I’m sure that you’re familiar with the story of the calling of these four disciples. I’m going to talk about it in ways that you may not find familiar, though, because I think the way it’s usually told is very misleading.
The way it’s usually told is that Jesus walks up to these four fishermen he’s never met before – like a vacuum cleaner salesman making a cold call at your home at 9 in the morning – and he invites them to follow him. If that’s not hard enough to swallow, the really astounding thing is that they do it!
They literally drop everything and follow him. Two of them even leave their father behind in their fishing boat. They don’t even say, “Bye, dad, off to be with Jesus.” They just leave. Tough luck, old man. Your boys have gone and enlisted in the salvation army.
Do you buy that? Do you think that’s what really happened? Don’t you find this story, the way it’s usually told, to be so otherworldly and unrealistic that you can hardly give it any credence at all? Don’t you want to dismiss it as just another one of those fantastic Jesusy Bible stories – you know, loaves and fishes and water into wine and walking on water and all that?
So when the preacher then says, “You ought to be like these fishermen and follow Jesus,” don’t you suppress a smirk or a gag and think, “Yeah, right. I really am gonna drop everything and follow Jesus. Spouse and kids and career and hopes and dreams for the future, I’ll chuck it all, just like that, and never look back.”
Are you with me on this? Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re usually expected to interpret this story?
The first thing that’s wrong with it, of course, is that it’s simply not true. It’s not true to our experience, and it’s not true to the Bible story either. You are right to be suspicious of the usual telling.
Jesus does not walk up to four guys he’s never met before and somehow – almost magically, as if by force of his charismatic manner, magnetic personal charm and irresistible divine will – somehow he entices them to walk away from their former lives and follow him. That is just not how it works.
He knows these guys. He already has a relationship with them. They know what he wants, and they are ready to respond. In fact, they’re eager for him to come calling. They’ve already got their bags packed. All they need is the word. “Let’s do it.” “Let’s roll.” “Follow me.”
* * * * *
Let’s back up and tell the story a different way, filling in some blanks with details from other gospel accounts.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer. Jesus hears a voice saying, “You are my Beloved Son, and I’m pleased with you!” It’s a powerful affirmation from God the Father of who Jesus is and what his mission is to be.
But Jesus does not launch his mission immediately after his baptism. First, he spends 40 days in the desert being tested. Then he hangs around the banks of the Jordan, mingling with John’s disciples – and from them he chooses at least two he wants as his own.
John is standing one day with two of his disciples. One is named Andrew. We’re never told the name of the other one. Jesus walks by. John exclaims, “There goes the Lamb of God! He’s the one we’ve been waiting for.”
It’s as if John is telling these two disciples, “You ought to follow him now.” So they do – and the first chance he gets, Andrew runs to tell his brother, “We’ve found the Messiah.” His brother is the fellow we know as Simon Peter. (The story is told in John 1:35-42.)
Andrew and Simon are the Johnson brothers. You may think it odd for me to call them that, but that is precisely how the Bible identifies them. In Matthew 16:17, we’re told that Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjonah.”
Some versions of the Bible translate that as “Simon, son of Jonah.” That’s accurate enough. That’s what the words mean. But it’s misleading. It’s just not right. “Barjonah” is not a description of who Simon is. It’s his surname. It’s his family name. It’s the Aramaic equivalent of “Johnson,” or “Jackson,” or “Johansson.”
The Johnson brothers, Andrew and Simon, and apparently this other fellow who’s never named, are among the first followers of Jesus. As soon as Jesus meets Simon, he gives him a nickname. He calls him Rock. In Aramaic, the word for “rock” is Kephas. In Greek, it’s Petros. From that, in English we get the name Peter.
The name loses a lot in that transliteration. The name “Peter” tells us nothing about the essence of the man, whereas “Rock” potentially tells a lot. Even though Peter fails to live up to his nickname much of the time, the nickname does stick, and Peter does eventually live into it. He becomes a Rock of the early church.
The Johnson brothers are commercial fishermen. We might imagine them as dull fellows who have no higher aspirations than a bigger catch of fish than they ever got before, but whatever else they are, they are spiritual seekers. They are among the disciples of John the Baptizer. The first time we meet them is not long after Jesus has been baptized. It’s possible that they even witnessed Jesus’ baptism without realizing, at the time, what they were seeing.
Now they want to follow Jesus rather than John, and Jesus is willing to accept them as his disciples. But he isn’t quite ready to launch his public ministry, so after awhile the brothers return to what they know best: fishing on the Sea of Galilee.
They are simply marking time. They know that when the time is right, Jesus will fetch them. The time comes when word gets out that John has been put in prison. Jesus moves his home base from Nazareth to the fishing village of Capernaum, and one morning he comes calling.
