25 January 2015
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 3B (RCL)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
The story of Jonah has to include the most effective sermon ever preached in the history of preaching. “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be destroyed.” After that single sentence, the whole city was converted and repented. Jonah ought to have been thrilled with the results of his preaching. The humor in the whole story is wonderful, and this is certainly one of the funniest bits. We all (preachers) wish we could be so economical, as I’m sure our congregations also wish.
Jesus’ words in Mark’s Gospel are similarly effective. One sentence and two sets of brothers leave everything and follow. First a word about fishermen. Simon and Andrew are poor. They were probably using a net called an “amphiblestron” (Mark doesn’t supply the word, but they were casting [amphiballantein] a two handed net). They would have been standing up to their knees in the water, casting. The net would have probably been the extent of their possessions. James and John on the other hand, were in their father’s boat, with hired help. Zebedee was a successful business man, relative to Simon and Andrew.
Jesus shows up and says, “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and trust the good news.” That’s enough for these four to follow him. Mark chooses not to tell us what was convincing about that message, or what state Simon and Andrew and James and John were in that caused them to be receptive to it. I’m not sure what would make me want to become a fisher of people. That has always struck me as a strange metaphor. I know that fishing serves elsewhere as a metaphor for evangelism, or the bringing of people into the church. But the way Mark presents the story, Jesus’ first disciples can’t know the meaning of the metaphor. They just follow.
Paul’s message I understand better. The present form of this world is passing away. Paul, trained as a Stoic, would have believed in the periodic dissolution of the cosmos in fire to reset the creation. The Stoics believed that all change was degeneration, and so the world would slowly descend into chaos, until the heavens (the spheres above the earth) would dissolve and the fire behind them would consume the earth and reform it. We may not believe in that sort of two tiered universe, but I can easily find things that are passing away. Our dependence on fossil fuel will pass away. Our dysfunctional political system will pass away. The time is short, says Paul. Paul calls us, then, to live with a certain distance from the form of this world. Whether we trade in the world, drive cars, vote for politicians, we are to remind ourselves that these are not ultimate realities. There is more to the world.
As the church, we have to be asking ourselves what is worth living for; what is as compelling as Jesus’ words, and Jonah’s. Instead of being distracted by what isn’t working in this world, we are to focus on the kingdom. The net, in Mark’s use of the image, is perhaps a metaphor for the kingdom. The net is what holds us together in the kingdom. The schisms need mending, the knots need strengthening, so that it will hold us in God’s presence. In net fishing, you don’t get to choose which fish you catch. The net is meant to hold all sorts and conditions together.