In this week’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus calling the disciples, Peter, Andrew, John and James. All are fishermen, all of whom, I assume, had known Jesus prior to his arrival on the shores of Galilee. I have to admit though, I get a little confused with the writer’s geography, because at one point Jesus is said to be on the Jordanian side of the Sea of Galilee, then suddenly he is in Capernaum calling these four fishermen.
However, despite the confusion of the early part of the reading,I am always dismayed at how quickly the four men drop everything and follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew are in the water casting their nets when Jesus arrives and without hesitation they leave their nets behind and follow him. For me this is such a significant statement, “they leave their nets behind.”
They leave their nets behind. Are you serious? Peter and Andrew, basically see Jesus, accept his invitation to follow him and let go of their fishing business, their livelihood. This is basically what the writer is telling us, because as fishermen, their nets were their life. Based on what I have been told, taking care of one’s nets took the greater part of the day. Once hauled in from the water, they were carefully inspected for tears as they were laid out to dry and then carefully folded so as to avoid tangling.
When we add in the story of James and John, the Sons of Zebbidee, not only did they leave their boat and nets behind, they literally walked away from their father as well. What the writer is conveying is twofold: 1. In order to follow Jesus, we must be willing to let go of our old lives and start a new life with Christ; And 2. following Christ comes with sacrifice.
A new life in Christ is not a foreign concept for us. As a church, we talk about this every year at Easter and we enact this symbolically each time someone is baptized. ( I admit, I cringed when I first wrote this line. . . that we enact death into new life with baptism.) I am not sure how we, as Anglicans, traditionally perform baptism does the ontological reality any justice. Sprinkling a little bit of water on someone’s forehead and then dabbing them with a spot of oil doesn’t covey the message of death into new life with any justice.
Our way of baptizing is a far cry from the early days of the church when the candidates for Baptism were escorted to the waters edge and then fully immersed by the presbyter. Anyone witnessing the event couldn’t miss the message that the candidate had moved from this life in the world to a new life in Christ. Peter, Andrew, James and John understood this and were ready to leave their old lives of fishing and caring for their father behind them in order to start a new life with Christ.
Sometime later, these men will be affirmed in their decision when Jesus again calls more to follow him. But this time he is met with resistance as some excuse themselves to take care of family matters, even to bury their dead. To this Jesus tells them, “let the dead bury the dead.” saying to all who heard, there are always reasons to stay behind. Now is the time to follow me.
I have often wondered if Jesus were to walk into one of our churches today and call us to follow him, how many of us would heed his call. On days when I am willing to be honest with myself, my answer is not me, I am way too practical to even consider walking away from my family and my responsibilities to just drop everything and follow Jesus the way Peter, Andrew, John and James did. On days that I am really honest, I even doubt I would be ordained today had I not gone to seminary when I did in the late eighties.
I am a bit jealous of the older seminarians of the past thirty years. Those who gave up successful careers, pulled up stakes to enter seminary with no promise of ordination or even employment at the end. For these men and women, this morning’s gospel comes as reassurance, it tells them the risks and the sacrifice they are making are on track with what Christ wants from them.
For the rest of us, this reading challenges us. We feel like the poster children of what Bonhoeffer termed Cheap Grace in his book the Cost of Discipleship. We know that Jesus doesn’t want just what we are willing to give of ourselves to him, but the whole of who we are. We know Jesus calls us to live in this world but not be of this world. But all of this is oh, so hard.
As I ponder this reading, I believe the author shares this story to both celebrate the disciples and to share how courageous they really were. I believe Matthew is telling his audience the sacrifice Christ wants from us is great. I also believe in God’s grace, and that this passage comes before us not just to challenge us, but to ask what holds us back, what are we holding onto that keeps us from giving our whole lives to Christ. I also believe God is always willing to meet us where we are and waits patiently for us.
Soon after I arrived, I shared with you my experience teaching beginner swimming. I discussed how I gradually coaxed all my 4 & 5 year olds into the shallow end of the pool, how we practiced putting our faces in the water and then finally our whole heads. How I taught them to monkey crawl along the wall into the deep end of the pool. And then how on the day of reckoning came when they were “invited” to jump off the diving board and into my arms. Some, usually the boys, had no problem flying off the board. And you knew they would be risk takers throughout their lives. And then there were the cautious ones. The ones who would slowly walk up the ladder, walk to the end of the board. Who would look down at me as I patiently waited and encouraged them to jump. Finally they would look down at me then up to the sky and then behind until finally somewhere within them they found the courage, grabbed hold of their noses and jumped into my waiting arms.
I believe when it comes to following Christ, most of us are the cautious ones. Willing and ready to follow as long as it feels safe and easy, and then resistant when the journey becomes risky. Ultimately, I believe today’s Gospel tells us that this is okay and God will take God’s time with us, but. . . there will come a day when God will call us to jump into risky waters and like Peter, Andrew and John and James, we will need to be ready to throw caution to the wind, to let go of our nets, and follow where Christ leads.