© 2021 Evan D. Garner
“Follow me,” Jesus says, “and it will only cost you your career, your wealth, your future, your family, your friends, and even your life.” Who among us is ready to sign up for that?
Jesus begins his ministry by calling some of the disciples. First, it’s Simon and Andrew, and then it’s James and John. The gospel tradition wants us, a new generation of would-be disciples, to recognize what is being asked of us as we commit to following Jesus. Simon and Andrew are in the boat, casting their net into the sea, and Jesus calls out to them, beckoning them to follow him. Immediately they drop their net to answer his call, and, in so doing, they give up their career, their livelihood, and the security that it has provided for them and their families.
A little farther down the road, Jesus calls out to the sons of Zebedee, who are in the boat with their father, mending the nets. Like the first pair of disciples, they respond immediately by putting down their work and leaving behind their father, their family, and their filial responsibility in order to follow Jesus. Only the hired hands—a symbol rich with layers of relational distance and incomplete commitment—are left behind to support their father.
When we hear this gospel lesson, we confront the magnitude of what we must leave behind in order to follow Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says a little later on in Mark. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That costly truth is evident not only as the disciples’ commitment to Jesus matures but even from the very beginning, from the first moment they decide to follow him. But this gospel encounter reminds us that following Jesus is not only about what we leave behind but also what we take with us.
How was Jesus, an itinerant preacher who was only just beginning his ministry, able to woo these followers with only a few words? Perhaps he had spent more time than we realize building up a reputation for himself, but, in addition to that possibility, there is tremendous power in the invitation he offers. Jesus, we are told, came to Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” Not that the time will come soon. Not that the kingdom is just around the corner. Jesus announces that God’s time is already perfected and that God’s kingdom is already here. He doesn’t ask his followers to trust that, with a little patience, they will reach their destination. He asks them to believe that their ultimate fulfillment has already arrived. He invites them—he invites us—to see that in him the fullness of God’s reign has already come and found us and that now it’s our turn to bring our whole lives into that reign.
When Jesus speaks to Simon and Andrew, he does not tell them to quit being fishermen but promises to make them fish for people. He calls them to bring their trade with them into the kingdom of God. And, when he calls James and John, he does not ask them to forget the family they leave behind, but, as Mark’s gospel account shows, they continue to be known as the “Sons of Zebedee.” As disciples, their whole identity, even their family name, belongs to God. In committing to follow Jesus, these disciples do not simply forsake their previous lives. They bring their earthly identities with them in order that their entire lives might be devoted fully to the reign of God. And, if we see in Jesus what they saw, we must do the same.
Our decision to follow Jesus is not simply a decision to give up our wealth, to let go of our career, to leave behind our family, and to sacrifice our dreams for the future. When we choose to follow Jesus, we choose to bring those things with us—our money, our jobs, our relationships, our hopes, and our expectations—and devote them to the kingdom of God, which is already present all around us. Yes, being a disciple requires great sacrifice, but we are not called to sacrifice all the things that we love but to sacrifice the illusion that any part of our life belongs outside the reign of God.
One of the things I value most about the Episcopal Church is our understanding of the church’s mission. We do not measure the success of our ministry in terms of the number of souls that are rescued from hell and promised to heaven. We are not focused on establishing an escapist cult whose members care only about being whisked away from this planet and drawn up into a mythical paradise. Instead, we pursue and proclaim the presence of God’s reign in this world, here and now, all among us. Our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and to each other in Jesus Christ. In other words, our mission is to live fully in the kingdom of God here in this world and to invite others to live there beside us.
One of the biggest challenges of our tradition, however, is remembering that it is not our job to make God’s kingdom come. Our job is to follow Jesus into the kingdom that he has already established on the earth. To that end, as Jesus’ disciples, we are still learning about—still being formed for—a life that belongs wholly within the reign of God. As strange as it may sound, we are not called to do good works in our community. We are not called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and care for the needy and lift up the downtrodden. Instead, we are called to follow Jesus into that kingdom where there is no hunger or poverty or oppression. And, when we fully belong to that kingdom, when our whole lives become a part of God’s reign, then no one will go to sleep hungry or cold or alone or forgotten.
If the invitation Jesus were offering us today is to try our very best to make the world a better place, I dare say that invitation would not be good enough to justify giving up our jobs, our wealth, our families, and our lives. Maybe we would hand over a small part of what we have, but not the whole thing. No amount of goodwill on our part will make the world the place God wants it to be. But, in Jesus Christ, God has already done that work for our sake. In Jesus, God has already brought God’s reign to the earth. In him, God has already lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. Jesus calls us to follow him into that reign and to bring our whole lives along with us. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Believe in the good news—news so good that we would give everything we’ve got in order to be a part of it.