Casting wide the net of mercy

File:A fisherman casting a net neat Kozhikode Beach.jpgA reflection on the call of Jesus’ disciples from Sunday, January 21, 2018 (the Third Sunday after Epiphany)

Mark 1:14-20: 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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Before we begin this morning, I want to make two comments about the text. First, the text begins “Now after John was arrested.” The word that is translated ‘arrested’ here means to be betrayed or handed over. It is the word used of the betrayal and capture of Jesus. When we hear the word ‘arrested’ we think of a police force and a judicial process, but that’s not the world of the first century. ‘Seized’ is probably a better word. And the reason this matters is that here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is the shadow of the cross.

Second, I want to remind you that the phrase “repent and believe” is the exact same phrase used when the Roman General defeated Josephus when he was part of the Judean rebellion that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce. As a member of the upper class, Josephus was given the choice to change sides and show allegiance to Rome. Jesus comes announcing the reign of God and calling us to change sides and show allegiance to the reign of God. These are not religious words about regret and moral regeneration; they are words about the fundamental commitment of our lives.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The 16th chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a brutal prophetic word. God tells Jeremiah that he is not to take a wife or have children as a sign to the people of his day that a terrible judgment is coming upon the nation, a destruction so fierce that the bodies of children and their parents will lie unburied and unwept. They will become food for the buzzards and wild dogs.

Jeremiah is not to attend any funeral, or console any grieving parent, because no one shall lament those who perish in God’s coming judgment. Jeremiah is not to attend any wedding or celebration because the sound of joy is about to be banished from the land. Indeed, God is sending for a horde of fishermen and hunters to search every cave and cove to haul this people from every hiding place to their destruction.

It is a dark and devastating word from God.

What’s interesting about this Biblical text, however, is that somewhere along the line – either when the words of Jeremiah were being written down or when they were being copied and passed on to the next generation – someone along the way felt compelled to pluck two verses of hope from somewhere else in Jeremiah’s preaching and set these words into this declaration that God was sending out fishermen with nets to gather the people for judgment.

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (Jeremiah 16:14-15 // Jeremiah 23:7-8)

By setting this passage inside the other, the net of judgment becomes ultimately a net of grace.

God’s purpose for the nation does not end with their being scattered from the land where they were supposed to do justice, to show faithfulness to God and to one another, to care for the poor and weak – a faithfulness they failed to show. But God’s purpose ends with the scattered people being gathered.

There are many words of woe in the Biblical text, many words of warning about what will happen if we fail to live God’s justice and mercy. But the prophets do not stop there. It is easy to preach disaster. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when a society fails its most fundamental obligation to care for one another and the earth upon which we live. But God never stops with judgment. God always pushes on to reconciliation, to restoration, to hope. One of the most fundamental elements of the Biblical story is that when all hope for the future is lost – God gives us a future.

Abraham and Sarah have no child. He is 100 and she is 90. The promise of descendants seems at an end. But God is not finished with Abraham or with the world he has promised to save through Abraham’s line.

At the time of Noah, the whole earth has become “corrupt in God’s sight…and filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:12), that “every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually”! (Genesis 6:5RSV) But God is not done with his creation. He grants it a new birth.

Israel is in bondage in Egypt. They have been there for 430 years! (Remember, we are less than 250 years from the declaration of independence.) Pharaoh no longer remembers how Joseph saved the country. Pharaoh fears all these foreigners and instructs the midwives that every male child is to be killed at childbirth – and, when that fails, he issues an edict that every male child should be thrown into the Nile. But God saves a little child named Moses as he is being carried down the river out to sea.

When Moses leads the people out of Egypt, they become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army and all seems lost – there is no hope – but during the night a wind blows and creates a path through the sea.

The people are without water in the desert, but God brings forth a river of water from the rock.

The people are without food and want to go back to Egypt and their slavery, but in the morning there is manna upon the ground.

Jerusalem is destroyed and the people scattered throughout the world. Many are taken as prisoners to Babylon. But fifty years later, Cyrus overthrows Babylon and lets all its captured people go home. And Jerusalem is rebuilt.

God is a god of mercy. God is a god who works reconciliation and restoration. God is a god who creates a future. God is a god who opens the grave.

So the editor of Jeremiah can’t let those words of judgment stand unanswered. And he reminds us that God’s purpose is to gather the scattered. The nets of judgment become nets of grace.

