Fishermen taking care of their nets in the fishing harbour at Pythagoreio on the island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Sunday week [22 January 2012] is the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 62: 5-12; I Corinthians 7: 29-31; and Mark 1: 14-20.
Mark 1: 14-20
The themes in this Gospel reading offer plenty of fruit for thought in a well-thought-through Sunday sermon. They include: the Good News, the coming of the Kingdom of God, repentance, belief, and call and following.
But we cannot just pluck themes out of a lectionary reading and use them to our own purpose and end. That would be lazy preaching, and it would do no service either to those who listen to our sermons, or to the Gospel message itself.
When we are preparing a sermon based on a lectionary reading, we must remember the contexts in which we are preaching, including: those who are going to hear our sermon; current concerns in the community (and not just the parish as community); the current cycle of lectionary readings (at present we are in Year B, reading primarily from Saint Mark’s Gospel); the readings for the previous and the following Sundays; and the other readings of the day, even if we only refer to them briefly.
This morning in our Bible study, we are going to look at the Gospel reading for Sunday week, Mark 1: 14-20:
Mark 1: 14-20
14 Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ 15 καὶ λέγων ὅτι Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ: μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.
16 Καὶ παράγων παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν τῆς Γαλιλαίας εἶδεν Σίμωνα καὶ Ἀνδρέαν τὸν ἀδελφὸν Σίμωνος ἀμφιβάλλοντας ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ: ἦσαν γὰρ ἁλιεῖς. 17 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, καὶ ποιήσω ὑμᾶς γενέσθαι ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων. 18 καὶ εὐθὺς ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ. 19 Καὶ προβὰς ὀλίγον εἶδεν Ἰάκωβον τὸν τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ αὐτοὺς ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ καταρτίζοντας τὰ δίκτυα, 20 καὶ εὐθὺς ἐκάλεσεν αὐτούς. καὶ ἀφέντες τὸν πατέρα αὐτῶν Ζεβεδαῖον ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ μετὰ τῶν μισθωτῶν ἀπῆλθον ὀπίσω αὐτοῦ.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Yes, we are reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel, in the Year B cycle of lectionary readings. But tomorrow’s Gospel reading is John 1: 43-51. Saint Mark’s Gospel is so short it would be stretching it too far to provide readings for every Sunday for a full year.
But tomorrow’s Gospel reading also helps to introduce the reading for the following Sunday, for it tells the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael.
Then, for the Sunday we are looking at, the other readings link in with the themes of the Gospel reading:
Jonah is the archetypical reluctant prophet. Earlier, God has called him to “Go at once to Nineveh ... and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But he tried to escape by sailing to the ends of the earth.
And for many people who hear this reading on Sunday week, they will immediately associate Jonah with the fish, which may help make connections with the fishing scene that provides the setting for our Gospel reading.
But God is not going to let go of Jonah; and God now calls him a second time. This time, Jonah obeys, and he goes to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. But it seems Jonah is easily distracted and happy with half measures. He goes to the city, but after a day he has only got half-way into Nineveh. Even then, God works through Jonah. The people of Nineveh react positively: they believe, they acknowledge their godlessness, and later in this chapter the king repents.
We can see in that story the outward signs of repentance: a change of attitude to others, or turning away from evil and violence; and acknowledging God’s freedom in how God responds to our repentance.
Psalm 62 is a psalm of trust, in which the psalmist invites others to place their trust in God too (verse 8). In God he finds his hope for deliverance, his reference point in life and his “refuge” from his enemies.
In the Epistle reading (I Corinthians 7: 29-31), Paul writes from Ephesus to the Christians of Corinth, calling them to live a life of repentance, for “ the time we live in will not last long,” or that “the present time is passing away.” He reminds us that live between Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming, a time in which the Church is called to bring as many as possible to believe in him and to follow his ways. And so, our epistle reading too is an important preparation for hearing the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael, and for being reminded of our own call too.
Fishing boats in the harbour in Skerries, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The Gospel reading:
In our Gospel reading, we move from being told of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness to his return to Galilee. His message begins with “the time is fulfilled” (verse 15): the time appointed by God, the decisive time for God’s action, has arrived. “The kingdom of God has come near.”
Mark began his Gospel with “the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.” Now, in verse 15, we hear what that Good News is: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (verse 15).
There are four important verbs in this Good News. The first two proclaim deeds that God is doing; the last two call for specific responses from us:
1, “The time is fulfilled”: the meaning here is difficult to convey fully in English because such experiences of time are rare. This is an epoch making time, a defining moment time. A long held dream is about to start taking shape.
2, “has come near” or “is at hand”: this located the Kingdom of God in both time – this defining moment; and in space – at hand. But the verbs also indicate a deed or action that has now begun but is not yet unfinished.
