By the Rev. Marvin M. Ellison, Ph.D.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Today’s reading from the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel is about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, his announcement that God’s commonwealth has come near, and his invitation to four fishermen to become disciples.
As one commentator notes, “Jesus’ proclamation [of the in-breaking of God’s new order] is not about conveying information; it’s “an efficacious action that creates community and is taken up and continued by that community.” Jesus brings together a particular kind of community, what Larry Rasmussen calls a “contrast-society,” a ragtag assembly of people empowered by the Spirit to live a different way. And early on, this Jesus movement begins to earn a reputation, not always favorable. Not hiding their light, they became publicly known as passionate peacemakers and lovers of justice. Because of their egalitarian commitments – “Neither Jew nor gentile, neither slave nor free, not male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” — early Christians were accused of being subversive of the patriarchal family and the patriarchal state. They were spirited troublemakers.
Flannery O’Connor puts it this way: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” In keeping with that sentiment, Rasmussen wagers that the church’s mandate is to “practice creative deviance on the frontlines.” Now, he admits, that’s not the typical mission statement of very many congregations, and that may be the problem! Practicing deviance means refusing to adopt conventional definitions of people, either of ourselves or of others. Creative means exercising our imaginations to entertain alternative possibilities, stretching beyond the givens. And “on the frontlines” means living an engaged faith, seeking to make a difference in all aspects of life, large and small, at the kitchen table and across the globe.
Following in Jesus’ spirit means living a publicly expressed faith – a faith that befriends the outcast and oppressed and dares to believe that a radically different world and a radically different church are possible. For those who can see, signs are everywhere that God is at work, unsettling the settled, and bringing about a different order. The hungry will be blessed with food, the last shall go to the head of the line, and every tear will be wiped away. Do you not believe? The question the Gospel poses is this: Do we believe this disruption of the status quo, this eruption of God’s upside-down Commonwealth, is good news or bad?
I’m struck by Mark’s straightforward description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus calls, and those who responded did so immediately. “Immediately they left their nets and followed.” To underscore the decisiveness of their response, Mark repeats this call-and-response pattern so that we won’t miss the point. “Immediately he called. . . , and they left their father . . . and followed.” But what was the “good news” that caused Simon, Andrew, James, and John to drop everything and join the Jesus movement, just like that? What propelled them to leave work, family, and their familiar world and take off in an unknown direction? The way Mark describes it, it was like an alarm clock going off, insistently declaring the time and demanding a response.
Recently, I’ve had the unsettling experience of receiving the kind of urgent call that requires an immediate response. The weekend before Thanksgiving, a longtime friend, now retired and living in Los Angeles, telephoned to let me know that her older son, just shy of his 43rd birthday, had died suddenly. That’s not the kind of call you want to make, nor is it the kind of call you want to receive. But without a moment’s hesitation, I knew what I needed to do: cancel plans and fly out to California to be with Mary and her grieving family.
Haven’t you also experienced the kind of call that elicited from you an immediate response? Perhaps shocking news of a loved one’s death, or perhaps happier news, the joy of a child’s birth or the celebration of someone’s achievement. What’s made you drop everything, leave work and even family behind? Something powerful, no doubt; something that likely touched your core.
In Mark’s story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus announces good news, but Mark only tells us this much: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent [or turn around], and believe in the good news.”
At this point, theologian Daniel Maguire warns, we need to exercise great care because “from the very beginning, there has never been only one Christianity.” Wildly divergent versions of the gospel grab hold of people, and not every version is good news, especially not to the poor, the powerless, the captive, or the vulnerable. On the one hand, there has been the Christianity that has enthusiastically blessed wars, justified slavery, and required women’s silence in church and obedience to their husbands, no matter their husbands’ cruelty. On the other hand, there has been the Christianity of peacemakers, of the enslaved who have heard a gospel of freedom, and of women and others whose faith “no bigger than a mustard seed” has allowed them to claim their dignity and insist on safety and self-respect. Which gospel is preached, how the gospel is heard and lived out, has differed throughout the contentious history of the church, so each generation’s challenge is to decide what to believe, whom to trust, and how to reflect the Spirit of God in their lives. What’s the good news that we’re willing to die for — or, better, willing to live for, mind, body, and spirit?
On a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia, my partner Frank and I ended up taking two quite different tours of that lovely, antebellum Southern city, built on cotton in the nineteenth century. On our first tour of historic Savannah, we heard the story of a charming Southern city noted for its beautiful city parks, lovely homes and public buildings, and its many churches, including the church that called Charles Wesley as its senior pastor, who along with his brother John founded the Methodist movement.
On the second tour, a Black heritage tour, we heard a different story, the story of a city built on institutionalized chattel slavery and the exploitation of many to benefit the few. On this tour, we witnessed the underside of Savannah and the misery caused by a community enriched by the slave trade. We visited a hanging tree and in another location saw a whipping tree – with the marks of the lash dug deep into the bark of the Southern oak, where slaves had been beaten who had tried to escape or otherwise had misbehaved according to their white masters. We stopped at a civil rights museum and saw exhibits of Jim-and-Jane Crow segregation, including signs that read “whites only” and “no coloreds allowed.” We passed by a glass case that displayed a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
For me, the most memorable stop on this second tour was at the historic Black church, built by freed African American men and women, who had courageously designated their church building as a stop on the underground railroad, that secret pathway that runaway slaves followed northward to freedom. Escaping slaves were hidden inside the church, in a narrow crawl space underneath the wooden floor of the church’s sanctuary. They remained there until the time came for them to move on. Church members had drilled holes throughout the sanctuary floor, so that their co-conspirators could breathe while they waited for the time they would make their escape and, at last, be able to breathe in the blessed air of freedom.
Let me ask you this: If runaway slaves were tucked away in hiding below the floorboards of this sanctuary, would we be willing to drill holes in the floor so that those in hiding could breathe? If so, and I trust it would be so, what would those in hiding below overhear us saying and doing in this space? What kind of “good news” would they hear in the sermons preached, the hymns sung, and the prayers offered? Would they overhear a gospel of freedom, new life, and hope — or would they hear nothing that would lift their spirits or give them courage?
When all is said and done, being church is about answering Jesus’ call to leave whatever we’re doing and focusing on becoming artisans of freedom — drilling holes wherever they are needed so that others may escape injury, breathe again, and take hope. No matter if our holes are small or large, each hole drilled gives life a chance.
Sister and brothers, our communities are not yet whole, not yet just, not yet fully reflective of the rich diversity of God’s good creation, so you and I are not yet free — but we are rising up, and we mean to stand together in solidarity, come what may.
Yes, all are welcome here, but on one condition: each must be willing to welcome all others as gracefully, as generously as you yourself has been made welcome.
As we continue this sacred work, remember, as Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded his community, that whenever a people insist on their dignity and on the dignity of others, and whenever they stand up for justice, no matter what happens, they can never lose.
Thanks be to the God of freedom, who yearns for us and for all creation to be free.