Keep in mind the situation of the first listeners to Mark’s story. They were, perhaps, candidates for Christian baptism who had finished their instruction in the faith. Now, they were at the worship service where they would leave behind their former lives and follow Jesus. One of the first parts of the story they hear is this call to the disciples to leave everything behind and walk into the unknown future.
Before we jump to the call of the first disciples as a counterpoint to last week’s gospel reading, we need to stop at verses fourteen and fifteen. John was not “arrested,” as the NRSV translates it. John was “handed over.” If you hear a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own arrest and execution, then you have well-tuned scriptural ears. “Thus, already in Mark 1:14 the mention of John’s being ‘handed over’ raises the specter of Jesus’ death,” Stephen Hultgren writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “For Mark, Jesus’ kingdom ministry takes place, from the very beginning,” he notes, “under the shadow of the cross.”
“Notice how Jesus picks the moment to act,” N. T. Wright suggests. “As long as John was announcing the kingdom, down by the Jordan, Jesus could bide his time. But when John is put into prison, he knows it’s time to act” (Wright, Kindle Location 359). Mark constructs the narrative in this way. He will come back to John’s handing over later in the gospel. For now, the chain of events is enough.
John proclaimed the Coming One. Jesus proclaims that the appointed time has been and is being fulfilled. The reign of God has come near and is now at hand. The proper response is twofold: repent and believe in the good news. It doesn’t take long to get from these words back to our first lesson and the response of the Ninevites. The Greek grammar in this verse lends itself well to a “now and not yet” understanding of the coming reign of God.
“It is unnecessary to enter the old debate of whether Jesus meant that the kingdom of God had actually come (realized eschatology), or whether the kingdom of God was near but not yet here (future eschatology),” Steven Hultgren writes. “It is possible that Jesus thought that both were true. Wherever he conducted his ministry, there God’s reign was actively coming into being, even if the kingdom might not come fully until the future.”
Wright suggests that the content of this repentance has a clear historical reality for Jesus’ first listeners. Wright says that Jesus’ call to repentance meant two things: “turning away from the social and political agendas which were driving Israel into a crazy, ruinous war,” and “calling Israel to turn back to a true loyalty to YHWH, their God.” (Kindle Location 368-369). If this is the case (and I believe it is), then repentance is more than a sense of personal sorrow and regret and a promise to do better. It is a reorienting of one’s life around a new set of loyalties, agendas, and priorities – God’s loyalties, agendas, and priorities.
One could wonder aloud what sorts of repentance are being called forth from us today? I suspect we are called to repent the unholy alliance between white supremacy and American Protestant (not just Evangelical) Christianity that has determined power dynamics on this continent since Columbus arrived. I suspect we are called to repent the worship of neoliberal economic theories which make the “invisible hand” of the market more of a god than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect we are called to repent the sexism, genderism and heterosexism which make a particular kind of maleness into godness. Mary Daly was correct, after all, that if God is male then male is also god. There’s more to consider, but this is a start.
We Lutherans have something to contribute to the conversation at this point. Readers can’t help but wonder at the “immediate” response of the disciples to this call. Commentators speculate endlessly on the psychology and politics and personalities of the disciples that made this possible.
Theologically, we Lutherans would point to the gracious and life-changing power of the Word of the Gospel. “Like the first four followers, we too have been caught off guard,” Paul Berge writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “But then isn’t this why we identify with this story? God in Jesus Christ comes to us in our most unexpected moments. God’s kingdom, God’s kingly reign and rule in our lives breaks in even ‘immediately’ as pure gift.”
Berge points to Luther’s explanation of the Third Article in Luther’s Small Catechism to explicate this. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.” Just as the Hebrew prophets found the calling power of the Word irresistible, so do the disciples. Jonah may have been able to flee the first time, but the call of God will not be denied.
Hultgren suggests that the pivot to the call of the disciples “illustrates what the urgent call of the kingdom looks like.” It is worth examining what sort of break with past and parents happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. “Apart from pilgrimage, both geographical mobility and the consequent break with one’s social network (family, patrons, friends, neighbors) were considered abnormal behavior,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “and would have been much more traumatic in antiquity than simply leaving behind one’s job and tools.” (page 179). All social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.
“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is” (Kindle Location 348). If the first disciples are presented as models and examples for that imagined baptismal candidate (and for us), the picture presented is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.
There is some disagreement about the economic situation which the first disciples were leaving behind. Larry Hurtado suggests, “the impression one gets here is that these four men were partners of small (or perhaps large!) businesses. They were in all likelihood ‘middle class’ economically, for the Zebedee brothers, at least, had employees in their family business (1:20)” (page 25).
Malina and Rohrbaugh disagree with Hurtado regarding the economic situation of the first disciples. “Mark, however, specifies that they left their father with the hired hands (1:20). This does not necessarily imply that these families were better off than most,” they suggest. “The tax farmers often hired day laborers to work with contract fishermen.” (page 180). So, the extra help may have been hired by their bosses rather than by their own company. This seems the more likely scenario.
While interesting, these economic details don’t impact the radical break from family and village that Jesus calls forth. Wright suggests that this part of the story connects us with the larger scriptural story of leaving family behind in response to God’s call. “The way Mark tells the story sends echoes ringing back through the scriptures, the larger narrative of God’s people,” Wright notes. “‘Leave your country and your father’s house’, said God to Abraham, ‘and go the land I will show you.’ Abraham, like Peter and the others, did what he was told, and went where he was sent. Mark is hinting to his readers that the old family business of the people of God is being left behind. God wants a new poetry to be written,” Wright concludes, “and is calling a new people to write it.” (Kindle Location 351)
“Jesus was now calling them to trust the good news that their God was doing something new. To get in on the act, they had to cut loose from other ties and trust him and his message,” Wright continues. “That wasn’t easy then and isn’t easy now. But it’s what Peter, Andrew, James and John did, and it’s what all Christians are called to do today, tomorrow, and on into God’s future” (Kindle Location 374).
Last week we listened in as Nathanael was invited to come and see and thus to relinquish his prejudices and presumptions, his hollow hatred of the other. This week, we see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s words regarding discipleship – that when God calls a person, God bids that one to come and die.” That may be the literal case for some Jesus followers. It is certainly the liturgical and sociological case for all Jesus followers. Walking toward Jesus means walking away from our dependence and reliance on any other way to find meaning and purpose in our existence.
That is the real significance of our baptism. We return now to that baptismal candidate, hearing this story in its fullness as a preparation for the plunge. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul asks the Romans in chapter six of his letter. It is, of course a rhetorical question. They know because Paul told them.
“Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul continues, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” To walk in newness of life does not mean keeping all the old life as well. It means entering into the Resurrection here and now and living in that reality. Living in that reality means, among other things, extending the invitation to others who might be interested in dying and rising in Christ.
What is revealed in repentance? Repentance reveals the killing power of life without God. And it reveals a new path of faith, hope, and love for those willing to entertain the possibility.
References and Resources
A Time for Burning (Full Documentary). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMuguX7J42A3
A Time for Burning (Doctalk Show) interview with William C. Jersey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TORZvA4pQU4&feature=emb_title
Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012QGREM2.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Nebraska Synod RARE Team Resources. https://nebraskasynod.org/learn/rare-resources.html.
Obituary for Raymond J. Christensen. https://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/129874/
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (Kindle Edition).