IT’S PERSONAL
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 25, 2015; 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
Mark 1:17

This past week, I was away on study leave with a group of fellow pastors for a conference called The Homiletical Feast. My friend Pam McShane — a pastor in the Philadelphia area — told a story that’s too good not to share.

Nearly fifteen years ago, the year Pam was ordained as a minister, there was a strange figure walking the streets of her town in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. This man attracted a lot of media attention because of the way he was dressed.

He was dressed like Jesus: long hair, beard, white robe tied with a simple rope belt, sandals on his feet. When people asked him who he was, he simply said, “Jesus.” No one could get him to say his real name. He had come, he explained, to share the gospel.

Now, you may think the man was crazy, suffering from some kind of delusion, but that wasn’t the case. He was on a personal mission to remind people who Jesus is. When anyone spoke to him, he responded in character, as he believed Jesus would respond.

A couple days before her ordination, Pam was driving along in her car when she saw the Jesus impersonator walking along the road. She’d already heard about this mysterious man and his unusual mission — but even so, she did a double take. A strong compulsion swept over her to turn the car around and talk to him.

A moment later she thought better of it. She shook her head, laughed at herself and kept on driving.

But Pam couldn’t get “Jesus” out of her mind. It was just two days before her ordination. She’d tried to follow Jesus all her life, and now she was ready to commit herself to him in a whole new way. And there he was!

Shortly after Pam got back home, she walked down her driveway to bring in the trash-can. And who should she encounter there, walking by at that exact moment, but “Jesus”! This was just too strange.

Pam started talking to him. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” she said, “but this Sunday I’m getting ordained as a minister, and I think I need to talk to you. Would you like to come up to my house and rest a minute?”

“Jesus” turned her down gently. He said he’d learned from experience it wasn’t a good idea to go into people’s homes.

“Please,” she said. “It’s really important.”

He relented. He didn’t go into the house, but sat with her on her back porch, as she poured him a glass of water.

It turned out the man was a conservative Roman Catholic. He wasn’t a big fan of women’s ordination, he told her, gently. But he thanked her for the glass of water, before setting off on his way again.

Pam told us how she vividly remembers this encounter, even to this day. How very odd it was that she had a visit from “Jesus” (or, at least, a Jesus impersonator) just two days before her ordination!

*****

A great many of us have that same sort of hunger in our hearts. Not long ago, I was at a meeting, and our host — by way of an icebreaker — asked the group, “If you could go into a time machine and travel back to any era of history, where would you go and who would you want to meet?”

I only needed to think for half a second. I would use my time machine to go back to the First Century, to Galilee, and meet Jesus. I’ve always had that fantasy.

When I was a kid, in church, we used to sing a sweet old gospel hymn that went like this:

Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear.
Things I would ask him to tell me if he were here.
Scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea:
Stories of Jesus, tell them to me.

That line, “things I would ask him to tell me if he were here,” said it all. Even at that young and tender age, I knew that, in order to meet Jesus, you had to have faith. How much easier it would be if we didn’t have to do that in a spiritual sense: if we could just transport ourselves back to ancient Israel, and meet him in the flesh!

*****

We just read in Mark, chapter 1, about four men who didn’t need a time machine to do that. Peter and Andrew, James and John: two groups of fishermen. The first two were standing along the shoreline, casting their nets into the sea. To them he says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” The second pair were sitting in their boat, mending their nets. “Immediately he called them,” Mark tells us; “and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

Now, we don’t know if these four men had ever met Jesus before. Galilee is a pretty small country. They may well have known Jesus by reputation, or even by personal acquaintance. But whether they did or whether they didn’t, when Jesus comes up to them, personally, and says “Follow me,” they get up, without a moment’s hesitation, and start following.

Simon and Andrew leave their nets right there on the beach. This is remarkable because, for first-century Galilean fishermen, their nets are — with the possible exception of their boat — their most valued possession. Handmade out of thin rope, composed of hundreds of tiny knots tied just so, fishing nets require constant care. A day of fishing is not ended once the fish are dumped out of the nets and sold. Before anyone can go home for dinner, the nets must be examined, inch by inch. Any small tears or gaps must be mended with fresh bits of rope and carefully-tied knots. Yet, Andrew and Peter drop their nets on the sand and go off after Jesus.

As for James and John, the response is even more dramatic. They’ve just come back from fishing with their father Zebedee and a couple of hired hands: “and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” For faithful practitioners of Judaism, reared on the Ten Commandments, the words “Honor your father and your mother” would have resonated powerfully. It was no light thing for true believers in the Law of Moses to leave their father sitting in the boat and go off on a journey of spiritual discovery. We may consider that sort of thing common enough today, but remember, this is a settled village culture for which kinship ties are all-important. Most First-Century Jews lived out their lives in the same community in which they were born, practicing the trade their fathers and mothers had taught them. Only the most urgent and compelling of summons would have led men like James and John to heap dishonor upon their father by leaving him behind in the boat, without so much as a by-your-leave.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives instruction about just how urgent is his call to discipleship:

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:59-62]

It’s an example from the world of agriculture. No farmer can plow a straight furrow looking off to the right or the left — let alone turning around and looking behind. The only way to get a straight row is to pick out a landmark on the other side of the field — a tree or a large rock — and stare at it fixedly, using the strength of both hands to point the plowshare directly at it.

