January 24, 2021 – Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
Rev. Amanda Highben
Text: Mark 1:14-20
Grace and peace to you, Duke Lutherans, in this new year and new semester. Newness, it turns out, is something God is familiar with as well, as we hear (ironically) in the book of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” Or, as God declares through the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Newness is all around us now in this time and place. How many of us were so relieved and thankful on January 1 to know that the dumpster fire of 2020 was now in the books and a new year, and God willing a new day, was upon us? A friend of mine said she’d never make the mistake in 2021 of writing the wrong year on her checks. Of course, the other very new thing that happened last week was the inauguration of our new president and vice-president. So much was indeed new about January 20, 2021. Kamala Harris is the first Black woman and Asian-American to serve as vice-president. She was sworn-in by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and Latina member of the Supreme Court. When Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb,” she did so as the first National Youth Poet Laureate. And let’s not forget Doug Emhoff, who is now the first-ever Second Gentleman in U.S history.
Newness is also the word of the day in our gospel passage from Mark—new, because here in the first chapter we hear Jesus preach for the first time and what he says is indeed entirely new and different from what has come before. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” he declares. But this isn’t chronos or ordinary chronological clock-time; this is kairos, God’s time, the opportune time to take action, to repent, to “believe in the good news.” Those thousands of long years when God’s chosen people longed for and sighed-after their hoped-for messiah? That time is now over. The time of God’s kingdom—God’s reign, God’s power—is now at hand in Jesus…and nothing will ever be the same again.
Something radically new and different is also about to upend the lives of two sets of brothers casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee. Simon, Andrew, James, and John: husbands, fathers, sons, fishermen. But now, which is to say immediately, they acquire new identities when Jesus calls them to be his very first disciples. I must say that what stands out for me here is the nature of the invitation. Notice Jesus does not say, “Will you follow me? If you do, I will help you to fish for people.” Instead he calls out, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” This isn’t so much an invitation as it is a command, which could explain why the immediately leave their nets, their families, their livelihoods to follow him. How different is this Jesus than the way he’s so often portrayed in modern American culture! This isn’t a gentle, domesticated Jesus making footprints in the sand or agreeing to be our copilot. This is the Son of God whose claim on his disciples’ lives is so commanding and all-consuming that they immediately drop everything to turn and follow him.
It’s a bit frightening, isn’t it? I mean, did they have a choice? Did they have any idea who Jesus was before he suddenly appeared walking along the Sea of Galilee? And how did their families feel about their sudden departure? I mean, the wives couldn’t have been too happy about it; and then there’s Zebedee, the father of James and John, who according to the text is just left behind in the boat with the hired men.
And here’s the other frightening, unusual thing about this whole new claim on the brothers’ lives. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” says Jesus. But when fish are caught out of the water, they die. I’ve heard this story dozens of times ever since I was a little girl at St. Regis Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, P.A. I am very familiar with the image of fishing for people as a metaphor for discipleship. I guess it’s seemed rather gentle and pastoral, like the image of Jesus as the good shepherd.
But never before have I considered the death inherent in the text until I read these words from a New Testament professor who grew up in Argentina:
“Jesus recruits his first disciples. They will be ‘fishers of people.’ This metaphor was used by missionaries all over the world to justify and legitimize the allegedly life-giving ministry of the Christian evangelist. And yet, it really is a metaphor of death: fish, when taken out of the water, die! But that has been interpreted as dying to the world, which results in life unto God…
Fishing for people as a metaphor for death?! What?! And yet, it is. When fish are taken out of water, they die.
And so it is. Because in order for something new to come to life, the old must first perish, must give way and die. Otherwise nothing is new or changed. It’s just more of the same. Moving in the same direction. Upholding the status-quo.