3, to “repent” does not mean to feel badly or guilty. It does mean to change my behaviour, to re-align it with new principles, new beliefs, new understandings, new insights, new objectives, new goals and new values. The feelings that accompany repentance can range from sorrow over past deeds, to joy for new options; from anger over past false hopes, to confidence in now finding firm ground.
4, “Believe in the good news" could also be translated as “Trust into the Good News.” This is not a call in believe in terms of having an opinion about the factual accuracy of Good News. Instead, Christ is calling for a radical, total, unqualified response in which I base my life no matter what the risks may be.
Now we too are called to adopt God’s way, to “believe in the good news” we hear about the very beginning of the Gospel. It could be said that the whole of Saint Mark’s Gospel is a working out of the meaning and implication of verse.
In verses 16-20, the first four disciples are called: they immediately leave their previous occupations, and follow Christ. Once again, we might note how immediacy of response is a mark of this gospel. These disciples owned nets (verse 19), and they had employees (“hired men”, verse 20), so they were people of rank. They gave up security and family to follow Christ and to devote themselves to his mission.
Did you notice too how one of the first things Christ does is to recruit followers. We could say that proclaiming the Good News and that the Kingdom of God is near, is not a one-man show. Instead, it involves building up communities, and creating relationships that embody the Good News.
Fishing was carried out at night so that the freshly caught fish could be sold as soon as possible in the morning. So, being out at night – and smelling of fish – made fishing a disreputable occupation.
Christ sees Simon and Andrew at night, or just before dawn, as they are actively fishing. He then sees James and John after dawn – they have finished their night’s work and are in their boat, mending their nets.
How do you think it must have appeared in those days that Christ was out alone at night and that the first four people he calls are engaged in a dirty and demanding occupation, and that all four leave their families to follow him?
Their friends and neighbours must have reacted with alarm and suspicion, and probably talked about how their response was breaking up their families and breaking down the social fabric of their community.
Are you finding your calling to follow Christ difficult when it comes to family relationships and maintaining your relationship with your community, with those you work with or those who are your neighbours?
Sometimes, like Jonah, do you feel like taking another journey, or just going half-way?
I do not know which was a more difficult and demanding task: being a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, or being a Disciple of Christ … especially when the call comes from someone who has withdrawn to Galilee after the arrest of his cousin, the one who publicly baptised and acclaimed him, John the Baptist.
Either way, the four first disciples were going to have no lazy day by the shore or the river bank, or as followers of Christ. Becoming “fishers of men,” “fishing for people,” is going to bring these Galilean fishers into a relationship not only with Jesus, with their families, with their neighbours, with the tax collectors, with Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots, with the powers of this world, with Gentiles, with the people who sat in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.
Sometimes, in ordained ministry, we do not cast our nets far enough or deep enough. No wonder then that most of the time, when we pull in those nets, we find them empty.
There is a saying that fish come in three sizes, small ones, medium ones and the ones that got away. Too often in ordained ministry, we know about the small ones, we are good with the medium ones, but we pay little attention to going after the ones that get away.
Many years ago, while I hitchhiking and youth-hostelling in peaks on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire in my late teens, and staying in Ilam Hall, I came across the work of that great Anglican writer, Izaak Walton (1593-1683), known not only for his biographies of John Donne, George Herbert and Richard Hooker, but also known as the author of The Compleat Angler.
In The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton points out that fishing can teach us patience and discipline. Fishing takes practice, preparation, discipline; like discipleship, it has to be learned, and learning requires practice before there are any results. And sometimes, whether it is fishing in a river or fishing in the sea, the best results can come from going against the current.
Walking along the pier in a small Greek fishing village recently, as I watched the careful early morning work of the crews in the trawlers and fishing boats, I realised good fishing does not come about by accident. It also requires paying attention to the nets, moving them carefully, mending them, cleaning them after each and every use, hanging them out to dry.
And fishing is also about noticing the weather, watching the wind and the clouds. Good fishing takes account of contexts … it is incarnational.
And all of these apply to the work of ordained ministry.
Time and again in Gospels, the Kingdom of God is compared to huge net cast over different numbers of people and species. We are the ones called to cast that net, but do so we need to attend to our own discipline, endurance, and patience.
Ordained ministry is not passive following of Christ. We cannot hang any sign outside on our office doors saying: “Gone Fishin’.”
Nor can we passively stand by the bank or on the shore, content with two sizes of fish. We are called to go after the one that others let get away, not just those who come to Church regularly, but their families, their neighbours, the tax collectors, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots of our age, the powers of this world, the Gentiles, and especially with the people who sit in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time MTh students on 14 January 2012.
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