Taking all these passages together, the message is clear and compelling: there’s nothing so urgent, nor so important, as following Jesus’ call. Every other commitment, every other obligation, must fall by the wayside, if it’s keeping you from doing what Jesus would have you do in this life!

Reflecting on these call stories from the Bible, Professor N.T. Wright has this to say:

Today I happened to take a walk in the evening sunlight by a Scottish harbour, and to my surprise I came upon a man, about my own age, sitting outside his harbourside front door mending a lobster pot. I asked myself how he would have responded if I had told him to give it all up and follow me — or even to give it all up and follow Jesus. (The town was, appropriately enough, St Andrews.)

(I know, from my own time as a student in that town, exactly the place he’s talking about — the houses of the fishermen that look down upon the ancient stone pier where the fishing-boats tie up.) Wright continues:

Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into, do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is. Leave everything you’ve known, all your security, your family (and family solidarity was hugely important in that culture), and follow Jesus. [Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2004), p. 8.]

Now, take that thought and transfer it into our own community. Imagine going over to Channel Drive, here in Point Beach, walking out onto the dock, and saying to some guy standing there, in rubber overalls, hosing off the deck, “Come follow me, I’ll show you how to fish for people!” What do you think the chances are that he’d go with you?

Jesus’ proclamation, Mark tells us, is simple: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

There’s a standard piece of advice the management gurus give to any entrepreneur seeking venture capital from wealthy investors: “You’ve got to have an elevator speech.” An elevator speech is something you fall back on when you find yourself in an elevator with somebody wealthy enough to write a check to bankroll your new business. You’ve got maybe half a minute of uninterrupted time with your quarry. Swift, succinct, to-the-point: the elevator speech is what clinches the deal. Deliver such a pitch with passion, to the right person, and the only thing you have left to do is work out the details!

This line from Mark is Jesus’ elevator speech, the boiled-down kernel of his gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Now, those words may not seem exceptional in themselves. In fact, they’re pretty ordinary. What makes Jesus’ elevator speech successful with Peter, Andrew, James and John is another element. It’s the dimension of the personal.

*****

Now, maybe those fishermen already know Jesus, or maybe they don’t. One thing’s for certain, though: it’s not his words alone that carry the day. Before these men respond to the words, “Follow me,” it’s a certainty that all four have a personal relationship with him. Otherwise, they never would have left the beach. The words he’s speaking — about a new kingdom God’s bringing in that’s oh-so-near, the early signs of its dawning already visible — are wondrous enough. Yet, who would ever believe them, without knowing the one who speaks them, and trusting him completely?

Today we have our congregational meeting. We’ll hear reports about all the churchy things we do here: the organizations, the programming, the mission work. We’ll elect members of the Nominating Committee. We’ll examine what the Session’s 2015 budget looks like, and — predictably — cluck and wring our hands about the gap between the estimated income and the work our Lord is calling us to do. If you’ve been here for any of these meetings before, it will all look very familiar (and maybe not so exciting).

Yet, underneath the surface of all those mundane corporate affairs is something very exciting indeed: this call Jesus issues to every one of us: “Come with me, and I will show you how to fish for people.” Every page of that Annual Report, every membership statistic, every dollar of the budget, is for one purpose and one purpose only: that you and I may answer Jesus’ call to discipleship, and invite others to do the same.

It’s personal, you see. It’s not about exploring some abstract point of philosophy. It’s not about sharing practical tips about how to live a happier life. It’s not about serving on a committee, nor singing in the choir, nor making phone calls, nor sliding a tray of lasagna into the oven, across the street. It’s about being in relationship with the one who says to all of us, “Come, follow me.”

Now, I know who you people are, most of you. I know the vast majority of people in this Sanctuary have been coming here, or to churches very much like this one, for a very long time. You’ve heard many a sermon. God knows, you’ve probably attended many a congregational meeting. For many of you, following Jesus has been a journey not only of years, but of decades — and that’s a beautiful thing, no doubt about it.

One thing that can happen, over the course of time, is that the call of Christ we once heard so plainly — the call to discipleship — can get muffled and obscured by all the “white noise” of life in a busy and active congregation. You and I can get so caught up in the work of the institution — let alone the challenges of life in general — that the “immediately” of “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” can morph into “maybe someday, when I have the time.” The thing to do, then, is to open our hearts and minds to hear Christ’s call anew.

Then again, maybe you don’t belong to that group of longtime churchgoers. Maybe you’ve drifted in here because you feel there’s something missing in your life, and you’re not sure what. Maybe no one in your life has ever asked you to leave your nets and follow him.

If so, it’s very possible that today is the day when you hear that call. It won’t come from me. It can only come from Jesus, speaking to your inmost heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. The best way for that to happen is to pray and to open your heart to personal relationship with him.

Let’s all bow before the Lord, now, and pray together a prayer of discernment:
Lord Jesus, you call us.

Over the tumult of the restless sea, you call us.
Through the voice of parent, teacher, pastor, friend, you call us.
Even in the wordless silence, you call us.
Maybe we have heard before and said, “Not yet.”
Maybe we have never heard, and are saying, “Why not?”
No matter what our story, we are all the same before you:
sinners, helpless to save ourselves.
We are all in need of the redemption only you can give.
Give us eyes to see the shimmering signs of God’s kingdom,
drawing near.
Give us willing hearts to set aside all distractions and set off,
following where you lead.
Amen.
Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.