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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/22/2012

The image you get from this gospel text today is of those first disciples dropping everything to follow Jesus, a complete break from what they had been doing.  Last week there was some hesitancy on the part of Nathanael, but there’s no hesitancy today; today Simon and Andrew immediately leave their fishing nets behind, James and John leave their nets and their father behind essentially with no idea of what the future might hold, just the invitation to follow Jesus. 

I remember the first year I was at seminary my parents came to visit and went to one of the worship services where this was the gospel, and afterwards my father said, “That’s kind of what you did.”  Even then I knew that wasn’t quite true.  I had left some things behind, that was true, and there were plenty of unknowns but still there was the assurance that the successful completion of seminary would mean a salary and benefits and a pension, a means of living and keeping food on the table and maybe even enough left over to spend some of it foolishly.  For me it was a pretty radical change, but it still wasn’t quite the same as what the disciples appeared to do.

All of which can make it hard for us to identify with these call stories because while we might admire the disciples for the conviction of their following, few of us would actually do what they did.  In my mind the ones who come closest are people like the monks up at the Jampot.  The two who started things up there did up and leave their previous lives not having any assurance that they could successfully establish a monastery.  It was a leap of faith and I admire their faith and commitment but on the other hand, I know I couldn’t have done something like that; too much of a risk for one thing plus the fact that most people aren’t called to be monks nor should they be.  We are willing to follow though, but for the most part we’d prefer to follow at a distance, quite a distance sometimes.

In Monday Bible Study we just started a discussion based on a book I have called “Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus.”  Today’s text isn’t one of those hard sayings mentioned in the book, but as I think about it, it could be.  The repentance that’s talked about in this text isn’t just feeling bad about your sins, it’s a call to return to the Lord, a call to embrace a different way of life.  Jesus was probably talking about repentance in much the way that the biblical prophets talked about returning to obedient observance of the law of the Old Testament, especially the social responsibilities regarding care for the poor.  For us repentance would be about observing the teachings of Jesus more closely, teachings which echo but also expand those Old Testament teachings.  Either way it’s repentance that we are not likely to embrace, at least not in the radical way that is called for, no matter how many sermons we hear about it.  Again, we’ll follow, but we’ll follow at a distance.

So there probably isn’t much point in me giving you a guilt inducing pep talk on being better disciples, not much point in telling you all the things you should be doing if you really want to follow Jesus, if you really want to be good disciples.  You would either just tune me out or maybe it would just make you and me feel guilty for awhile but we’d be over it by the end of church.  So rather than do that, let me talk about how to be bad disciples instead.

The lectionary does us a favor today as in the first lesson it gives us the classic story of being a bad disciple with the story of Jonah.  It’s a story that everyone knows to some extent, and it is just a story; I kind of feel sorry for those who spend time trying to convince themselves that this really happened when it is quite clearly something of a tall tale like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill and would have been recognized as such from the beginning; but it is a great story and everyone at least knows the getting swallowed by a whale part of it.  The reason Jonah gets swallowed though is because he was a bad disciple. 

The Lord had commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach to the Ninevites, calling them to repent but he didn’t want to go because he didn’t like them. He didn’t want them to repent, he wanted them to be punished so he ignored the call of the Lord and instead got on a boat going in the other direction.  A storm kicked up, threatening to sink the boat.  Jonah knew it was his fault so, to his credit, he invited the crew to throw him overboard which with only a little hesitation, they were happy to do.  Right away the storm calmed down and Jonah got swallowed.

The Lord wasn’t done with Jonah though (remember those new beginnings I talk about all the time?), so he has the whale vomit Jonah up onto dry land and the Lord issues the call to go to Nineveh again.  This time Jonah goes, walks a little way into the city and delivers the most pathetic sermon ever given and lo and behold those nasty Ninevites repent in sackcloth and ashes.  Jonah pouts because he was really hoping the city would be destroyed. 

So what’s the moral of the story?  If it’s a tall tale there must be a moral.  How about, it’s OK to be a bad disciple (we were talking about being called to be disciples) because even with bad disciples God can accomplish things?  That would get us off the hook regarding the radical nature of Jesus’ call.  We can follow at a distance and God will still get things done, perfect.  There is some truth to that; God can make use of our meager, Jonah-like efforts, but we perhaps want to be careful about the “it’s OK to be a bad disciple” part of the moral.  Just because God can make use of bad discipleship doesn’t mean it’s OK.

Going back to the gospel now, among those Jesus called, were there any bad disciples?  We all know about Judas of course, but let’s separate him from the group for a moment and consider the rest of them.  There’s a book I’m currently reading that makes an interesting point.  The tradition clearly remembers a group of 12 close disciples being around Jesus; the names of the 12 aren’t exactly the same in each of the gospels but all of them have 12 so we can probably take that to the bank. 

The evidence though, would indicate that the majority of them were relatively insignificant; they are remembered as names and that’s about it.  Peter gets a lot of ink, he was clearly remembered as the leader of the group, James and John get mentioned as being present at the Transfiguration and a few other times, a few get mentioned in call stories, in John’s gospel Thomas is remembered for his doubt, but that’s about it.  How much do you know about any of the others?  How many could you name?  Legends grew up around some of them but nothing in the Bible.  In the resurrection accounts for example, the women are more prominent than the 12.

The indication would be that most of them didn’t have a major impact.  Does that mean they were disciples who didn’t follow very closely, who didn’t fully embrace the radical nature of Jesus’ call?  We don’t really know, but the fact that we’re here today indicates that the small group around Jesus was doing something in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Paul eventually becomes the mover and shaker behind early Christianity but that was a few years later and in those intervening years it had to be more than one or two disciples who were worshiping and spreading the word about Jesus.  It may just be that those we don’t know much about were serving more quietly having accepted calls in the Upper Peninsula of Galilee or maybe even more quietly as faithful church workers, always there behind the scenes doing what needs to be done in support of those who are remembered as being more prominent.  I think I know a lot of people like that.

So what is the moral of the story?  The nature of Jesus’ call is radical and demanding, you can’t get around that.  It’s a call for repentance that is a turning from other patterns of behavior that we might find very comfortable and enjoyable.  It does ask us to look closely and seriously at our lives.  It’s a call though, that Jesus had to know had more than one correct response.  There are incorrect responses, Jonah gives us that; you can’t head in the opposite direction.  On the other hand, if everyone dropped their nets and left them behind, there would be no fish to eat and that wouldn’t be good either.

Some have to follow at more of a distance and the challenge is to figure out how to do that while embracing Jesus’ core teachings on love of the neighbor and forgiveness.  For Jesus those two things aren’t negotiable.  Following at a distance though, with our eyes on Jesus, secure in his grace, the distance gets smaller, we get closer to him, and we do see that even from a distance Jesus can make use of our sometimes Jonah-like efforts.  Even from a distance, we can be good disciples.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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