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Christ’s Compelling Call

San Williams

January 22, 2012
Mark 1:14-20

Thanks to the Chancel Choir for their anthem this morning. It was based on Albert Schweitzer’s profound words on Christian discipleship. As many of you know, Albert Schweitzer was unusually gifted, both musically and intellectually. He could easily have had a successful career either in music or in the world of academics.  But at the age of 21, he awoke one morning, felt a call, and made a decision that would set the course for the rest of his life.  He wrote of that moment, “So with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside the window, I decided that I could justify living my life of scholarship and art only until I was thirty.”  He went on to say that, at thirty years of age, he would begin to study medicine, become a medical missionary, and devote the rest of his life to a ministry of healing.  Schweitzer experienced a compulsion so strong that he immediately resolved to change the course of his life and launch out in a new direction.  Well, that’s exactly what happened in the lives of Simon, Andrew, James and John.  One moment they were fishermen.  The next moment Jesus passed before them. “Come and follow me,” he said, and at once–immediately, without hesitation–they dropped their nets, brushed the fish scales off their hands, and embarked on an entirely new life.

Okay, you may be thinking, but that’s not how we moderns make our decisions. In fact, we may be a bit troubled by the immediacy of the disciples’ response. Their hasty, unreflective decision strikes us as unrealistic, even inadvisable.  Before they tossed everything aside and totally changed their lives, shouldn’t they have asked to see Jesus’s resume, posed a few probing questions, or at least given themselves time to think about the decision?  But Mark says they did none of these things.  Jesus called, and immediately they dropped the life they knew and followed him.

What do you suppose made these Galilean fishermen act so decisively, and without hesitation? Were they simply weary of the day-in-day-out routine of fishing—tired of nursing fingers blistered from mending fishing nets, and tired of getting up at 5:00 a.m. to launch their boats. If so, maybe they jumped at the chance just to do something different.  Or it’s been suggested that Simon and company may have had previous encounters with Jesus.  Maybe they had already heard him teach and had been considering joining him. Certainly that would make the immediacy of their response more understandable to us.  But Mark doesn’t tell us any of that.  All we know is that there was something so compelling about Jesus and his message that as soon as Jesus invited these men to join him, their lives changed dramatically.

Now, their response raises a question for us today:  Why is congregational life in the U.S. today often so lacking in the kind of urgency and transformative power that we see in these first disciples?  I recently received an e-mail from a disheartened pastor, who wrote:  “My congregation will go into 2012 with the smallest budget since 2005.  We identify 281 family units and get pledges from fewer than half.  Worship attendance has fallen.  Children’s Sunday School classes are often attended by only one or two children.  Our nominating committee cannot gather a slate of individuals who are willing to serve in leadership.”  What’s ailing much of the church today?

Of course, all sorts of reasons have been brought forth to explain a waning interest in church. Some note that we’ve moved from the age of duty (where people do things because they know they’re supposed to) to the age of discretion (where people sort through the many choices for how to spend their time and choose what seems most desirable). Others suggest that many people today have a hard time connecting what happens on Sunday to the rest of their week and life.  And still others admit that they haven’t found the Christian narrative a particularly helpful lens through which to view, and make sense of, their lives. Whatever the reasons—and there are many—what would be compelling enough to capture our attention and re-direct our entire way of life the way meeting Jesus did for the likes of Simon, Andrew, James and John?

Well, I’m not aware of any formula that will cure an ailing church. But we can know from whom the cure comes, and it surely begins with a re-hearing of the very first words out of Jesus’s mouth in Mark’s Gospel:  “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Jesus hooked Simon and the others at the very moment he proclaimed to them the good news that the creation is being infused with God’s peace and justice. All at once they found themselves caught up in the new life of God’s Kingdom.  They couldn’t believe that they were being invited to take part in its promise, share in its coming and bring others into its realm.

And not only these first disciples, but disciples through the ages have totally re-oriented their lives because Jesus’ the vision of God’s Kingdom compelled them to do so.  Again, take Albert Schweitzer. He declared, “Only a Christianity which is animated and ruled by the idea and the intent of the Kingdom of God is genuine.  Only such a Christianity can give to the world what it desperately needs…A world in which God’s will would be ‘done on earth, as it is in heaven,’ a world in which compassion, kindness, and love are the rule.”  Schweitzer’s life, like that of the first disciples, was changed and redirected by Jesus’ call to join with him in embracing the new life of God’s Rule.

But make no mistake, such a life will not be easy. In fact, it will often encounter opposition, rejection and even defeat. It’s telling that Mark sets the announcement of the Kingdom of God and the calling of the disciples “after the arrest of John.”  John’s arrest foreshadows Jesus’ own suffering, arrest and death. Mark lets us know at the outset that the reality of God’s Kingdom is going to be found where we least expect it, in suffering and rejection, in the obscure and unfamiliar places, among the powerless, the poor and the oppressed. Mark signals to all would-be disciples that discipleship involves risk, vulnerability, selflessness and nonviolent resistance to evil. You may have heard the quote that “Becoming a faithful Christian disciple takes both a moment and a lifetime?”  Our new life begins the moment we say “yes” to Christ’s call, but it requires a lifetime of fits and starts before we enter fully into the life of God’s reign.

Friends, imagine a church with a worship so compelling that people would hate to miss it… A church so animated and ruled by Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God that love, justice and mercy seep into every aspect of our life together…A church where the excitement about God’s Kingdom is so palpable that others get caught up in its energy… A church reaching out to the downtrodden, the sick, the oppressed and the poor…A church where every member is being drawn into a new way of being and a new way of relating to others.

When does such a compelling life of discipleship begin?  Right now. At once. Immediately.