According to the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, “he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And [he] said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Everything really important happens fast.
This is certainly true in the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the gospels–only sixteen chapters long and cut off abruptly at the end. It has been suggested insects may have eaten the end of the ancient scroll, and if that could be proved it would certainly be a jolt to our fundamentalist friends. Imagine! The inerrant Word of God eaten by beetles! But setting that disturbing thought aside, we are left with a muscular, energetic little book, The Gospel in a Big Rush. In it everything important does indeed happen fast.
In spite of its brevity, Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus is endowed with a special authority because it is the earliest we have. It is a primary source for Matthew and Luke, and because it is located so comparatively early in the developing Jesus tradition, the Lord of Mark’s gospel in many respects more closely resembles the historical Jesus than later versions. Jesus’ words in Mark are as close as we will get to the “ipsissima verba Dei,” the very words of the God made man. And in Mark the Lord is always in great hurry, which the historical Jesus probably was, squeezing his whole earthy ministry into three short years. He rushes from one incident to the next as if he has a cosmic train to catch–which in the profoundest sense he does. In Mark Jesus lives on the razor edge of eternity, constantly aware of his own impending death and impelled onward by the Spirit toward his ultimate destiny. His heartbeats are numbered and he knows it. So it is only right that in Mark’s Gospel his first public utterance is about the shortness of the present moment–“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” There are no hours left to waste on trivialities.
Everything important happens fast. So in his little book everything is immediately this and immediately that–Mark uses that word “immediately” 39 times, more all the other gospel writers combined. So it is that when the Lord calls the fishermen Peter and Andrew, the evangelist tells us that “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They didn’t dilly-dally around. That is crucial to the meaning of the story–they responded to the emergent situation without delay. But you and I can take a moment to consider this–What if they hadn’t? Would Jesus have cooled his heels while Peter and Andrew tried to decide whether they really wanted to be fishers of people rather than fishers of fish? (In the Sea of Galilee those would have been a variety of tilapia—locally known as “St. Peter’s fish.”) Would he have hung around while they went home for lunch and talked the whole thing over with the missus?
We rather doubt it. In Mark the call to discipleship precedes and supersedes every other consideration, and it must be made quickly. Those who follow Jesus are intended to be his Immediate Response Team. And his call to “follow me” is never issued twice—certainly not in the same way. So when the Spirit of Jesus offers us an opportunity to follow him, beloved, we have to get busy and do it immediately. The biggest temptation we face is our tendency to dither, to revisit, to tweak, to endlessly reexamine, decide and then make revisions to our previous decisions. The things we consider longest and most deeply in the end we do not do. Everything really important has to be done fast.
Of course, we are all perfectly aware that rash decisions can be disastrous. I remember once a young couple came to me in distress. They had been living together for some time—“trying each other out” in the modern way—but they were planning to get married in the fall. I was to do the deal. Now, however, all that was in jeopardy. They both said they still loved each other, but there had been a big fight, no prisoners taken. At the end of it she had told him she couldn’t trust him anymore and had given back his ring and gone home to her parents. He was genuinely perplexed by the heat of her anger. (I’m afraid this young fellow didn’t have what they call “an important mind.”)
So this is what happened. They had been saving up to buy a house together. Then one evening as he was driving home from work in his old clunker of a pickup, and he suddenly decided to stop at a dealer’s lot and look at the latest models. No harm in that. Right? (I bet you can already guess what had happened.) But he fell into the clutches of a salesman with a ready grin and a firm handshake who showed him a shiny new red pick-up truck and let him take a test drive. Before he left he had signed all the necessary papers. “It called out to me,” he said. Those were his very words—“ipsissima verba.” And he was naively amazed when his fiancé burst into tears when she saw his new sweetheart. “It was my money,” he said defensively. “I worked real hard for that money. And it called out to me.”
Now I could tell you those two patched it up and lived happily ever after, but I’m not going to do that. Partly because they don’t really exist, never really did–except as a negative example of what can happen if you respond immediately to the wrong sort of call. Act now! We have all heard those voices calling us to an immediate response. Don’t delay! The world is full of subtle and insistent salesmen with firm handshakes and ready grins, and they exactly know how to tap into our deepest fears and wishes. I know how to make you happy. I know exactly what it will take to fill your emptiness and mend your broken life. Try my product! Act now!
This was one of father’s favorite Uncle Ole stories. Uncle Ole was driving down a country road one summer’s day, when all of sudden oily black smoke commenced pouring out of his engine and his truck started to make a loud clunk, clunk, clunking noise. So he climbed out, raised the hood, and fanned away the smoke, but after he had poked around inside there for a while, he felt someone watching him. So he looked up and, lo and behold, a cow was looking over his shoulder.
