A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany

Every Sunday we come to church and we listen to a short passage from the Gospel and reflect on it a bit. We listen to one of the stories about the life of Jesus. We hear how he preached and taught, how he cured every sickness and disease, as it says in today’s Gospel, how he lifted up people who were on the margins of that society. He fed people—he was able to feed thousands of people miraculously with food that should have fed just a few.

And this is a good thing, because these stories are really the backbone of who we are. We are the people of Jesus, the followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

So it’s a good thing, but there is one problem with this approach, which I think is, hearing these stories in isolation, hearing them one by one, apart from the big picture, you lose a sense of how everything is connected. You lose a sense of the bigger story that they are smjustall parts of. The problem is that you can misunderstand what’s really being said in the story, and I think today’s Gospel is a perfect example of that.

Just hearing this story about Jesus walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and calling these two sets of brothers—and they jump up immediately and follow him—you might get the impression that only a few people are called, special people, very good people. You might think that this call, if it comes, comes once in a lifetime.

But if you look at the bigger picture of the story of these characters, you see that this is actually not the case, that everybody is called to something, that the call comes to us again and again in our lives, and that the call really isn’t to perfection or only to perfect people.

It’s a call to persistence in following Jesus.

Looking at this story, today’s little episode begins with Jesus hearing that John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod, for his preaching about Herod’s immorality in marrying his brother’s wife. He is a bit of a threat to Herod, and we know that this part won’t end well. We know what happens to John the Baptist. He’s executed by Herod eventually.

Jesus hears this news, and it says he withdraws, but that’s a funny word, because it makes it sound like he’s pulling back in fear that the same thing might happen to Him, and actually he’s starting out. This is the trigger that sends him out to begin his ministry in public.

He leaves the little mountain town of Nazareth and he goes down to Capernaum, which is a bigger place. It’s a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s near some trade routes. There’s a big fishing industry there. Fishing is a big business. This isn’t just some guys going out with poles on the weekend or nets on the weekend. They have to get a license from the Roman Empire, and they’re under contract to provide a certain amount of fish as food for the people, as food for the Romans as well as the people of Galilee.

So Jesus begins to preach, and the words, the first words we hear are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” He’s not afraid. These are the exact same words that John the Baptist used.

Repent. Repentance—it’s about a return to the foundation of their faith, to really practicing their faith wholeheartedly. The kingdom, the kingdom that’s drawn near, of course it’s the reign of God, but any kingdom that isn’t the Roman Empire, you’re announcing a bit of a threat to the Empire, so these are brave words.

Who knows if Peter and Andrew and James and John had heard any of this before that day when Jesus found them fishing and fixing their nets. They probably were partners in a fishing cooperative. He begins with Peter and Andrew and then he moves on to James and John. He says, “Follow me. I will make you fishers of people,” which is to say, “I will make you partners in my mission of transformation.” They get up immediately and they follow him, leaving Zebedee behind in the boat.

These people, three of the four, they become Jesus’ closest. They are the ones in the inner circle. They are called up to the mountaintop with Jesus for the event that we call the Transfiguration, when his face began to shine and his clothes became dazzling white. They’re the ones he calls into the Garden of Gethsemane with him on that terrible last night before he is executed. He calls them to come and watch with him, and they can’t manage it. They’re tired and they keep falling asleep while he’s suffering this agony of anticipation for the next day, but they’re there with him.

Peter, we know, becomes the first of the disciples. He’s the leader of the gang, but he’s not perfect. There’s the time when Jesus says, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter says, “You are the Christ.” You know, A-plus, you got it right. Buthere’s also the night, the same night before Jesus is executed, when he just denies that he even knows Jesus three times before the cock crows.

The brothers James and John, they’re known for their passion, for their passion in everything they take on. There’s a story about how they wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus, and Jesus rebuked them, the Gospel says. There’s also a story about how they sort of connived with their mother to ask Jesus if they could have the positions of honor, the places on his right and left hand, when he comes into his glory.

Jesus first says, “Can you drink the same cup?” Meaning, “Can you suffer the way I will suffer?” Then he rebukes them and says, “That’s not mine to give.”

Well, James does suffer. James becomes the first of the Apostles to be put to death for the faith. But before that happens, the story is told that he manages to travel as far as Spain on missionary work. This part of the story you should all know, because he is, of course, the patron of this church. James the Greater—meaning either he’s older or taller, not that he’s better.

John, on the other hand, is the last of the apostles to die, and he’s the only one who dies a natural death. He’s the one who takes care of Mary in her old age.

So that’s the story of those three. They are important, but they aren’t perfect.

The others in this story, the one that we know about but who isn’t really named here, is the mother of James and John, and she also becomes a follower of Jesus. It says at one place in Scripture that there were women who traveled with him and supported him. She might have been part of that support team as they traveled around.

What we do know is that she was there at the foot of the cross with Mary at the crucifixion, when the big brave guys turned tail and ran away. She’s one of the women who brings spices to anoint his body as they place him in the grave.

She’s not called in the story we heard today, but obviously there’s a call to her, too.

Last of this group is poor Zebedee. Poor Zebedee, left in the boat. When his sons jump up immediately and go after Jesus, he keeps on fishing. He keeps the business going. He probably is providing some of the financial support for the mission of Jesus. He turned in his pledge card.

As I said, I think what we see in this story is they’re called over and over again. They’re called into different places. They’re called into different forms of service, but they’re all called. They’re called repeatedly. They aren’t perfect, but they persist. They persist in their faith. That’s the call to us.

Some of us are called into ordained ministry. Some of us, maybe most of you here, are called into service in the church in some way. You know the roles. There’s the ministry of music, there’s the ministry of preparing the table, there’s a ministry of good works in the community. It goes on and on. I mean, you know who you are, you know what you’re doing

But we’re called in other ways, too.

We’re called into different ways of living our lives outside of church. Some are called to be married, some are not. We’re called into professions and jobs and occupations. Sometimes we’re called into retirement. Sometimes we’re called out of retirement. Some of us are called to raise children, and then the children grow up and we have gray hair that never goes away, but we have energy for a different kind of calling at that point.

Our loved ones pass away. I mean, we’re living that reality. We’re called into a different way of living after that. We’re called into living with chronic illness, which affects the way we live. One of the interesting things about calling is that some of us are called to serve, and some of us are called to receive that service, which actually is a form of serving, too.

As we go forth from here today, I ask you all to think about what are you being called to. What are you called to in your family, in your neighborhood, in your church, all the places that you are in the world?

I pray for the grace that we might all hear the call clearly, and that we might have the strength and the courage to follow. Amen.

Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA