Mark 1: 14-20
This passage from Mark’s Gospel invites us to consider the subject of the call of God. We are by the seashore with a bunch of seasoned fishermen, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We read that this ministry begins with a proclamation: ‘the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near…’ and this is exciting, as for some centuries the people of Israel had been waiting for God to act. Their nation was a shadow of what it had once been and there was a hope that God would return. Then first John the Baptist appears preparing the way, and now Jesus arrives, announcing that at last God is breaking into the world. In fact, what God was now doing was not what most people either expected or hoped for, but central to Jesus’ strategy for asserting God’s rule over the world is the gathering of groups through whom God would work. Here by the lakeside Jesus calls these fishermen: ‘Jesus said to them, ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ We are told that ‘immediately they left their nets and followed him’ and there is something very strange about that. Here in Mark’s Gospel there is no suggestion that these fishermen already knew Jesus. Jesus just appears out of nowhere, evidently a stranger, and he calls them and they respond and follow, no questions asked – why would they do that? Maybe there were reasons why they were ready to drop everything. Maybe they were ready to take the risk because of the hope of something better than what they were used to.
In Jesus’ time the fishing industry had become heavily regulated in order to give the Romans as much control of it as possible. As is so often the case in imperial economies – some things never change – the fish upon which local people depended as a dietary staple were increasingly exported to distant regions of the Roman empire at great profit, but mainly to the empire. In other words, the effects of political and economic power had made fishing a hard and insecure profession, which was looked down upon and despised.
So maybe the state of the fishing industry was a prompt to these men to leave their nets in search of something new. Maybe they felt a sense of disillusionment with their world which made them ready to respond to Jesus’ call, but much as that may be part of the explanation, it doesn’t account entirely for their spontaneous abandonment of home and family and surroundings.
I’m struck by one commentator who suggests that this is not so much a ‘call’ story as a ‘miracle’ story, suggesting that the fishermen’s response to Jesus’ call can only be understood ultimately in divine terms: that here God was calling them and God’s Spirit was prompting them to respond. Surely here we learn something about the call of God to follow Jesus as a disciple. What motivates us? What compels us? It may partly be down to human factors, to disillusionment or frustration with our world as it is: maybe a sense that there must be more to life than this. Or maybe it’s a broader disillusionment with the state of the world, a sense – as in Jesus’ day – that the political, the economic and the imperial powers that are at work are not producing the kind of world we want to live in, that deep values that we hold dear are in jeopardy. All these should be prompts that make the call of Christ, the call of his Kingdom, an invitation to something new and lifegiving, but beyond all that there is also what we call the work of the Spirit, the miracle by which our spirits are opened to the divine Spirit, and our hearts prised open and reset so as to beat as one with the heart of God.
So that is something of how the call of God works, but here I want to go further by taking this image of ‘calling’, and to contrast it with two other images that are used to describe human existence – two words that have been used to portray our life as human beings in the world.
The first image comes from German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who described human life as ‘thrown’ – that we do not choose to be here, we do not choose to be born – we simply find ourselves here. For Heidegger, however, there is such a thing as freedom and the task of human existence is to make something authentic and real of ourselves in the face of our ‘thrownness’.
The second image is ‘driven’. In our contemporary world, people who are driven are often furiously busy and need to be. However, at the same time, a high-speed world marginalises and people who cannot compete – people perhaps like Andrew, James and John. By contrast, Saul of Tarsus, with his zeal and his fanatical persecution of Christians is a driven character.
That brings us to the third description of human life along with ‘thrown’ and ‘driven’ – and that is ‘called’. At Saul’s great moment of liberation he heard his name called, ‘Saul, Saul…’ He was stopped in his tracks, halted in his driven-ness and called by love. His entire Gospel, and the role of faith in God’s love, all came from the moment when he realised that his life not ‘driven’ but ‘called’. That was his moment of emancipation.
So how would you describe your life? We are all thrown into a world that is capable of great love and beauty, but which can be cruel and harsh – as it was for those fishermen in Galilee – a world in which we are ‘dogged’ by forces over which we have little or no control. We aspire to make something of ourselves in that world and sometimes we struggle with the cards we have been dealt. Some of us are more or less driven, and that may bring its rewards, but peace and wholeness are not among them. But then comes Jesus, calling these fishermen, calling them to follow and calling us. To be called is to recognise that however thrown we are, however fated by blind forces, our destiny is as beloved sons and daughters of the living God. To be called is to recognise that however driven we may be it is not finally our accomplishments that define us but the sheer grace that embraces us. And, finally, that call that summons us to Jesus is far too important to be left to us and our response. The Spirit is at work in us, prompting us, drawing us. And hence the miracle is repeated over and over again, that miracle at the lakeside by which those fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus.
Revd Sabrina Groeschel