nearness of the kingdom of God means that we are to live differently. This is simply another way of describing what is meant by following Jesus. If the kingdom of God were simply a past reality, then what we would be called to do is remember it. Conversely, if the kingdom of God were simply a future reality, then what we would be called to do is to hope for it. But given that it is an ever-present reality that is simultaneously past, present, and future, we are called not just to reflect upon it, but live into it with passionate intensity as though all the promises were true—because, of course, they are! For us today, then, following Jesus is not a spectator sport; rather, it is a declaration of trust, a signaling of the intent to radically reorient our lives, and a commitment to being a different kind of person.

Much to the chagrin and vexation of his disciples, and repeatedly reinforced by Jesus throughout his ministry; and if we are honest with ourselves, this radical change that the kingdom of God demands of us is much to our chagrin and vexation, too. The two verbs in the second part of Jesus’ proclamation are present tense imperatives. That implies continued or repeated actions. “Keep on repenting!” “Keep on believing.” Repent and believe are not like a door that we pass through once, as if to get our ticket punched, ‘so now I’m in the kingdom’. Rather they are part of an ongoing lifestyle of the people to whom the rule of God has come near. You want to continue to live by the purity laws that strictly separate the insiders from the outsiders, the holy from the profane? Sorry, but in God’s kingdom, those laws don’t exist any more, those laws have already been abolished. Are you looking for a position of greatness and prestige? Sorry, in God’s kingdom, we are all like little children, so you better give up those aspirations of grandeur right now. You want to be on the winning team, the side that will topple the Roman Empire with power and strength? Sorry, but the hallmark of God’s kingdom is peace, so you better lay down your sword and open your arms to your enemies. Discipleship was a tall order back then, and it remains so today.

The nearness of the kingdom of God, then, demands that we live a radically new kind of life, a life that is, in many ways, at odds with the world. For example, we are called to reject a lifestyle that values money over people. We are called to reject a political rhetoric that defines torture as a necessary act of violence. We are called to reject the labeling of our brothers and sisters as unrepentant sinners and social pariahs, seeing them instead as fellow participants in the new life and salvation Jesus Christ brought into the world, fellow citizens of the kingdom of God.

It would be easier if we could just look back on the kingdom of God with a fond nostalgia that doesn’t demand anything from us. It would be easier if we could just look forward to the kingdom of God with a calm sense of anticipation, knowing that it will come whether we do anything about it our not, so we might as well relax and wait for it. However, neither of these responses is faithful to the truth of the proclamation that in Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God has drawn near to us, and remains among us, calling us out of both reminiscence and apathy, enticing us to be the new people God has created us to be, showing forth the reality of God’s kingdom in word and deed.


The illustration of these two sets of men, called out from life as usual, should be instructive.  The first set are evidently seine fishermen.  The roll out long lengths of netting and then pull it to shore.  They sort out what is marketable and throw back the rest.  They were asked to leave a hard and exhausting way of earning a living, leaving behind the tools of the trade, their nets. The second set left their nets as well.  They also left the way of life as fishermen.  But, according to Mark, what was most important to notice was that they left their father and the family business that was successful enough to have a their own boat and have employees. Following Jesus cost them a life style and an identity.


When Jesus calls us to follow, what is it that me must leave behind?  What keeps us from following? Jesus doesn’t force himself into lives other wise occupied.  Dare we open ourselves to his coming into our territory and declaring that the Kingdom of God is near? 



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