JAN 24th 2021
Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
According to those who keep track of such things, the word immediately occurs only four times in the entire Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. Yet that same word -- immediately -- occurs over forty times in the Gospel of Mark -- the shortest of the Gospels. And ten of those occurrences of the word immediately are found in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel alone, from which our narrative today is of course taken. Indeed, the word immediately occurs twice in today’s short account as Jesus calls his first disciples, and they drop everything and follow him.
The scholars remain uncertain what to make of all this. Some suggest that Mark’s use of the word immediately is simply a personal, if peculiar, habit of speech or perhaps a literary device. After all, most of us have our own favourite words or expressions, many of which we use almost unconsciously -- like the annoying habit of many young Americans to say like after every two or three words. Other scholars disagree, however, maintaining that Mark’s use of the word immediately must surely be more purposeful and significant than that. As you can imagine, doctoral dissertations have been written on the subject.
In any case, Mark’s use of the word immediately gives this Gospel a sense of, well, immediacy and even breathless anticipation, which is perhaps lacking in the other Gospels. Reading the Gospel of Mark -- especially if done in one sitting -- you come to feel that you are actually right there in the middle of all the action, wondering what comes next. Things happen in this Gospel at breakneck speed. Events seemingly stumble over each other as if there were no tomorrow and -- more importantly -- no time to lose; as if time itself had come crashing into eternity.
Or, eternity into time.
Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Jesus’ Gospel message all is about. As our Lord says at the beginning of his own ministry and in this same passage, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near.” The Kingdom of God has come near in both Jesus as a person and in his message of repentance and faith, or belief, in the Good News. And, you cannot get much more immediate than that. You cannot get much more compelling than that. If the Kingdom has indeed come near, it demands action. Straight away.
And so, “Follow me,” says Jesus to the first disciples -- Simon, Andrew, James, and John -- and they immediately come after him without, so it seems, a moment’s thought or hesitation. They act. No telling what their neighbours and family members -- especially poor Zebedee, the hapless father of James and John -- must have thought as they watched these otherwise perfectly ordinary and sensible young fishermen neglect their nets, wander off, and follow an itinerant preacher from Galilee, all without so much as a, “Tell mom I won’t be home for dinner.”
But was Jesus really some sort of first-century Pied Piper? Was this following of the first disciples truly an impulse or whim – the kind of exploit or deed one might expect from youth in any age – something later to be regretted and mourned as a waste of time and detour along life’s journey…? Or, was it something far more…? Was it not perhaps an encounter with the divine and timeless -- with the Kingdom of God itself -- an encounter which demanded a wholehearted response and giving of self? All, in the immediacy of the moment.
Paul reminds us pointedly and poignantly in our reading this morning from his First Letter to the Corinthians that, “the appointed time has grown short.” There is much to be done, he implies; but little time left in which to do it. There is no time to waste. Paul too understood that in Christ the Kingdom had come near. He too possessed a sense of urgency in his proclamation of the Gospel message of redemption.
This side of eternity, time and each other are all any of us has, I reckon; although some people surely act as if partisan power and material wealth were more important. Many of us feel this sense of urgency acutely these days as we struggle with issues of our own mortality and that of others around us. Time has taken on a new meaning for each of us. Many would agree with Paul, that “the present form of this world is passing away,” perhaps never to return. Those we love seem suddenly much more precious. Like the disciples, we do not have forever to make a difference, to follow. We too must act. We too are called upon to respond immediately.
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” says our Lord. Now, fishing -- from my limited childhood experience along the shores of Lake Michigan -- takes vigilance and patience. There is nothing much immediate about it. For success, fishing also requires an element of skill and, let’s face it, good fortune. You need to be where the fish are; and the fish need to be biting. Fishing also requires that most precious of all commodities, time. I am sure the disciples -- commercial fishermen by trade -- could tell us all about it. That is the life to which they had been called, after all, when Jesus turned their lives upside down and made them “fish for people,” an even trickier proposition than fishing for fish.
Many of us have no doubt from time to time dreamed of dropping everything and heading off on some personal journey of discovery -- to follow our star -- until we sit back and calculate the cost, come down to earth, and get back to reality and work. Few of us today would leave our net, much less our network or Internet, to follow in the footsteps of Peter and Andrew, James and John -- or Jesus himself. Yet our Lord’s challenge to the disciples so long ago remains there to test us still today. Follow me. Right now.
In some sense, our challenge and task today is even greater than that of those impulsive young followers of Jesus along the Sea of Galilee. For, most of us are called to follow our Lord at the very same time we are challenged to remain where we are – at the side of family and friends; engaged in the work which is before us. This is what Paul is getting at, I think, when he tells us in essence to mourn but not mourn; to rejoice but yet not rejoice; to deal with the world but not be part of it.
Perhaps paradoxically, accepting our Lord’s Gospel imperative to follow him invariably leads us to others, to “fish for people,” even if we never do leave home. Even if we have no rod or reel or net.
“The good news of God” which Jesus and his disciples proclaimed with such urgency and immediacy throughout Galilee is the same Good News we are challenged to proclaim today with equal urgency and resolve. And, what the early disciples must have known instinctively is what we dare not forget -- that in following Jesus -- today, tomorrow, and the next day -- we leave everything but lose nothing.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs