Emmanuel Addo, Javon Dow and Eva Hendrix-Shovlin have made a commitment of their time to serve this congregation as ruling elders for the next three years. It is not a light commitment. This morning each of them will promise to use their gifts and abilities to serve Jesus Christ through their leadership and their example. Becoming a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church is an honor and it is a proclamation of trust in and respect for your congregation. Emmanuel, Javon and Eva: you may have thought that you became a ruling elder because of a phone call from someone on our nominating committee, but in actuality, it was the Holy Spirit making a claim on your life. I wonder if becoming a ruling elder is anything like the reorientation to life that the first disciples experienced?
These guys were fishermen. We can likely assume that their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers were fishermen. Fishing was the family business. They would have had pride in their work, in the service they provided for their community. And fishing kept food on the table! Fishing was not just enjoying the quiet of being out on the lake communing with nature. Fishing as a livelihood was caring for their boats and mending their nets, repairing tools, and cleaning off algae. It included the careful work of preparation and follow up as well as the physical labor of throwing out nets into the water and hauling fish into shore.
Two pairs of fishermen brothers are the first disciples to be called to follow Jesus: Simon, who was later called Peter, and Andrew; James and John. There had not been much fanfare yet about this Jesus guy. The crowds had not started following him around to seek healing or to listen to his life-altering teaching. The brothers were not agreeing to follow him because they had already heard of his ministry. So, what was it then? What attracted them to say, “Yes, I will follow you, Jesus”?
Jesus had just finished a time of temptation in the wilderness. Could he have had an aura about him of deep understanding of the human condition that grew out of his experience? Was it something in his voice or his demeanor? Or was it simply God’s Holy Spirit which moved these four men to drop their livelihoods, say goodbye to their families and totally re-orient their life’s work and purpose? According to Mark, it was a quick decision. It was not that they said to Jesus: “Wow, thanks for the offer. Let me pray about it and talk with my family and get back to you.” It was a quick decision that had long term consequences. That is often the way it is. We make decisions in an instant, as a response to some invitation or to some action on the part of others, and we either are glad we responded the way we did or we are not. I wonder how many of the people in the mob that stormed the capitol building this week will look back and be satisfied with that decision? I am sure some will. But I also imagine that some will say to themselves, “What was I thinking?”
These brothers might have wondered the same thing as their relationship with Jesus developed over time and their commitment to discipleship deepened. What were we thinking? Many times, they were clueless, not really understanding Jesus’ point, and they were definitely not fully aware of the direction they were all headed—to Jerusalem and to the angry voices of a mob demanding Jesus’ death based on false claims of sedition. Mark has given us a clue right here at the beginning—John has already been killed for his message of change, for speaking the truth to Herod about his adulterous marriage. We are informed from the get-go that this is dangerous work, that proclaiming this good news about the kingdom of God can create animosity and even violence. John was beheaded for his message. Jesus is beginning a ministry that will turn some against him. And he is asking these four brothers to jump on the bandwagon, to join him, and to become fishers of people.
One scholar points out that a better translation of Jesus’ invitation to the fishermen is: “I’ll show you how to become fishers of people,” instead of “I’ll show you how to fish for people.” You see, in Jesus’ mind, disciples are fishers of people, with the responsibility of drawing others in toward Jesus one step at a time. Disciples will be watching Jesus, listening to Jesus, learning from Jesus. This will place them on the track toward becoming fishers of people. It is a process, not an immediate ability. It is not one more thing to add to their calendars. It is long term, life-shaping work. It will take some time for them to absorb this life-altering message. Each one will likely respond to it depending on their own personality, out of their own perspective of themselves and of their surrounding community. It is important not to lump them all into the same basket, just as it is important not to lump all of us in the same basket. Each of us is on our own, different, path toward becoming fishers of people—for indeed we are disciples who watch Jesus, listen to Jesus and learn from Jesus. It will take time for these fishermen to be transformed into those who are able to fish for people, to share this good news with their own words and their own actions. So too it is a process for us.
Jesus says that it is now time to repent and believe the good news. Repentance means an about face, a re-orientation of life goals and purposes. It means changing our vocabulary, our attitudes, our actions, our priorities, and our time commitments. It means when your congregation asks you to share your gifts as an elder or a musician or a teacher or a treasurer or a member of a ministry team, you seriously consider serving Christ and your church family in that way. It means you ask yourself and you ask God, “Is this the time in my life to share my gifts in this way?” It means making a commitment of your time and energy. It means working alongside others in our church family, learning from one another and supporting one another.
The fishermen step up to the challenge. Simon, Andrew, James and John make the commitment. They leave everything behind and follow Jesus. We are inspired by their commitment. And often we commiserate with Zebedee, the father of James and John. It seems they have left him in the lurch, abandoning the family business, making it necessary for Zebedee to replace two fishermen on his team. Or could we think of Zebedee as reacting with pride, recognizing that he raised his sons to follow their hearts, to decide for themselves based on the opportunities that come their way, and to use their gifts for God? Maybe he watched them go off with Jesus with a smile on his face, saying to those within earshot: “There go my sons, I trust them to know that this is the right thing to do.”
As our new elders answer the questions of ordination this morning, I encourage you to listen closely. To which of the questions can you answer yes? To which of the questions do you want to work toward being able to say yes? When I was going over the questions with our new elders during their training, I was convicted about not ensuring that our church leaders are familiar enough with our Book of Confessions. I have decided to take a portion of at least one of our Confessions to use as our Continuing Education at each session meeting this year. We all can learn better ways to be guided by the words of our forebears in the faith as we seek to become fishers of people.
Making a commitment to follow Jesus, to become a fisher of people, will look different for different people. The parts that are the same are willingness, a sense of joy in serving, and being claimed by the Holy Spirit to share your gifts and your time. May it be so.