Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
24 January 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark gets down to business quickly. He announces what he is writing about, establishes a connection to the prophesy of Isaiah, introduces John the Baptizer, who baptizes Jesus, has Jesus withdraw into the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted by the devil to emerge from the wilderness and to call the first disciples. And all that in 20 verses.
Two weeks ago on the Baptism of Our Lord we remarked that John was working from the margins and not from the centre. The centre being Jerusalem and the centre of Jerusalem being the temple. And we noted that this was indicative of the place that Jesus would call the church to occupy.
Initially that was true of the church. The church was constituted of a diverse group of people. The church did not occupy a seat of power but endured persecution until about the 4th century or so when Christianity became first acceptable and then the only faith people were permitted to follow. Kings and Emperors were crowned by the church and the church de facto ruled the land. The church was no longer at the margins but now occupied the centre.
It turns out that this is true for long periods of history and a paper I read many years ago about the church in early industrial England suggested the reason the church lost the masses is that the church rarely spoke against injustice but preferred the comfortable status quo, for it wanted to remain at the centre and maintain its privilege. This may be true not only for England.
I believe this is roughly true not only for the Western church but also for the Orthodox church, where the church remained largely occupied by its own business but not the business of the people.
There were two ways in which the church reacted that supported the status quo. One way was to spiritualize the Gospel and make it only about heaven. The other way was to embrace Romans 13, all Government is from God, and use it without context (forgetting Paul’s frequent imprisonments), for an embrace of the government would solidify one’s own position.
Old habits are hard to break. When we have seen something in a particular way for a long time, it is hard to look at it from a different perspective. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s simply that we don’t see it.
One way to look at today’s reading is to regard it as the calling of the first disciples, and then regard the expression ‘to fish for people’ as a method of evangelism whereby people come to profess not only the same God but for them to do so in the same language and on the same terms. Usually this is a personal God who forgives everything and demands nothing, at least not beyond some kind of tithe.
Thanks to a new commentary, I have noticed something new in this familiar story. Simon, Andrew, James, and John are not only given a new vocation – they are to fish for people – but they are also given a new location. They are no longer tied to their hometown, to their family, to their region. Their primary connection is to Jesus.
This is something we don’t really know what to do with because we are so used to hearing that Christianity is all about family values. Certainly, to many of us our family is a gift. Yet, not for all. And not all people have a family. After the death of my beloved grandfather the church became my family, for my family of origin had little or no cohesion. That the church could be my family was a profound gift to me.
That Jesus is our primary relationship and our primary reference point also means that we owe no one greater loyalty than God. It means that in God we can reorganize our priorities, which may lead us back to the margins.
My first parish had experienced much conflict. The plan had been to call two pastors simultaneously but independent from one another. I accepted the call, the other candidate did not. I think it was at the very first council meeting that church council decided to invite the bishop and to immediately begin the call process for a second pastor. Since I was fresh out of seminary and brand new in the congregation, I suggested that it might be helpful if I were given a chance to first get my feet wet. Once councillor replied that my intention appeared to be to become entrenched so I would not have to share power. I was speechless and only knew that any reply I would make would likely only confirm this member’s fear.
Power, though is the way we often think. It is the way the world works. And here we are, people called to follow a powerless Messiah. Not powerless per se. Jesus is all in all. From him and through him and to him are all things, yet he emptied himself and took the form of a slave. He is the one we follow.
I am not sure that Peter and Andrew, James and John occupied positions of power, but later they certainly hoped to. Yet whatever they had gave them standing, status, and stability. They gave this up to follow Jesus. They received not only a new vocation but also a new location.
This past week saw the inauguration of Joe Biden as the United States’ 46th president. In the last five years or so people have wondered why many American Christians would have supported the previous president. The clearest answer is that they were seeking to influence the powerful and to thereby somehow move a little closer to the centre of power themselves.
If we take what we have said about new location a step beyond the literal meaning of the word, then we may see that Jesus calls the disciples to a different social location. They are to challenge those in power and support those at the margins and it is hard to imagine that this could happen without their own social location shifting further to the margins. And that is OK, once they realize that that is where Jesus is.
Of course, while the role of the church in our society has shifted, most of us who attend church are people relatively comfortable in our lives with more or less secure income, and little experience of discrimination, and little reason to fear discrimination.
Could it be that Jesus’ invitation to follow him was not only a challenge but also a gift, for it opened the disciples to see things they had never seen before and to question power structures they never would have questioned on their own? Following Jesus freed them to see the world anew and to see possibility of newness where they had only seen resignation. Their gift was that God had made them part of that newness. It is our gift, too.