In these early weeks of 2024 we’ve been talking about the theme “Becoming Jesus”—a sermon series on stories from early in Jesus’ life and ministry. Today we’re shifting from the focus we’ve had on Jesus’ own preparations toward what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Jesus’ early ministry; we’ll be talking about the calling of his first disciples and how that took place and what it means for you and me. Before we get into that, I’m going to start with one example about why it might matter to talk about this today.
I wonder if any of you saw this story earlier in the week: Elmo (yes, Elmo from Sesame Street), posted a question on social media. The post read: “Elmo is just checking in! How is everybody doing?” Well, the newsworthy part of this story was that tens of thousands of people responded, mostly to let Elmo know what a hard time they’ve been having so far in 2024. There were lots of posts like, “Elmo, every Monday, I cannot wait for Friday to come…” and “I’m at my lowest, thanks for asking…” The responses spurred Elmo to make some additional posts about the importance of mental health and caring for one another. The fact that the post went viral landed Elmo a spot on The Today Show this week, where comedian Larry David, who was also on the show, attacked Elmo, I guess because he objected to sitting through mental health advice offered by a puppet… Larry David appears to be having a hard time himself….and that part of the story continues to develop.
Well, I don’t have anything sermon-related to say about this crazy story except—and here I am quite serious: What a clear indication that people are crying out for help. A lot of folks are struggling out there; you’ve certainly read in other places or probably experienced yourself that there is a real crisis in mental health all around us; and whether the needs are related to grief, or exhaustion; worries about politics or of wars and hunger, refugee crises and gun violence, and many, many personal struggles with jobs or families or lonliness—or just the helplessness related to our lack of ability to fix all these things. People are hurting and stressed and feeling helpless and hopeless, and need something to get unstuck, a fresh start, a new beginning.
When it comes to big, important struggles like these, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t lay any of them at the feet of Elmo. But if our faith is worth anything, we ought to be able to bring our questions to God, and in the story we read this morning, I see something of that going on with the way Jesus calls his disciples. So let’s spend a little time talking about that. We’re going to read this story with an eye toward what might cause the disciples—and modern day disciples like you and me—to decide to follow Jesus. My hunch is that they were struggling. Something about the world that surrounded them or their own personal struggles made them ready for something new. And then Jesus shows up.
The thing that fascinates me in this story is that it shows both an amazing challenge Jesus puts before us, and at the same time, tremendous grace and acceptance. Let’s take a closer look so that I can tell you about what I mean.
The story is a familiar one to some. Jesus is walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and recruits his first four disciples: Simon and Andrew; James and John. They are fishermen. He invites them to follow him and fish for people, or in the translation many of us learned as children, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men…”
The story is memorable because of how bizarre it is. Jesus approaches, makes his invitation with no incentives or explanation of any kind, just “Follow me,”…and they go. The narrator, Mark, uses the term “immediately” all the time, and here he says, “Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.” A memorable commentary I read said, “you can fairly well see Zebedee, their father, standing in the boat holding the nets in disbelief.” (Placher, Mark—Belief Commentaries) There is no discussion of where they are going or how long they will be gone; no negotiating terms of inheritance with the father and boat they have just abandoned, or anything else of the kind. Mark intentionally tells the story to make the point that immediately they go without any hesitation.
The intention is for the person hearing the story to see that Jesus’ says “Follow me” with such authority that the offer is irresistible. It’s so hard to understand what might have motivated these disciples to go, but in going back to where I started with that story about Elmo and all the hurt that is out there today, I have to assume that they followed…because they needed to. They were feeling stuck and hopeless, and he offered them a way forward in life. And that makes me want to look deeper and see if there’s more going on here.
Thinking about how these disciples follow—without hesitation—theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer made an interesting point. Many of us assume that we would follow Jesus more closely “if only we had more faith.” Its as if we need more time to consider, believe, pray and prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, see the miracles and hear the teachings for ourselves and then we would do whatever he commands. But this story, he says, tells us quite the opposite. These disciples just go. They follow, entirely without question, and without any preparation. They follow—and that’s how they will learn faith. They follow—that is how their lives will change. So, Bonhoeffer says, that’s what you and I should do. If we’re wondering how to have more faith, how to find hope, how to get our lives unstuck…don’t spend time navel gazing and wondering about what it would be like. Follow Jesus. Do what he says and live the way he tells you to live—and your life will be transformed. Don’t think about it. Give it a try. (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 61-2)
Now that the challenge that is set before us, the next thing that is likely to come is the excuses. We say to ourselves, “I cannot I do as they have done, there’s no way I can leave behind all my other obligations, and abandon everything else I love, and even if I thought I could, I’m sure that I would fail. If following Jesus must be that complete, I cannot…”
On this point, I’m with you. And if one has to drop everything and physically leave in order follow Jesus, honestly, I’m not even quite sure what that would look like. In light of this, I’m going to share another insight on this story that may surprise you. This is the grace in the story, and to understand this point, we have to back up a bit to the beginning of the story.
If you look in your Bible, one of the ones here at the church or most of the ones you may have at home, the heading modern editors have put before this story always says something like, “Jesus calls the first disciples.” The modern heading calls them disciples. But in the story itself, Jesus doesn’t use that word, and neither does Mark as the narrator. The word disciple only comes up later in the book after they have started to follow him. Disciple is a word that doesn’t come up in many other contexts either, and so, points out theologian Bill Placher, you really only find out what a disciple is by seeing what these followers do once the go with him (Placher, Ibid, 35).
The story of what the disciples do is where the surprise comes in: dropping everything to follow Jesus is quite an impressive at of faith, but just about everything else these disciples will do is…not. Not impressive, not faithful, not wise. Mark, the storyteller, goes to great lengths to make it clear that the disciples don’t get it when it comes to following Jesus, that they mess up and misunderstand and fail on all kinds of occasions. In fact, after laying the groundwork of that theme with most of the other disciples, Mark singles out the same two sons of Zebedee, we’ve been talking about, James and John. In a story in Mark 10, they are the ones who come to Jesus near the end of his ministry to ask if they can sit at his right and left when he triumphs gloriously…and knowing that is not at all the way human life is going to end for him, Jesus takes that opportunity to correct them, saying, “whoever wishes to be great must become a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.” James and John, and all of the disciples, they don’t get it, they don’t understand, they are not models of faithfulness and devotion…and yet we know from the story that these are Jesus’ closest and dearest friends. These are his disciples—these confused and struggling people.
So what we have in this story is this odd mix of a great and high calling that requires no hesitation and no compromise and utter devotion, which is followed by…a life of repeated failure to deliver. Which is why, as I said earlier, I find this story to be one of both tremendous challenge and tremendous grace; because Jesus knows our doubts and failures and lack of faith very well, and yet he keeps on asking us to follow, he keeps on receiving us just as we are and inviting us to try again.
As for the way I started, with that reference to Elmo and the more serious acknowledgement that so many of us are looking for help… Well, the story of Jesus may be exactly what so many of us need. An offer for a new beginning, a new direction, a new way of life. An invitation to follow, with no need to prepare first; to do something powerful and important and transformative with our lives, something healing and wise and meaningful by being a disciple of Jesus Christ—and the permission to fail at it, as many times as we need to, and to know that we will be invited to get up and dust ourselves off and try again. For in that is a way to find, rest and healing, hope and a beginning. This is what the story of Jesus will teach us. Keep coming back. We’ll talk more about what this discipleship looks like. Thanks be to God. Amen.