Peter and Andrew are in their fishing boat not far from shore. They probably have fished all night and are letting down their nets for the last cast of the day. They look up, and there stands Jesus on the shore. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.”
It’s the call they’ve been waiting for. They pull up their nets and row for shore.
Not far away, Jesus encounters two more fishermen, James and John. These are the Zebedee brothers. They’re business partners with the Johnson brothers. (Luke 5:10) We’re never told how Jesus first meets them, but he knows them well enough right off to call them Sons of Thunder. Whether that’s because old man Zebedee is loud, or his sons are, or all three of them, we can’t be sure.
The brothers are sitting in a boat with their dad, doing what fishermen do in their down time, mending their nets. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and they’re gone. We might imagine them saying, “Keep bringing in those fish, Dad. We’re off to bring in people.”
We also might imagine Zebedee feeling abandoned and resentful, but that’s unlikely. Soon, in fact, his wife will join his sons traveling with Jesus, and the income from Zebedee’s fishing business will help support their ministry. We never learn the name of Zebedee’s wife, but she is a loyal follower and companion of Jesus, and she is there when Jesus goes to the cross. (Matthew 27:56).
Retold this way, what does this story suggest about following Jesus?
One thing it suggests, right out of the gate, is that none of us has any business engaging in the stereotypical style of “evangelism” where you grab ’em by the collar and demand “Do you know Jesus?” That’s not evangelism. That’s spiritual abuse. Evangelism must be an extension of relationship. If a call to follow Jesus does not arise from a relationship, it’s most likely an abusive ego trip.
And we’re looking for far more than a stereotyped prayer accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. We’re calling people to new life. They must be allowed to give this serious consideration.
The Johnson and Zebedee brothers understand this already. They know that Jesus is calling them to an adventure that has several dimensions. First, he is calling them to a special relationship with him. He is calling them to discipleship.
A disciple is an apprentice, a learner, a student. Jesus will be their master, and they will follow him. Literally, they will follow his steps and his actions. They will imitate him and learn from him. If they do it right, as an ancient saying goes, they will be covered with the dust of their master. They will follow him so closely that any dust he kicks up will cover them as a mark of their dedication.
They won’t understand it at first, but Jesus also is calling them to a new relationship with God. Through Jesus, they will meet God face to face. Through Jesus, they will learn what God is really like. They will learn that God loves them with a burning, passionate love, and that God yearns for them to respond in kind.
Jesus also calls them to a new vocation. Before, they cast nets for fish. Now, they fish for people. They are evangelists, proclaimers of the Good News of God’s friendship and love. Whatever else they may do in their lives, their primary task now is to live for Jesus.
They will always be disciples, learning from Jesus. But they also are apostles. That is, they are sent out in the name of Jesus to recruit and train other disciples. Though we sometimes try to separate apostleship and discipleship into two entirely different roles, apostolic action is always the logical extension of discipleship. Apostleship always springs from discipleship. At home or abroad, disciples always act to make new disciples.
So when Jesus calls these men to follow him, he’s calling them to a new relationship, new identity and a new vocation. That call extends to us as well. Jesus also calls us to new relationship, new identity, and new vocation. He calls us not only to be his disciples but also his apostles. That means that we are called to not only learn from Jesus but to help recruit and train other disciples.
We don’t have to drop everything to do that. If you think that an apostle is sent out into the mission field, consider that the mission field is probably as close as your back yard. You don’t have to go to Africa or China to find people who don’t know Jesus. All you have to do I look down the street.
And you don’t have to make a career out of it. Jesus calls only a relative few to serve in that way. To most people, Jesus simply says, “Whatever you do, do it for me, and for the glory of God. If you’re an Uber driver, drive for me, and treat your passengers as if they were me. If you provide care for children, care for them in my name, and treat them as if they were me. If you farm, farm for me, and treat the land and the animals as if they were mine. If you’re retired, accept your leisure as God’s gift to you and find some way of using your time to be God’s gift to others.”
That means, too, that we are all evangelists, tellers of the Good News of Jesus. Most of the time, we don’t preach sermons. We preach with our lives. We preach with our actions. We preach with the love we show others.
And when the moment comes that people inquire, “Why are you such a caring person?” we are ready to make our simple testimony. We are prepared to say, “I’m a Christian. I’m a disciple of Jesus. I follow him.” And then tell why you follow hi.
I’ve said that we don’t have to drop everything to follow Jesus, and that’s true. But there is a cost that we must weigh. That’s where we’ll turn next week. We’ll tail Jesus as he goes about proclaiming the Good News of God, while his disciples dog his dust. “Turn your lives around,” he keeps saying, “because I am bringing God’s kingdom right to your door.”
And that’s where it is. Right at your door.
A message delivered February 2, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Matthew 4:12-13, 17-23.