When Jesus walks along the shore of Galilee and sees those fishermen working there, he sees nets of grace. And he calls those fishermen to the work of gathering all creation into the arms of God.

It’s important we understand this. Our defining task as a Christian community is to gather all creation into the arms of God. The risen Jesus will breathe his Spirit on his followers and say As the father sent me, I sent you.” The last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples. Students. Followers. Practitioners. Citizens of the dawning age. Participants in the new creation.

Our tendency is to hear those words in a vaguely institutional sense of making new church members – or at least new Christians. But the vision is of a world brought under the reign of God’s spirit. The vision is a world pulled back from bondage into freedom, from death into life. The vision is a world gathered in the nets of mercy.

Our defining task as a Christian community, as followers of Jesus, is to gather all creation in the nets of mercy.

Now there are some things about this story that I want to be sure we also hear. The text says Jesus is walking along the shore. Jesus is walking on the boundary between the land and the sea. Boundaries are places of spiritual importance in the world of the scripture. All the conversation about clean and unclean in the Bible is about boundaries. What are the boundaries between what is holy and what is not holy?

I don’t have time to go into detail on this, so I hope you will trust me. But the shore is a boundary between the land – where we are safe – and the sea – where there is danger. When God began to create, the sea was a chaos and God set boundaries to the water. He created the dome of heaven to divide the waters above from the waters below, and he divided the sea to allow dry land to appear. He set boundaries that the sea could not cross (cf. Jeremiah 5:22). When Jesus stills the storm or walks on the sea, he is commanding the sea as God commanded the primordial chaos. When Jesus casts the demons out of the man in Gerasa, the demons go into the pigs and what do the pigs do? They run into the sea. The depths of the sea is the realm of chaos and darkness, the realm of evil spirits.

When Jesus walks along the shoreline and calls his followers to be fishers of people, part of the imagery rattling around in the background is the sea as a realm of chaos and evil. We are being called to gather humanity out from the realm of bondage into the realm of freedom. We are being called to cast wide the nets of God’s mercy, to gather the world out from darkness into light, from despair into hope, from death into life.

The second thing I want you to remember is that something is lost when we read this story clipped from the larger narrative. Yes, this is a great story on its own. Yes, it is a classic Sunday school story. But this story is still at the beginning of the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. And, as we talked about last week, Mark’s gospel is filled with intensity.

‘Immediately’, it says, they left their nets. (v. 18) ‘Immediately’ Jesus called them (v. 20). The word ‘immediately’ is used twelve times by Mark in this first chapter alone – that averages better than one in every fourth verse. It will get used thirty more times in this short little Gospel. The story Mark tells is full of urgency. It begins with a bang.

Jesus’ summons of followers is part of this incredible dynamic power of Jesus. He is the mighty one who will drench the world in the Spirit of God. He is the one for whom the heavens are torn open. He is the one on whom the Spirit descends. He is the one of whom God will say, “This is my Son, the beloved.” This is the one who will be immediately tested by Satan and be waited on by angels. This is the one who declares that the time has come; God’s reign is begun. He summons people to come and they leave everything to follow him. Next Sunday we will hear how demons cry out and immediately he silences them. We will hear how the sick are brought to him and he heals them. In the Sundays to come we will hear how he reaches out and touches a leper and renders him clean, and how he will announce a crippled man to be forgiven and then tell him to take up his mat and walk.

This story about Peter, Andrew, James and John is not really a story about us; it is a story about Jesus. We are called to discipleship. We are called to follow. We are called to cast wide the nets of mercy. But the story is not about us. It is about Jesus who walks fearlessly on the boundary between earth and sea, between heaven and hell, between death and life to rescue the world.

This is the Jesus who encounters us in the waters of the font. This is the Jesus who embraces us in his mercy and feeds us at his table. This is the Jesus who speaks to us words of life and breathes his Spirit upon us. This is the Jesus who commissions us as his agents and summons us to cast wide the net of mercy.

In a world so deeply entangled in passions and desires and hates and hostilities, in a world so deeply fractured as our own, in a world where judgment looms over our brokenness and sin, God is casting his net of mercy. He bids us follow.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_fisherman_casting_a_net_neat_Kozhikode_Beach.jpg By Aswin Krishna Poyil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons