3 Epiphany – January 22, 2023
This is a rather eventful passage from Matthew this morning. It starts out a bit ominously, with John in prison and Jesus withdrawing to what was considered the backwaters of Capernaum in Galilee – it was Gentile territory. This means that Jesus, beginning his ministry, does not go to some holy place, to some religious center. Instead, he withdraws to Galilee, heathen Galilee, a place where, according to Jewish belief, pure faith has been distorted.
This is not a quiet fishing spot. Capernaum is a bustling city. Commercial fishing amounts to big business here and from among the fishermen Jesus calls his first disciples.
And who are they? Two pairs of brothers. Peter and Andrew, James and John. Brothers who work shoulder to shoulder in the family business.
When Jesus saw Peter and Andrew fishing in the Sea of Galilee, he invited them, “Come, follow me.” Jesus then saw James and John fishing with their father Zebedee, and likewise called them. “They immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.”
Christ calls his disciples as they are, where they are. They do nothing to deserve his invitation. In today’s Gospel, we hear no account of the merits of these four, we hear only of his call. And Jesus still calls us today, here and now.
Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James and John to a radical reorientation, because in his own person “the kingdom of God has arrived.”
Our reading from Isaiah this morning imagines people who stumble in the darkness living in the light. And the gospel “unveils” God’s dream that was made manifest in Jesus. Matthew writes that “Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near'”. Those are the exact words that the wild and wooly John the Baptist preached in the parched desert of Judea and at the shores of the Jordan River. In Mark’s parallel account they’re also the very first words spoken by Jesus (1:15).
Daring to dream begins with changing directions.
To repent is not to feel bad, but to think differently. To repent doesn’t mean to grovel in self-hatred or pious sorrow. When we repent, we turn around, change directions, choose a different path. Repentance signals an abrupt end to life on auto-pilot or to business as usual.
We often think of repentance as a religious word with negative connotations, but, if you think about it, radical change is exactly what most of us long for. It’s something entirely positive. The gospel says that “large crowds” flocked to Jesus and his message of repentance. That’s also what happened with John’s “baptism of repentance.”
Jesus’ call to repentance is an invitation to healing. It asks God to end all that is old in us and to begin something new. The weak and the weary who know their deep needs and respond to this message have much to teach the strong and the powerful. There is a prayer from Arsenios, from the 5th century, that goes: “My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start.”
Notice that Jesus’s invitation to his first disciples was specific and particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocation they knew best. What metaphor would make more sense to four fishermen than the metaphor of fishing for people? Simon and Andrew would have understood the nuances of that metaphor in ways that most of never will.
When Jesus called these fishermen to follow him, they understood the call as not a directive to leave their experience and intelligence behind, but to bring the best of their selves forward — to become even more fully and freely themselves.
Jesus comes to us, today, as we are, in our ordinary lives. Just like his first disciples. Surrender to Jesus isn’t only about renunciation. It’s about resurrection. It’s about abundant and authentic life. When Jesus promises to “make us,” it’s a commitment to nurture us, not a threat to sever us from all we love. It’s a promise rooted in gentleness and respect — not violence and coercion. It’s a promise that when we dare to let go, the things we relinquish might be returned to us in new and enlivened ways we couldn’t have imagined on our own.
Most importantly, it is a promise from God to us — not from us to God. As Barbara Brown Taylor so aptly puts it, the story of this Gospel is a miracle story. Jesus calls, and the four fishermen “immediately” follow. No hesitation, no questions asked. Is this because they’re men of superhuman courage or prophetic foreknowledge? Of course not. These are the same guys who later in the Gospels doubt, deny, and abandon Jesus. They’re as fallible and as ordinary as the rest of us, and their own volition can’t get them very far.
No, they immediately follow Jesus because Jesus makes it possible for them to do so. “This is not a story about us,” Taylor writes. “It is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow — able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food.”
The four men “immediately” left their nets and followed Jesus. In time, they made the Gospel their own, sharing its radical power through the details of their own lives and stories. The question for us is how do we make the gospel our own?
Remember, Jesus does not go to some perfect place in search of disciples. He goes instead to a questionable place; one whose wounds cry out for immediate attention. Jesus still comes to us in those places today, here and now. Will we follow Jesus? He is calling to you and to me, “come, follow me.” Amen.