Ready to Follow

Homily for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic

Link to Lectionary Texts

referenced: Mark 1:1-20

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ

I’m convinced that one of the most theologically profound insights on today’s Gospel lesson occurs in the first six minutes of the 1973 movie version of Godspell. Without words…in fact, without anything except the occasional blowing of a shofar horn, the lives of ordinary people are transformed. In the midst of studying, dancing, driving, and working each person is interrupted from their concentrated daily routines by a quick glimpse, a wave hello, a peck on the cheek which interrupts their routine with sudden belonging and familiarity. If we’re paying close attention, we can take in some theatrical context clues interpreting what that experience might have been like. These same people…who we at first think are unsuspecting…see and experience that spark of call and have an epiphany. In their various ways, we can see that their inner light was already shining while they were engaged in the minutiae of life that we observed: enlightening their minds while doing menial work; finding musical joy in a traffic jam; pausing to take in wonder during the daily commute; rejecting forced social identities, embodying inner peace in the midst of impersonal crowds, subtly asserting their right to take up the same spaces as others when socially minimized based on race and gender. They are just ordinary people doing ordinary things. They are not waving their hands and calling attention to their merits or trying to attract Jesus to them.

Ultimately, it is Jesus who sees the extraordinary in their ordinary and who reaches out to connect with them: suddenly, simply, relationally.

In the movie, as in the Gospel lesson, these ordinary people leave what they are doing at that moment of recognition and do one thing: they follow. In that split second, their ready hearts begin to recognize the Prince of Peace and they turn and step in the direction of that light…admittedly, in the movie, first pausing for baptism-by fountain. But you get the point.

I think it’s important to point out here that there is a major distinction being drawn between our leader-focused secular world, and the follower-focused life into which Jesus invites us. In social terms, following seems like a passive activity. I don’t think for one minute that the disciples would tell it that way. I invite us to consider that in the counter-cultural reversal of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus completely elevates the role of follower. So, let’s follow along.

In Mark’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus after two defining events in his early ministry. Jesus first appears in the narrative at his baptism by his cousin John, who has been preaching a baptism of repentance. Jesus emerges from the water after this symbolic submission and at that moment, his divine identity as Son is revealed. Immediately afterwards, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. So it is that Mark’s Gospel first reveals Jesus, who we like to think of as a leader, as an active and obedient follower to the urgency of call initiated by Father and Spirit.

In today’s text, Jesus emerges from the wilderness and is immediately confronted by the injustice of the world. His cousin John, who paved the path for him, was now unjustly imprisoned. In the space of this short passage of scripture, Mark situates Jesus’ ministry as one who has followed so that he can now lead. Jesus takes up the forcibly abandoned evangelism of his zealous cousin, proclaiming the good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This entire passage is a narrative of divine following: knowing who you are and whose you are and acting in that knowledge.

Jesus begins the leadership of his earthly ministry filled with the knowledge of his identity in God, confronting injustice of the world, and following the divine call on his life.

As Jesus goes along the sea of Galilee, he encounters people fully engaged in the work of their own lives. He encounters Simon and Andrew who have learned to cast their nets upon waters where others see nothing, but they can see the movement of fish beneath. He encounters James and John whose labors were spent repairing, restoring and strengthening the nets essential to their trade. Even in these short fragments of scripture we read today, perhaps we can imagine the fullness of Jesus’ vision to see not only their outward actions, but the preparation of their hearts and minds to see beyond the surface and to mend that which the cares and occupations of this life have broken.

Jesus calls them when they are doing exactly what they ordinarily do. They weren’t waving their hands or yelling, “pick me!” and they weren’t even necessarily the brightest, fastest, or most popular people. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer expounds upon in the Cost of Discipleship, it is Jesus who initiates every call, and Jesus who invites and compels us to action of the heart. We participate in a divine purpose beyond our human awareness: fishers of fish will be made to be fishers of people. Bonhoeffer goes a step further to remind us that at the very moment we think we must exert personal influence into that purpose, or when we fall into the trap of thinking how important and essential our individual leadership is, it ceases to be God’s call and simply becomes our own.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks those who will eventually come to be known as his Disciples to do one thing, and one thing only: follow me. Prompted by a call held out to them in relationship…and I would also presume a nudging of Spirit…they took the route of action and followed. Jesus’ leading required their following. Following was the essence of their call.

So, back to ordinary us. Like the characters in Godspell, we are also immersed in a world of traffic jams, identity crises, menial work, and everyday social injustices. In relationship, we have all been invited to take on a new identity as members of the Body of Christ. We are seen, recognized, and called as exactly who we are.

Imagine simply following. Not trying to figure out the right thing, the logical thing, or running the pro/con list of which things will benefit us most on the world’s terms. Imagine just doing our thing with the God-given strengths and skills we have identified and nurtured. Imagine engaging with a full and open heart the work that is given you to do, whether that’s because you’re good at it, or you like it, or because you’ve inherited the job, or because it’s necessary. Imagine that Jesus who loves you sees you doing your thing and envisions you in the realm of grace, justice and truth working to further the kingdom. Imagine the moment that you catch a glimpse of Jesus and you realize Jesus sees you…really sees you. Imagine following. Nothing more. Just following. Imagine the rest unfolds from there, step by step. Imagine this happens not because you have to figure it out on your own but simply because you follow and learn as you go. Simon Peter and Andrew do become fishers of people. James and John each learn to weave the nets of community. Everyone has a role. While the journeys of following can turn out to be quite adventurous, those journeys are made by walking in relationship, step by step.

“Follow me.” That’s our invitation. Not to plan the journey or compare our merits or wonder what the whole narrative will turn out to be. Our invitation is simply to follow. To do our thing, transformed by God’s vision. Following looks like open-hearted listening, which we do in prayer. It means open-minded reading and studying the Word, which we do in our scriptures and the holy writings inspired by them. It means paying attention to Who we are really following…as Bishop Curry is fond of saying, “if it isn’t about Love, it isn’t about Jesus.” It means using our skills and strengths in service to other followers and those we encounter, as we encounter them along the journey. It means that what we think or hope or wish that we were called to do is less important than what God unfolds for us to do in the journey of our followership. It means walking day by day and step by step with Jesus who calls us, and sees us, and continues to lead us through the power of the Holy Spirit into the still unfolding reign of Christ in this world in which we live, and to which we are invited to participate. In this space of our ordinary, extraordinary lives, Jesus calls us to join in this world-changing, life altering mission and ministry.

Jesus invites us, “Follow me.”

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ

Amen.

Image from detail of mosaic at Washington National Cathedral (photo by author)

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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