“You’ve got a bad alternator,” said the cow, as plain as day.
Well North Dakota is a wonderful place, that’s for sure, but even there cows don’t ordinarily talk. Uncle Ole was so surprised that he took off running and didn’t stop until he reached the nearby farmhouse. Frantically he knocked on the door, and when the farmer answered, Ole gasped breathlessly, “A cow, a cow just told me what was wrong with my truck.”
The farmer only shook his head. “Was she a black cow with white spots?”
Ole nodded his head. “Yah.”
“Did she have one brown eye and one blue eye?”
“Yah,” said Ole, “that’s the same cow all right.”
“Oh her!” said the farmer. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She doesn’t know anything about cars.”
The world is full of experts who claim to know everything about everything and unafraid to tell you so. There is even a lovely, long word for such a person—ultracrepidarian. It means one who criticizes, judges, or gives advice without knowing what he or she is talking about. And yes, I have fallen for the glib line of patter such people give us and you may have too. (Some of you may even have been married to one.) All of us have played the fool at one time or another. It hardly matters. Let’s just not let it happen again. What’s the point of getting older unless we learn something in the process? The truth is that no salesperson who promises us happiness or peace of mind can deliver on that promise. The only spring from which those things flow is a ready obedience to answer the call of Jesus Christ when and where ever that we hear it.
And what that call means varies for each of us and changes as our lives go along. It was different for each of those fishermen—Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in the gospel of Mark. It was different for Mary the Mother of our Lord and for Mary and Martha of Bethany and for that woman of mystery Mary Magdalene and for that other woman with no name and a checkered past whom Jesus met at the well of Samaria. They each had a call, but each call was as different as each she could be—individual unto herself. The only thing that every call of Jesus has in common is its urgency, its immediacy, its grave demand—Come and follow me. And Jesus is always impatient with our dithering. As he says to Judas in quite another context—“What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27).
So how do we know what Jesus is calling us to do? How do we discern the voice of Jesus calling us from among the babel of other voices we hear? Well, if I tried to answer that one, beloved, I would be no better than that black and white cow who wanted to tell Uncle Ole what was wrong with his engine. I’d be just another ultracrepidarian—Heaven help me! But there is a guide to follow in the examples of those people in the Bible like Peter and Andrew and James and John and so many others Jesus called along the Way. They were never called to do anything easy or to anything that someone else could do just as well. In baptism each of us was given a summons to obey and a task to do, and in our obedience to that calling lies our peace,—and nowhere else. But obedience to the call of Jesus never serves to un-complicate our lives, beloved. Those first followers of Jesus probably never agreed on much, but they all would surely would have concurred on that. The call of Jesus messes up all our human plans. It turns our lives up-side-down. It is never, ever a summons to do what you would have done in any case if left to your own devices. And the call of Jesus is always time sensitive.
The time is grown short. So, as St. Paul writes early Christians in Corinth, from now on let those who have family responsibilities act as if they were free, and let those who weep forget their misery, and let those who are happy forget why they are happy, and let those who buy act as if they were penniless, and let those who are attached to the things of this world let go of them. Why? “Because the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
I was checking out at the Walgreens Drug Store here in Tarpon Springs the other day. Things were particularly weird and wild—you know how things can get. An old man was wandering around, talking to himself, obviously drunk. A woman was cursing her little boy and slapping him around. Everyone was being more mean and boorish than usual, and the nice Greek woman at the counter was standing there, surrounded by those tabloids with their lurid headlines, taking all this in. When my turn came I remarked, “Things are pretty rough in here.”
“They often are,” she said. “You know, I think the End of the World is at hand. There are signs of it everywhere. Look how people act. Everything is falling apart.” It seemed like a rather strange thing for someone ringing up your aspirin and dental floss to say, but this is a strange world. And in truth is, I have frequently had that very same thought.
“Yes,” I replied, “it does seem that way. But when the power of love takes over from the self-serving politicians who govern us, then we’ll know for sure that the End is near.”
Whether the end of the world is at hand is beyond the knowledge of us human beings. Now you have a handy name for those who think they know for sure—ultracrepidarians. But this much is certain, beloved, each of our individual worlds is coming to an end. Our end is always impending. We all live our lives on the brink of eternity. Our response to that rather scary truth, however, should not be fear or denial, but obedience. God has given each of us exactly enough time to accomplish the task we have been given. Our heartbeats, beloved, are numbered. We each have exactly enough—which is not an excuse to waste our time dithering and worrying about things that won’t happen anyway. Quite the opposite. It is the best possible reason to get busy and do what needs to be done.