At the Master’s feet - Week 1: Follow and Listen to the Master
If we want to mine the gospels for all that they have for us:
Firstly, when possible it’s a good idea to read the parallel accounts of the same story in each of the Gospels (usually the so called synoptic gospels, Matt, Mark, Luke) as this cross-reading often provides a wealth of detail that when pulled together paints a more vivid picture of the event in question. As always the perspective of several people on the same event wil lead to a slightly different telling with different emphasis and aims, but it is for this reason that the exercise is so worthwhile.
So why not read Luke 5:1-11 and Mark 1:16-20 to start with, noting how the picture that emerges is more full than if we’d read just one gospel.
Secondly it’s a good idea to remember that Jesus was not into dualism – i.e the (predominantly Greek) thinking that Material = Bad, Spiritual = good.
This is important as very often this sort of distinction is assumed when reading the gospels and it often leads to a wrong understanding of what Jesus is saying or doing. Indeed one of the most basic starting points for reading the gospels needs to be that in the incarnation, when “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” matter, the material world, was ‘affirmed as an adequate vehicle for the ultimate revelation of God.’ At the birth of Christ the material world was shown to be worthy of receiving and communicating the fullness of God. This is what we’re on about when we talk about a theology of incarnation.
And so as we read about Jesus life and ministry in light of the above we notice that Jesus himself created meaning and communicated to the people around him through connecting the material and the spiritual and making them inseperable. In the words of Kenneth Bailey “The material world became the cradle into which he placed his spiritual-material message.”
If we try to separate out the material from the spiritual as we read the gospel accounts we will miss a great deal of what Jesus taught and communicated.
This weeks session is called follow and listen to the master
At the start of this new series in which we will sit at the master’s feet and listen to him in an attempt to learn from him, it seemed appropriate to begin with a story about the calling of Jesus first disciples.
Each of us follows in the footsteps of the very first disciples, responding as they did to Jesus call to follow him and learn from him.
Discussion: You may remember the time when Jesus first called you? Or it may be difficult to recall precisely. But it might be useful if one or two members of the group spoke briefly about their experience of being called by Jesus and how it was that they responded.
The call of the first disciples takes up a very small amount of Matthew and Mark’s narrative and a slightly larger amount of space in Luke. Far from being a mere historical recollection, there is great significance in the location where the events took place, the way in which Jesus called the disciples, and thier response. It is this that we will explore in this session as we try to link our calling to discipleship with that of Jesus first followers.
Read: Matthew 4:18-22
In this section of Matthew we read about Jesus calling his first Disciples, Simon-Peter and Andrew. They are doing what fishermen do; fishing. Throwing thier nets into the sea of Galilee as they do day in day out, in the hope of catching enough fish to feed themselves and any dependents and to have some to sell too.
It is a typical scene for the time, the shore of the Sea of Galilee was littered with similar people doing similiar things.
In Matthews account Jesus shouts out to them and tells them to put thier nets down and follow him so that they might catch men and not fish. We read simply that they threw down the tools of thier trade and did as he said.
It’s a similar story with James and John who we read, respond to Jesus call to leave thier boat immediately and follow him. James and John were in a business partnership with Simon-Peter (and presumably Andrew).
The story is paralleled in Luke 5:1-11 albeit with a number of slight differences and much more detail. In the Lukan account Jesus gets into a boat with Simon-Peter (there is no mention of Andrew, but no reason to suggest he’s not there, indeed he could well be in the second boat mentioned in the story) and the two converse beyond the simple phrasing of Matthews story. Lukes account also includes Jesus telling Simon-Peter where to cast his net, which when Simon-Peter obeys, results in a large and miraculous catch (John tells a similar story, set at a different time in Jn21).
What’s the point of this story? Why do the Gospel writers include it? Is it simply because it’s a little nugget of factual information designed to set the scene for what unfolds? If so we might simply gloss over it, noting it but paying little real attention to it as a point of spiritual nourishment.
I’d like to suggest that with a little careful study of culture and context it can be so much more than this...
So what is going on in this account?
The first Disciples that Jesus called were fishermen. At the time Jesus lived a lot of people would have made some sort of living from fishing or associated trades, especially in Galiliee.
It was hard work, dirty and smelly, far from glamourous and the preserve of the un-educated (at least formally) and poor. It is here then that Jesus comes to find his inner core of followers. We might note that he doesn’t go to the temple to find the holy people, the devoted, the educated andthe ones who had understood the mysteries of God and life...no, Jesus starts with those who would have in no sense expected to be called by the Christ.
We read in Luke’s account that as he called the first disciple Jesus had a large crowd around him. His fame had already begun to spread around the area due to his healing and delivering people. As he walked around the scenes of normal life the early readers and hearers would have been struck by how Jesus enters the world of the regular people rather than expecting them to step out of thier world and come to him.
