Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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Whenever I read a novel or short story, I often imagine what the characters and scenes look like. I’ve grown so accustomed to this that I find it difficult to watch a film version of a book. Much to my partner’s annoyance, I will point out all the ways in which the movie fails to portray the story and chapters, even during a movie. I once left the room while watching a film based upon a book, as I couldn’t handle the disconnect between what I was seeing on the screen and what I had conceived in my mind!
While I realise not everyone reacts to book-based films as I do, I am often amused by the many ways we imagine biblical stories. However, unlike my experience with novels turned into movies, our recollections of biblical stories are largely based upon the artistic portrayals of the narratives, rather than the stories themselves. For those of us who are cradle Christians, our first encounter with the Bible was often in Sunday school. Our teachers wisely used colourful books to tell us the famous stories of the Bible. While excellent pedagogical tools, the books could only share so much of the stories’ content, and often added certain artistic flourishes to capture our imagination. Although ministers and teachers hoped we would continue our study of the Bible beyond our childhood years, most Christians simply stopped going to Sunday school during their adolescence and discontinued studying the Bible. As a result, many Christians today will say they know very little about the Bible.
The unfortunate consequence of this is our knowledge of the famous Bible stories is all but limited to what we learned as children and we miss the richness and complexities of the texts. Locked in our memory are the images we learned as children. So engrained are the images in our memories that some people struggle when they learn something new about a Bible story that they never heard before. Sometimes it can be a small detail, such as when they learn Genesis doesn’t tell us that Adam and Eve ate an apple; instead, it simply says they ate the fruit of the tree. If that wasn’t surprising enough, some are simply baffled to learn that Genesis has two creation narratives and that the one we know is a second version. I once had a student in an introduction to Christian theology course utterly distraught to learn that the Bible had more than one creation story.
While we may be amused by such a story, I think we all have our own conceptions of the great biblical stories. Often times the images that come to mind when we hear various scripture stores are the images we’ve seen in movies and other forms of art. Just consider the famous film The Ten Commandments; I don’t know about you, but I still picture and hear Charlton Heston whenever I think of Moses, even though I’ve read and studied the book of Exodus dozens of times.
Although less famous than Moses and the Exodus, today’s reading of the call of the apostles Simon, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, likely evokes grand images of fishermen standing on the shore of the sea and Jesus beckoning them to be fishers of people. Artistic works over the centuries have romanticised the scene, with Jesus extending a blessing to fishermen piously kneeling as they answer his call. In a painting by the Renaissance artist Marco Basaiti, Jesus is painted with the apostles Peter and Andrew as if they are bishops about to consecrate the sons of Zebedee as fellow bishops. While the Basaiti’s painting is a masterpiece in its own right, his painting of the scene of today’s gospel is like that of so many other artistic portrayals of biblical stories: great art, but not terribly great tools for teaching the meaning of a story. To better understand today’s gospel, we need to let go of our preconceived notions and consider the text and the culture more closely to better understand what is going on in today’s gospel lesson.
The gospel writer Mark, unlike the other three evangelists, is noted for the simplicity of his story telling. Some liken his style to that of a news reporter who simply articulates the who, what, were, and when of a story. Yet I think that may be an unfair assessment of Mark. While Mark says few words, that doesn’t necessarily mean his story is simple. Rather, Mark is one who — as we would say today — says a lot with few words.
Indeed Mark says a lot with a few words. Today’s selection from his gospel is a perfect example of this and it all begins with a single verb: paradothēnai or in English, handed-over. The interpretation of this entire Gospel story hinges upon this word. Let me explain.
It might strike us as odd for Mark to begin his account of the call of the apostles with “Now after John was arrested.” This is particularly striking given that the previous two verses of this chapter describe the trial and temptation of Jesus in the desert. Moreover, Mark was well past his story of John baptising Jesus in the River Jordan. Why, then, would Mark include this detail in this story?
