January 26, 2020, Fitting the Pieces Together, Matthew 4:18-22 – Mtr. Kathyrn Boswell
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A lot of people have a tendency to read the Bible as a collection of disconnected episodes rather than one, long story. That starts, I think, for those of us who grew up in Church, with Sunday School, where we read the popular stories: David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Noah’s Ark, The Good Samaritan, Jesus Walking on the Water – all the classics. I think most of us had all these stories lumped together in our minds in a vague, unspecified time and place. They were stories of “Bible Heroes” in “Bible Lands” who lived in “Bible Times.”
As adults, we know that biblical history spans many hundreds of years, and that Bible Heroes are people from a wide variety of times and places. But most of us still read the Bible episodically, in disconnected little bites, much the same as we did when we were children. Most of us, I think, still have a hard time seeing the story of the Bible as a single, though very complicated story. Sometimes we don’t know how to fit each passage in its proper time and place within the whole. Sometimes it’s just hard to remember what the Lectionary readings were from week to week, or, if you read the Daily Office, from day to day.
Last Sunday, if you remember, the Gospel reading was from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. It was shortly after Jesus had been baptised. John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to some of his own disciples. “That’s the guy,” John said, “the one we’ve been waiting for.” Literally, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And the disciples, who turned out to be none other than Andrew, Peter’s brother, and probably John, spent the afternoon with Jesus and became his followers. Andrew told his brother, “We have found the Messiah” which was an incredible claim, since the Messiah was – and still is – the one greatest hope of every Jewish man, women or child.
So, fast forward to today, when we read today’s Gospel reading from the fourth chapter of Matthew. It was that familiar story we all remember from Sunday School about “Fishers of Men.” Jesus goes to the little village of Capernaum, which is at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee. He’s walking along the beach, and he comes upon some fishermen, who are hard at work, casting their nets into the sea. Their names are Simon (also called Peter), Andrew, his brother, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Jesus calls these four men to follow him, and immediately they drop everything and follow him.
When I read this back in Sunday School I remember being so impressed. A total stranger comes along out of the blue and invites these men to fish for people. Either Jesus is so powerful in his call, or the men are so spiritual and obedient, or both; but however it comes about, poor Mr. Zebedee and all the rest are left in the dust as Peter, Andrew, James and John head off with Jesus.
But if we remember last week’s Gospel reading, we ought to wonder how these two stories fit together. If John the Baptist had already introduced Andrew and John to Jesus, and they had already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, what is happening here in Capernaum? Why are they fishing; like everything is business-as-usual? What has happened, and when, and where, in between Jesus’ baptism and this episode on the beach?
To fit these two events together, we have to remember that Jesus’s earthly ministry, to the best of our knowledge, spanned about three years. The Bible doesn’t lay out a neat and tidy timeline for us, though that would have been helpful. But it’s possible to piece together a pretty consistent timeline from the four Gospels. The first year of Jesus’s ministry was a time of relative obscurity. It took a while, in those days without mass communication, for the word to get out about who Jesus was and what he was doing. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t really tell us anything about this first year. Only John tells something of what happened in that first year, in the first few chapters of his Gospel. The second year of Jesus’s ministry might be called the Year of his Popularity, when word had gotten around about Jesus, his works of power, his message of hope, and masses of people came out to see and hear him. And the third year of Jesus’s ministry was marked by increasing rejection and opposition, ending, as we know, in his arrest and crucifixion.
So, since the Gospel reading last week, when Andrew, Peter and John came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, something like a year has probably gone by. Peter, Andrew, James and John, disciples of Jesus, have been carrying on with their normal lives as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. And today we read how Jesus came to Capernaum, on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee, where these friends and followers of his lived and worked. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that time went by in Bible days just like it does in our own lives, that there are years and years in Jesus’s life that we don’t hear about, years full of normal human things: meals and school, work and play. But after John the Baptist was thrown in prison, Jesus, who would have been around 30 years old by then, left his hometown and went to Capernaum. Capernaum became a kind of home base for Jesus and his disciples for the next two years. They spent enough time there that when Jesus was arrested, people recognized Peter as one of Jesus’s companions because of his Galilean accent.
On the day we read about today, the time had come for Jesus to take his message on the road. He was ready to go public, preaching and healing and proclaiming the kingdom from one town to the next all over Judea. And that is why he showed up on the beach that day. Jesus wasn’t choosing followers at random on that day; he was coming to call his faithful disciples to action. It was time. And they were ready for him. They had been waiting for the call of the Messiah, probably for months. They had their affairs in order, and when Jesus came, whenever he came, they were ready to drop everything and go after him.
So, knowing a little more about how these two stories fit together, does that make any difference in the way we understand them? It seems to me that it makes a big difference. When I was a child, reading about Peter and the rest, I thought of them as special people that Jesus chose to be his special friends and do special things. They weren’t common, ordinary, everyday people, like me, like my parents and my friends. Bible heroes were larger than life. They might make mistakes from time to time, but Bible heroes did big things for God. And the rest of us, normal people, get to read about those big things.
But today, reading about Peter and Andrew, and James and John, we see men who had to go to work every day. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They had been his disciples for months, maybe a whole year already. But they had normal lives, and ordinary responsibilities, just like us. Peter, at least, was a married man. John and James worked for their Dad. They all had families to support and bills to pay. And I think that is a huge thing that we miss when we read the Bible as if it were a bunch of stories about Heroes instead of the story of people who are just like us: people who have to work to feed their families, people who really screw up sometimes, people who get scared, people who get tired. Plain old people – who are called by God.
It is most likely, too, that Jesus didn’t take those men by surprise. I don’t know anything about being a professional fisherman, but I imagine, like most jobs, it’s not the kind of work a person can just walk away from at the drop of a hat. Having been disciples of Jesus all those months, Peter and the rest must have known that a day was going to come when they would have to take a leave of absence, as it were; and not just from their fishing boats, but from their responsibilities to their family and their community. We can assume that they had been getting ready for that day for some time. Because when Jesus came, they were ready to go.
And, can we say the same of ourselves? We might not be called upon to go on the road with Jesus – though, who knows? – but just like Peter, we should know that at any moment of any day we might hear that still, small voice of God calling. We might hear him telling us it’s time to visit our neighbor, or to volunteer our time feeding hungry people, or to write a letter or make a phone call to someone that we’ve been putting off. Jesus’s call might be something we were expecting, or it might open a door to something completely new. But when it comes, very likely the call will be Now. And if we know that God might call us at any moment, in fact, that he certainly will call us, sooner and later, we should consider: are we ready to drop what we are doing and answer? Because that’s not just something that happens to Heroes; he calls all of us.
Jesus often taught about being awake, being ready at all times. And we usually read that and think about being ready for the Big Stuff: for our own death, for Jesus’ return, for Judgment Day. But the story of Jesus calling Peter and his friends on the beach should remind us that Jesus also meant we should be awake and ready every day, at all times, to hear his voice. Every moment that we are followers of Jesus is a moment in which we should be ready to lay down our own agenda, and take up his. Not because we think we’re some special kind of Heroes, but because he calls ordinary people – and he has work for every one of us to do. And that is one of the most important parts of our discipleship, to live in readiness, ready to drop everything and follow him – now, today – just like the fishermen of Capernaum.
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