Charles Qualls: Promise or Warning?


What is the strangest thing anyone has ever asked you to do? What is the deepest commitment someone has asked you to make?

Those are the kinds of questions that arise so naturally as we listen to this story from Mark's gospel today. There are other questions though. Why did Jesus use the words that He did? And, what exactly was He calling them to?

A ministry was beginning in Galilee.

Actually, it took Jesus coming back in from the wilderness to even start His kingdom work in a place as unremarkable as Nazareth of Galilee. Mark's gospel begins with a Spartan account - all business and no flourish. No heart-warming birth story here. No shepherds or angels. Not even a genealogy to give us background. In fact, Jesus is already an adult as Mark picks up the story...with John.

John is at work, a living fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of the "voice of one crying in the wilderness." We overlook the movement that had begun, as people were traveling outside the city to hear this one and some of them were being baptized. Jesus had come out and presented himself to John for that baptism, and immediately God's spoken blessing settled over them in the form of the Spirit.

Now, the spotlight turns to Jesus and takes us into today's text. For the Christ has gone further out after his baptism, so far that this was called a wilderness. His long retreat is broken by the news that John has been arrested. Jesus takes up John's message and begins preaching.

Jesus' time had come. But, he was going to need helpers.

We don't always have a clear picture of the layers of followers our Lord had. Easy to notice are the times when large crowds followed him. The Sermon on the Mount was obviously a sizeable gathering. One time, Jesus tried to go out to be alone but a crowd gathered around him so big that he had to push out onto the water in a boat to escape the press of them, and to talk with them. Memorable, he once fed an overwhelming crowd, after teaching them.

But here in the more humble beginnings, Jesus recruited his closer group: The Twelve. Fact is, eventually it seems there were three from among the Twelve who became a true core to Jesus. We'll see them later in the gospels going alone with Jesus at some key moments of His ministry. Today, though, in our text He walks along and extends a call we might all do well to pay attention to. Because this calling of His disciples is, in many ways, our true calling. And, we might consider whether it contains both promise and warning.

I still remember sitting in a Vacation Bible School classroom. I was a third-grader, and it was craft time. We had been handed an oval bar of soap. And, a fine mesh-netting. A length of ribbon was there, and a small eye to glue on when it was all finished. We are making "fish" that day in Vacation Bible School, because the day's story was this depiction of Jesus calling His disciples.

Follow me, and I'll make you fishers of people.

And I believe we were correctly taught back then that Jesus was making them a promise. Follow me, and I'll make you fishers of people. He could see that they knew how to fish in the conventional sense. It was their living. Peter, Andrew, James and John. All of them either casting nets or mending them.

Our Lord knew how to connect this calling with their lives. These who I believe were already following Him to some extent, maybe already friends with Him. These who longed for something of substance in their lives. They were oppressed by their Roman occupiers, and by a Church hierarchy that wasn't working for them.

And here came one who was speaking of a new age just ahead. Indeed, he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near. He told them of Good News, but that theirs would be a new way of life.

Follow me, and I'll make you fishers of people.

Now, that would be a different kind of fishing for them. But what was this promise? I believed then, and I do now, that God does not extend to us a calling to participate - as this Kingdom is ushered in - without also giving us what we'll need. The gift of the Holy Spirit's presence is that provision - the answer to Jesus' promise - the one who guides and accompanies - the one who advocates for us with God the Father and who is strength when we are week, wise when we are without wisdom and who gives perspective when we lack.

So, what's the warning in this same phrase?

These disciples left their jobs, their families and their homes - many of them. They travelled with this one, unlike foxes who have holes, that had no place to lay his head. They encountered opposition on the road with Jesus. They had tough lessons to learn, perplexing truths to grasp. In the end, many of them took up their crosses and bore much the same pain and death that He would at Golgotha.

Turns out that fishing for people is not always safe business. Of course, they had their rewards. They were part of something that was exciting and new! They were seeing miraculous happenings that were truly more than just miracles. They were signs that God had come to be among us!

But this life was hard sometimes, even unto death. And, for us this life is also challenging at times, this following Jesus. Fishing for people: sharing our faith - living lives of integrity and meaning - holding to high standards of ethic and love - seeing life through lenses of compassion - will often put us at odds with a prevailing culture around us.

Jesus was promising provision to the faithful; but I also believe He was placing a warning label on this life of faith: that following Him would not always be without its difficulties - its costs.

You and I get to weigh out our own journeys as we go. We get down at times, but at others we see life through a prism of faith that is truly special. If we follow Christ in our journey, we will see the world in meaningful ways and might begin to feel about our fellow humans in transformed ways. In our best moments, we may even detect that one of those times has passed where we were a small part of God making creation better. Those moments of faith were also what Jesus was calling them to, back then.

And the call still extends to us today. What is the strangest thing someone has ever asked you to do? What is the deepest commitment anyone has ever asked of you? I would hope that you can look back and see some of the answers as to why following this one from Galilee still makes sense today. I would hope that any of us could take account of the times God has used us to make life better for others. Times when God has made provision for us through the Christ-born love and grace others have visited on us. Times when God has broken through the darkness of life and interrupted our despair through Christ.

We share a call to be instruments of God's work in our world now. There is work today that needs to be done, and God continues to use us as the embodiment of ministry. We can make life richer, and sustainable, for each other, as we take turns answering the call according to the gifts God has instilled in us. We can work toward justice and peace, reflecting the Christ we have followed.

Albert Schweitzer was a German theologian, writer and musician. Famously, and without support from many of those closest to him, Schweitzer accepted the call of Christ upon his life. His burden was to give medical help to those who so desperately needed it, but who could not afford that help. First, he went off to medical school even though he had no background previously that would have portended such a move. Then he applied for missionary service and was eventually accepted. He was sent to Africa. He worked there for years, and then later returned to Europe where, among other efforts, he advocated for restraints on nuclear weapons testing. Why would such a brilliant and diverse talent train his focus on giving to others? Perhaps this quote, widely attributed to Schweitzer, gives us some insight. He said, "Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier."

The call of Christ is no easy way. This Jesus, who would slowly reveal understandings of himself throughout his ministry years, may have been foreshadowing here his own ultimate fate. The call of Christ is not to a cheap gospel, but instead into a rich life of meaning - of purpose. And that may be why we call it Good News. Because the call to follow Christ asks for all that we have and all that we are. This is a demanding, ambitious call.

This is also a gateway to a life that matters.

Let us pray.

Our God we thank you that you continue to call us even today. We thank you for the model of others who have responded to Jesus' call whether it be these earl followers or the centuries of Christian who have responded to that call since. You continue to place your hand on our shoulders and for that we are grateful. You include us in what you do and in where you are headed with your kingdom. So, continue to call us, O God, and open our hearts and minds that we might hear your voice, consider the costs and yet still follow. We pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.