Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 21, 2024
Mark 1:14-20 Commentary
The lectionary makes it a habit of giving us two weeks from two different gospels stories of Jesus calling his first disciples. Moving from John’s gospel to Mark’s, it’s as though our perspective in the calling narrative has changed to Jesus’s side of things.
“Fresh” from the desert and the evil one’s temptations, Jesus is “off to the races”—as is the speed of the entire book of Mark. Our passage opens with two descriptors about the timing of Jesus’s public ministry beginning. First, John was arrested—the one who prepares the way for the Lord is on a forced work stoppage—and second, Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…”
How much should we link these two? Did Jesus understand that John’s arrest meant that John’s role was complete and it was time to begin his ministry with earnestness? Perhaps. Take into consideration that Jesus uses the passive perfect tense to speak of the timing: it is fulfilled, the kingdom has come near. The passive tense implies God’s agency and action in and through the circumstances, and the perfect tense means that what happens as Jesus proclaims the good news will have lasting consequences. (Of course, this is not to say that God caused John to be arrested or martyred; it is to underscore that God works through all circumstances.)
Jesus carries John’s testimony and ministry forward, coupling John’s call to repent with a command to believe. What John has helped the people of God prepare for is now in their midst—what will they do with the news that the kingdom of God has come near?
In the most basic sense of the word for repent, metanoia, is to “change one’s mind.” This can be about something you’ve done (so that now you feel remorse and repent), or about something you did not believe before but are now converted to (see BDAG for more). In our sin saturated language and focus, this basic reminder is essential: in the life of faith and discipleship we repent of much more than our sins; we change our minds about things because we learn as we live our faith; we are converted to new ways of being because of the time we spend with God.
And we are converted when we follow after our Lord Jesus Christ. What happens next in the gospel of Mark is a visual narrative that serves as commentary of the fruit of Jesus’s first proclamations. Walking along the shore, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew and later John and James, and they “repent” and change their mind about what their future will hold as each of them walks away from their nets in order to heed Jesus’s offer to a different kind of fishing vocation.
By immediately getting up and following Jesus, Simon and Andrew, James and John, are converted, changing their lives. It begins by leaving behind the things giving them meaning and belonging—family and jobs—and an openness to learn something new. None of this means that what they were doing before they became Jesus’s disciples was bad or sinful, and yet, here they are, repenting in order to become different.
Interestingly, they change but some things stay the same; familiar yet different. Jesus tells them that they can stay fishermen, but what they are going to catch is changing. In the call to discipleship, it’s as though Jesus integrates our lives into his purposes so that we become our truest selves. God, as our maker and sustainer, and the author and perfector of our faith, is the one who has not only the power but the authority to do this kind of integration work—if we choose to follow him.
In fact, the immediacy with which our disciples say yes and go after Jesus is the first in a series of events described in the next verses of the gospel of Mark, and each of them establishes Jesus’s authority and power in word and deed over humans and spirits and sickness. Like I said at the beginning of this commentary, Mark doesn’t describe Jesus as wasting any time getting started. The kingdom of God is near! The time is fulfilled! And all of this is still true. We can take some immediate discipleship action of our own. And along with those original disciples, we can realize that changing our mind and living a different kind of life with Jesus is going to lead to a lifetime of learning and changing, a life marked by repentance of things that are clearly sin and from other things that are simply not part of what God needs us to do in a particular season of life. All the while, we have the comfort of knowing that God’s kingdom is still near through the Holy Spirit and that Christ dwells in our hearts.
A little detail that I hadn’t noticed in my commentary readings until this time around: Simon and Andrew, James and John, are from two different classes. Simon and Andrew were using small hand nets and were very likely fishermen who worked for people like the family of James and John. The detail comes in Mark’s description of the sons of Zebedee: James and John are part of a family business which includes boats and large nets that are thrown overboard, requiring a number of hired men to work the nets. They would have inherited this family business, and yet, they walk away from it to follow Jesus’s authority.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of many theologians who have thought deeply about the immediacy with which the first disciples heeded the call to discipleship. (Though he was commenting on Mark 2.14, the sentiment remains the same for our text.) Some of those thoughts are shared in The Cost of Discipleship, which was published in 1937 and serves as a call to repentance as the Nazi regime’s ideological influence and power was becoming more and more overt. Struck by the fact that we are not given any rhyme or reason to the psychological state of the disciples as they turn to follow Jesus, Bonhoeffer lays it all on the authority of the one who issues the call: “This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call… We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority.”
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