In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus calls two sets of brothers to follow him. Peter and Andrew are in the middle of their moneymaking, casting their nets for fish. James and John are also at the office, mending their nets with their father, presumably the head of the family business. It’s likely that the sets of brothers knew each other and were perhaps rivals in the fishing industry. In any case, they all have the same immediate reaction to Jesus’ call—they drop what they are doing: mid-cast and mid-mend—and follow him.
This decision must have been tough on their families. It’s clear from this passage that James and John leave their father Zebedee in the lurch. After they climb out of the boat, it is just the Old Man and the Sea. Elsewhere we read that Peter is a family man, for he has a mother-in-law. Fishing for men may be preferable, but it doesn’t put bread on the table like fishing for fish does. The immediate cost of following Jesus for these brothers is both fiscal and relational. Money and family: Jesus, as usual, isn’t messing around.
What was so compelling about the man from Nazareth? It sure wasn’t Nazareth, which by all accounts was a sorry place to be from. So it had to be the man, himself. What was it about Jesus that caused this instant reaction in these men at work? And what is it about him now that still attracts people from all over the globe?
The Pew Research Foundation says that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third of the estimated global population of 6.9 billion. Christians are also geographically widespread—so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity. The number of Christians around the world has nearly quadrupled in the last 100 years, from about 600 million in 1910 to more than 2 billion today.
It all centers around the man himself. Two billion followers, tracing back through the intervening millennia to the man’s first call and the man’s first responders: Peter and Andrew, James and John who started their workday with the normal hopes for profit and ease of labor, but ended their day at the beginning of a very wild ride. But, again, the question: why? What was so compelling about Jesus of Nazareth?
Obviously, we can’t know what the brothers were thinking in the moment. There are any number of plausible options. Maybe the fishing had been bad for years and Peter and Andrew were contemplating a new gig. Maybe Zebedee was an overbearing father who shut down any suggestions for improvement from his sons. Perhaps following Jesus was preferable to forcing their father to retire. Clearly, though, this is reading dangerously between the lines.
It’s also true that the brothers couldn’t know what we know now about the man himself. When Jesus calls you and me, we are working off of a whole different set of facts and figures. Yes, He is not here in the flesh as He was to the brothers, but we do have the advantage of knowing the story of His life… and death…and…resurrection. And what about him would compel you and me to follow Him today?
Jesus had countless compelling qualities, but I’m going to name just two. First and foremost, Jesus of Nazareth was known as a “friend of sinners.” He was called this both by his friends and his enemies. His enemies, in an attempt to besmirch his character and disprove his authenticity as a man of God. Religion was in place to place-mark: to delineate between the sacred and profane, the worthy and the unworthy, the saints and the sinners.
Into this religious set-up, Jesus came with a calling card that said, “everything outside a person is clean.” There are no place-markers. He routinely hung with the hoodlums and had a reputation as a big eater and man who could hold his liquor. This really bothered the people in charge of religion.
But to the people who had been placed-marked outside of the religious circle, Jesus, the friend of sinners, was a friend. They lifted their tankards and toasted him, singing, “What a Friend we have in Jesus!” “What if God was one of us?” they asked, in the words of the Joan Osborne song. “Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus, trying to find his way home?”
Well, we have no reliable information about Jesus’ personal tidiness, but we do know that “birds have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head.” He had no home he was trying to find his way to. Maybe that’s why He was so comfortable sitting around someone else’s table, listening to both the woes and the jokes of everyday sinners. He made certain we knew that God was one of us. He was the Friend of Sinners. Who wouldn’t want to be around such a fun-loving, accepting guy? He’s the one you’ve been waiting for. “I’m just waiting on a Friend.”
What else was compelling about the man from Nazareth? In addition to being the Friend of Sinners, he was no scam artist. You could trust him to tell the truth, to give it to you straight. He wasn’t a flatterer or a fop. He had no interest in buttering you up. And, there was no use in pretending around him, because he could see right into the very bottom of your heart. And he didn’t mince his words about what he found there.
Just as one side of his calling card said, “everything outside a person is clean,” the flipside said that it is what’s inside a person that causes problems. Lust, anger, envy, greed and pride. And He doesn’t say these things to you in an accusatory way. He’s just sayin’. It is what it is and it’s way better to call a thing what it is, rather than walk around like a big phony.
Why is this compelling? Why would you want to follow such a soothsayer? Anyone who has been forced out of a hidden secret, no matter how painful the exposure, knows that having no secrets is way better than standing guard day in and day out over your dark parts. When Jesus says, as he does in this morning’s gospel, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he’s saying it’s safe to open your heart’s cellar door and let the dark secrets out into the light. You see that He’s still your friend once you do, because He’s the Friend of Sinners. And, honestly, you can breathe a whole lot easier in the outside air.
In his book, The Useful Sinner, David Hawkins chronicles the experience of the discovery of his dark secret—his extramarital affair.
“My fear of exposure was constant. Every time that Louisa [his wife] called or I was with the husband my anxiety lurched to a higher level. My intellect knew it was a matter of time before the eruption of truth. The rest of me struggled furiously between the minute hope of escape and the growing knowledge that the pressure had reached the point where I was damaging my body and mind. I knew I could not go on.”
David finally confessed to his wife and asked her what she wanted him to do. “After a brief interrogation, Louisa said she did not want me to leave. She asked me to kneel and pray with her. I do not remember the words she spoke. I only recall a clear sensation that a long fall into blackness had been arrested.”
Maybe your own secrets are more prosaic than an affair. And then again, maybe not. In any case, meeting Jesus is the moment when a long fall into blackness is arrested. That sounds like an apt description of the moment He calls you, the moment you get out of the boat leaving riches and relatives behind. Nothing else matters—you’ve just got to be with the man who calls you to come and follow him.
And you do follow him because He is a man who tells you the truth about yourself and loves you anyway.
The man from Nazareth fell into blackness himself. The Friend of Sinners took it all the way and became sin that we might become righteous. Maybe Peter, Andrew, James and John could intuit this in his voice that day on the water. Or maybe it was the way he looked at them with the “look of love.” However that may be, they began the long train of people compelled by Jesus, a train that has chugged through the centuries, making yet another stop at the baptismal font today.
- Matthew 4