Because it defines the very nature of discipleship. To be a student of Jesus, to follow in his way, will ultimately mean that we will have to relinquish our life and embrace the way of the cross.
To better understand this we have to consider what the Greek actually says in this passage. The English word arrested is a poor translation of the Greek word paradothēnai. The word is better translated as “handed-over” and is the same verb that is used when Jesus is handed-over to the authorities for his trial and death on the cross. Now this may seem like an insignificant detail to us, but when we fully consider the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John, we begin to see this story is not some beautiful and heart-warming story of four men called to follow Jesus, but a story of sacrifice, pain, and self-denial. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, and I suggest, the first disciple of Jesus, shows in his life the demands of discipleship. To be follower of Jesus means to be willing to be handed over to death, and to sacrifice one’s wants and desires for the purpose of the Gospel, the reign of God. The cross already figures predominately in Mark’s gospel, but in a subtle way. There are a few hints of this in the story.
First of all, at the time of Jesus few would leave their families to follow their teacher. While there were certainly great teachers in the ancient world with many disciples, or students, following them, most would remain rooted in the life of their families and communities. The students would embody and embrace the way of their teacher within the context of their lived experience. Yet Jesus commands his first disciples to not only leave all that they know and have, but to also leave their families. Such a response would’ve been unthinkable to the people of Jesus’ day. It would’ve shocked those listening to this story for such an act violated the very cultural values and norms of the day. While we’re told the disciples immediately left everything, they must’ve felt extraordinary anguish as they responded to Jesus’ call. Yet, the immediacy of their action and their physical response to Jesus’ invitation clearly indicates that there was something extraordinary about Jesus, something that spoke to the depths of the disciples’ hearts. Despite the pain they felt, the presence of Jesus moved them to let go and to follow.
Secondly, the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ call is further emphasised when Jesus tells the men that he will make them “fish for people.” This phrase carries a double meaning. As many of you may know, the fish was an ancient Christian symbol for Jesus. The Greek word for fish (ἰχθύς or ichtys) served as an acrostic, meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” It was a symbol that indicated to other Christians that a space was safe for them during times of persecution. The fish also symbolised the Eucharist, Jesus’ giving of his body for the life of the world, as he did when we broke the loaves and fishes for the hungry crowd. Thus, in calling his disciples to be fish for people, Jesus is calling them to be as Christ for all people and to give of themselves as gift for others just as Jesus ultimately gives of himself for the life of the world.
Mark cleverly interweaves these themes in this short story and communicates to his listeners, and the Church today, the very nature of discipleship. Jesus calls all of us to be his disciples and to deny our own selfish desires and to give of ourselves as gift to others.
Our lives are indeed marked by the cross. Our discipleship is shaped and formed by the cross. This is wonderfully symbolised in the baptismal rite; immediately after one emerges from the baptismal waters, one is anointed and marked with a sign of a cross. Those signs evoke the character of discipleship that Mark alludes to in today’s gospel reading.
While most of us may not be called to give up everything in order to live out our vocation to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to embrace Christ and his cross and give of ourselves as gift to all. To be honest, I think that is much more difficult to do that when one is not in ordained ministry as a bishop, priest, or deacon or the consecrated life as a religious sister or brother. To be sure, those of us in ordained ministry do have our struggles and challenges. But from my experience as a layman before ordination, it was much more difficult to be a disciple of Jesus while working in a corporate environment surrounded by secular friends. Yet that is where I needed to be at that time. That is where the Christ yearns to be present most.
I think all of you, in your various stages of life, have an extraordinary vocation to be Jesus and to live as Jesus in this world. Christ is calling you to let go of your fears and reservations, and to be embrace a way that is self-giving and loving of even the most unlovable of our society. The vocation of every Christian is to go out into the world proclaiming the reign of God through word and deed. And, my friends, that life of proclamation will sometimes mean having to embrace the cross and suffer rejection and ridicule. We ought not be afraid though, for Jesus tells us that “I will be with you, even to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20)