Whenever we hear about the fishermen, perhaps the biggest question always seems to be why? Why do they go? It makes no sense their leaving others who depended upon their skill and strength; who depended on a livelihood. They walk away from houses and from being bosses, becoming uprooted, with little idea what will come next. They go from the known to the unpredictable. It’s a total mind shift. And really, what would we think if we were out in a boat and on the shore was a man yelling “Follow me”? It’s all a little unsettling. “Follow you- who are you? Where are you going and what do you mean? It’s true Jesus was already in town proclaiming the good news, so maybe they recognized him, but it still seems like a radical thing happened. Yeah, he was a rabbi, people should want to learn from, but students asked the rabbi to follow him. No self-respecting rabbi went fishing for students. Besides, what’s the big hurry? “Follow you, as in NOW? Can’t you see we’re a little busy here?” Way too many questions to justify their immediate response to follow him. It would have to be something really compelling.
Then I think about what “following” means today. The hippest of people talk about who they follow on Twitter, seeing if others do too. Comparing how many people follow them. The funny thing about following someone on Twitter is that it’s about little random bursts of information followed by periods of time where you’re totally disconnected and free to do whatever else you want. Before all that, in another age, people used to follow shows on TV or before that even, on radio. We’d set aside everything at the appointed time to make sure we caught up with the latest, and couldn’t wait to see our friends and analyze it. When’s the last time that happened about something at church? Anyway, no matter which of these media speaks to you, or some other interest, it’s always about a world divided between followers like us and everyone else. We follow without many questions. Yet our devoted following of these crazes comes and goes. We can quickly decide to tune out or move on. And you know, even when it’s entertaining or riveting, none of it is really life altering. Yet we put everything on hold and call it important. It’s amazing how we’ll follow and let our lives be shaped by what isn’t life altering.
How does this shape how we follow Jesus? Is our cultural approach the filter through which we live out our connection to God? We are more likely to speak about being members of a congregation, than to say we are the followers of Jesus here. We have programs and fellow members we’re connected to. But as things and people come and go we move on. And we can decide on any given day, whether we come and connect, based upon balancing our other options. Even joining a congregation can seem like a singular event. If we look at today’s gospel from the perspective of our decision making and evaluate why the disciples responded as they did, we stay stuck in our world view. It isn’t really life altering. It has very little to do with Jesus at all or with what would compel us to walk away and into a different life led by Christ.
Our gospel opens with Jesus telling others to walk away- to repent from the world’s view and to believe in something new- the good news he brings. Then he demonstrates this by choosing people against popular expectation, and telling them to follow. He doesn’t ask if it’s OK today, or if they mind, or if they want to. He compels them not only to walk away from something but to walk into a sudden and new reality. That must have been powerful- An amazing power to stand in the presence of. It must have been enough to answer all of the “why” questions. When we say we believe in this Jesus Christ, and follow, do we grasp that kind of power? Can we sense a presence of “God drawn near” so compelling that whatever thoughts we have about what we’re leaving are eclipsed by who we’re turning to? In this season of Epiphany this is a revelation of Jesus to contemplate-a revelation of presence and power. The same power that ripped open the heavens and will go on to heal and to redeem. Turning toward and believing in that power and in this God is what we really should be thinking about.
In the face of our world, this kind of following is still radical. And it won’t be enough to respond one day and never think about it again. Truly following where Jesus leads takes more. It’s not about picking up and putting down being connected to God, or even a church, or picking and choosing whether we think people are in our group or not. If we really follow where Jesus leads this is exactly the life view that gets altered. We’ll be told to throw the net out wide. When we look at what Christ's net catches, it will be full of life, but will also be heavy and unwieldy and unpredictable. it will get torn and need mending. There will be risks and costs. We won’t always see the fruits of the labor. And there will be days we’ll feel like we’d rather cut bait than keep fishing. But still this is where Jesus is calling. To follow Jesus and to keep following as Jesus leads us to replacing our instinct with God’s vision. To believe and to keep on believing, that the power of God in Christ is bringing forth a new world. To be constantly connected.
Maybe that’s why what Jesus said to them and to us isn’t just “follow me,” it’s more like “stick with me. Don’t let me out of your sight. Focus all your life on me. Because again and again you’ll struggle with turning away from all that would distract you.” It’s the exact opposite of intermittent, random and free to do whatever else you want. To stay focused in this following to which God calls us we must continually journey with Christ in sight. In a total connection that shapes everything else we do. God chooses this connection with us, saying “Follow me-Focus it all on me. It will change you and it will change everything.”