3 Epiphany—Year A
January 26, 2014
Back in 2002 I was browsing the magazine racks in a local library in Salisbury, North Carolina and came across what was proclaimed as a picture of Jesus on the cover of Popular Mechanics. They had taken a skull of a first century man found in Palestine and then applied the appropriate layers of muscle and skin and added the proper skin color and facial hair—and there was someone who looked a lot more like a suicide bomber than all the blue eyed and light-skinned actors who typically play Jesus in the movies.
We are visual people so we want to be able to picture Jesus. We’d also love to know how his voice sounded like when he was teaching or telling a joke.
The gospels, however, aren’t modern texts written to satisfy our curiosity, but pre-modern texts written to change our lives.
If they told us everything People Magazine would tell us then we might miss what Matthew Mark, Luke, and John are saying.
The four Gospels are concerned not with how he looked on the outside but who he wants to make us on the inside.
They are concerned, not with the sound of his voice, but with the power of his words.
We see that power in the story of the call of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who are four ordinary men.
It says Simon Peter and Andrew are casting their nets—that is, they are working.
James and John are mending their nets—that is, they are also working.
Even after they answer Jesus’s call they remain ordinary. Jesus doesn’t send them off to seminary or law school where they can be polished up to impress people.
We’re so used to seeing these fishermen in brilliant stained glass windows we forget to notice they smell like fish and have calloused hands.
We stop wondering why Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem and call a bunch of rabbinic students to follow him?
Why does he take the uneducated over the educated?
One reason may be because ordinary people are teachable: it’s impossible to teach anyone who is pretty sure he knows a lot.
These four fishermen know they don’t know much about God, so they are willing to learn what Jesus has to teach:
When Jesus speaks, they’re willing to listen.
When he heals the sick, they’re willing to watch.
When he walks throughout Galilee, they follow along behind.
At the end of Jesus’ life they are still ordinary:
Peter can’t stand up to a slave girl; no one except John can hang around to support Jesus during the crucifixion.
Why does he call such ordinary people?
We have another possible answer when he says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Which is to say: I have not come to call those who consider themselves successful in following all the rules, but rather I have come to call those who are aware of their inability to keep the rules.
I think it is because Jesus wants to make it clear that his proclamation is not about what smart, moral people can do with money and education, but what God can do with ordinary sinners who have neither.
Jesus is proclaiming a God movement, not a self-help movement.
This is a central point for me: I’ve got a couple of shelves filled with high quality self-help books, many of which have helped me understand certain psychological principles, like how resisting an experience only makes it worse, and how acceptance makes it better.
Yet, finally, these books become unhelpful whenever I believe I can think my way out of my problems. As long as I’m just chasing my thoughts in my head I remain as confused and conflicted as ever.
The gospel, on the other hand, says turn to God and away from me.
Jesus is leading a God-movement so he isn’t looking for the best and brightest who come with sharp resumes full of amazing talent.
There is nothing in these men that makes them worthy or qualified to be disciples. There is nothing in Mary Magdalene, Martha or Mary that makes them worthy or qualified to be disciples.
They can be disciples only because the call of Jesus makes them so.
You remember in Genesis God says “let there be light”, and there was light. Let there be hippopotami and there were rivers full of them.
Jesus says, “Come be my disciples” and by this call they are given the power to be disciples.
So I’ve got some bad news if you thought Jesus wasn’t interested in someone like you to be a disciple: if you think you are too busy, or too sinful, or too tired, or too young or too old or too smart to follow Jesus you are right.
You and I in ourselves are thoroughly unqualified to be disciples.
Yet this doesn’t matter because when Jesus calls us, he makes us capable of being disciples.
But surely, we think, the disciples after being filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost become extraordinary people.
No, not at all, they stay ordinary till the very end of their lives.
This is why I agree with Martin Luther who famously said, that followers of Christ are, at one and the same time both sinner and saint—not a sinner now and a saint tomorrow, but both at the same time, all the time.
We remain ordinary to the core.
If you’re ordinary then you are just who Jesus is looking for.
He needs ordinary people to proclaim his extraordinary message.
I remember Vonzell—dying of AIDS in Washington, North Carolina who said to me: “You can’t out give God, Bill, you can’t out give God.”
He was bedridden and down to 85 pounds but his message weighed a ton.
I think of Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.
She’s a former stand-up comic with the bad language to prove it. She is covered with tattoos and she is a passionate follower of Jesus Christ, serving God as a Lutheran pastor in Denver, Colorado. The name of her church is: “House for All Sinners and Saints”.
During her clinical pastoral training at a Denver Hospital she gets a call to go to the Emergency Department where doctors and nurses are trying to save a man’s life: his chest is cracked-open and they are trying to get his heart going.
Nadia stood in the back and has the humility to ask a nurse: “Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?”
The nurse saw her chaplain’s badge and said, “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.”
Ordinary people with an extraordinary message.
Paul says to us today: For Christ…”sent me to announce the gospel! Not with words of wisdom, either; otherwise the Messiah’s cross would lose its power.” 1 Corinthians 1:17 Kingdom New Testament by N.T. Wright.
God’s light shines through the disciples when they are humble enough to ask, “What am I doing here?”
The answer is always: “Your job is to be aware of Christ—and to do whatever loving thing he tells you to do.”
Peter, Andrew, James, and John smell of fish.
You and I have been trained to cover our smell.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we trust the power of his word to create in us what we need in order to follow him so we too can bear witness to God’s arriving among us in Jesus..
He says, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.”
And we say, “Who me?”
And he says, “Yes, you.”