The End of Safety – Sermon for Epiphany 3A (RCL)

“Come and see,” was the invitation Jesus gave to two of John the Baptist’s disciples in last week’s reading from John’s gospel. When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God, they begin to follow him – just as they had been disciples of John the Baptist, they then turn and follow after Jesus, asking him where he was dwelling. John’s gospel says that one of those two disciples was Andrew, who then went and brought his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus. Jesus’ invitation begins the process that causes the disciples to follow after him.

How different, then, is today’s account from Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus calls, and the disciples follow him.  In Matthew’s gospel, there’s very little in the way of invitation; no sign that Andrew, Peter, James or John were in any sense aware of what was about to happen to them or had already chosen to follow after John, Jesus or anyone else. Instead they were all going about their business when Jesus enters the scene, tells them to follow him, and changes everything:

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.[1]

Jesus calls the disciples – they respond and follow. That’s it – no questions, no promises, no guarantees – the text says they immediately respond, without any delay or reservation. They leave their nets, and in the case of James and John, their own father, and they follow the Lord. They leave the lives they knew to follow after Jesus.

Simon, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen in Galilee. Contrary to our common impression, there’s no reason to think that they were firmly stationed at the bottom of society. Fishing was a major industry around the Sea of Galilee, and our account suggests that the disciples owned boats, nets, and implements of their trade. [2] While they may not have been at the top of society, they certainly weren’t at its bottom, by all accounts, making for themselves a comfortable life.  They didn’t seek Jesus out, and, in all likelihood, they wouldn’t have. Instead, Jesus found them, called them, and they followed after him. That, too, is strange – Jesus called them to follow him – they didn’t seek him out. It would have been customary in Jesus’ time for disciples to seek out a teacher – much like in our gospel from last week, where disciples who were following John turn of their own accord to follow after Jesus. The opposite – a teacher seeking out his own disciples – was not at all a normal or expected behavior.[3]  Yet Jesus seeks them out to follow, chooses them to follow him, calls them to follow him.  And, somehow, they do.

I would love to be able to say that it was a moment of great faith that compelled Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John to leave their comfortable lives by the sea to follow after Jesus, but somehow, I don’t think that’s true.  The Son of God called them and they had to answer; they didn’t choose Jesus; Jesus chose them, called them to follow him, and they didn’t pause, they didn’t think, and they didn’t argue – they simply left their nets.

When the Lord calls us beyond the safety of our nets, out beyond the safety of our familiar seashore, to a life of discipleship, a life of following after him, how do we respond? The gospel tells us what happens as soon as the disciples follow Jesus, he went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.[4]

As soon as they leave the seashore behind, the disciples hear the good news of the kingdom; they see lives changed and transformed. They experience something infinitely more interesting, more trying, more exhilarating than they ever would have seen sitting by their nets on the sea.

Yet I would imagine when Jesus calls us to follow now, we can all to often equivocate. I know I do: I may give Jesus my loyalty and my devotion and the efforts that seem easiest and most conventional; absolute submission and surrender, however, is so much more difficult.  I know that following Jesus changes my life and the life of the world; yet I’m not so certain that I want it to change, even with the promise of something more.  The author James Baldwin once wrote:

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free… for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”[5]

It is only in surrendering ourselves to following after Jesus do we begin to see God’s great dream for the world, do we begin to see the kingdom of heaven.  “Follow me,” Jesus tells us, and “I will make you fish for people.”   Hearing Jesus’ call we are to follow; out beyond the edges of safety and comfort, losing ourself in God’s great goodness, trading all we know and all we hold dear to venture out into the unknown, for in the Lord’s service is perfect freedom. Amen.

[1] Matthew 4:18-22.

[2] Daniel Harrington, S.J. The Gospel of Matthew. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.) p. 72.

[3] Harrington, p. 75.

[4] Matthew 4:23

[5] James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (New York: Vintage)