Matthews account is brief so let’s again turn to Luke 5:1-11 to sketch in some more detail.
Jesus asks Simon-Peter for help. Did Simon-Peter know Jesus before this encounter? Yes it seems he did as Jesus had recently healed Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law (uke 4:38-39). In Jesus’ culture if a person did a good deed to someone, then the person on the receiving end had an obligation to fulfil towards the person who had helped them. And as Simon-Peter allows Jesus to climb into his boat it’s likely that he did so out of obligation – to refuse a request for help from someone who had so recently helped him would have been unthinkable.
Once on board the boat Jesus asks Simon-Peter to put his regular day to day skills into use to help him. If Jesus wished to continue speaking to the crowd from the boat he’d need a skilled rower to keep the boat still and in the same place – and this is precisely what Simon-Peter can offer. Jesus speaks to the crowds and eventually turns his attention to Simon-Peter.
It’s at this point that the story takes a turn for the strange as Jesus the carpenter tells a Sion-Peter the experienced fisherman how and where to catch fish.
That he suggests setting out into the deeps to catch fish in the day underlines Jesus’ complete ignorance of fishing in Galilee – the fish come out to feed at night, but during the day they hide under rocks. There is simply no point trying to fish the deeps in the daytime! Peter responds with the appropriate level of sarcasm but perhaps still under obligation does as he’s asked.
The catch is vast. Simon-Peter, by now deeply surprised, must have thought Jesus had found a new fishing bank so instead of shouting to his crew in another boat he waves at them. Sound carries a long way over water and Peter doesn’t want everyone knowing about this new stock. This is his ticket to riches, for us today it would equate to winning the lottery – they’ve just hit the jackpot – bring on pay day!
At this point it’s worth thinking about what Simon-Peter might be thinking? He’d be pretty surprised that Jesus had shown him where the fish were rather than keeping it a secret and getting rich himself. Peter would also have realised that God must be pretty important to this man if he’s more concerned with him and other people than the money that is ready to be hauled out of the lake by the net-full.
So what’s going on here then? In this encounter, as told in detail by Luke and in outline by Matthew, Jesus is challenging the priorities of those whom he is calling at the deepest level. Who was this man who cared more for the things of God than for vast wealth? Who is this man that would share a trade secret like this, knowing full well what could be gained from it, without a second thought?
Simon-Peter senses that he’s in the presence of a truly holy man. In Luke’s account he falls down at Jesus feet and declares his sinfulness. This is how we know that he thinks Jesus is Holy – he tries to remove himself from Jesus presence as he’s aware that he a sinful man will corrupt and polute this holy man. He calls Jesus ‘Lord’ rather than simply ‘teacher’ to underline the point. Simon-Peter is afraid and in awe.
Jesus responds dismissing Simon-Peter’s fears and sense of unworthiness and tells him that if he responds to Jesus call to follow him he (Simon-Peter) will become a fisher of men (Matt 4:19 & Luke 5:10).
Interestingly the word that Jesus uses for ‘catch’ means ‘to catch alive’ – previously what Peter caught was sent to death, but from now onwards what he catches will be given life.
It is also interesting to note that this conversation occurs away from the crowds. Perhaps in taking Simon-Peter away from the crowd Jesus removes the peer pressure and allows Simon-Peter to respond to Jesus in light of his conviction rather than his communities expectations? Simon-Peter responds and a partnership is formalised.
We read in Matthew, Mark and Lukes’ account that the fishermen gave up thier fishing immediately and followed him. Are we to assume that they left the fish to rot and thier families to starve? No of course not, the abrupt and snappy ending is typical of middle-eastern rhetorical flourish in which sincerity is demonstrated by exaggeration.
So to conclude and discuss
In this story then the things that are most important in life are held up alongisde the things of the spirit. Simon-Peter comes face to face with a man who turns down the chance of vast wealth from fishing and as he does so Simon-Peter realises the inadequacy of his own values and priorities. The effect is life-changing as Simon-Peter moves forward into a new venture of faith, taking his previously acquired life skills with him, but turning them to a new end.
This story is about priorities and it’s about money. It’s a challenge to radically alter priorities and our view of material wealth and to subject them and indeed ourselves to a higher calling.
With this in mind the story is a challenge to us not just at the start of our Christian journey, at the time of our calling. The challenge he issues stands throughout our lives, and asks us to continually question our priorities in light of Jesus invitation to follow him.
Q: In what ways did you have to, or do you have to, alter your priorities in order to subject them to the higher calling of God?
Q: In addition to subjecting your priorities to a higher calling, have you subjected yourself to the call of God in Christ? In what ways, both historically and currently?
Q: What of your sense of calling now? Is it strong and life shaping? In what ways do you experience the call of Jesus?
The story also asks us to confront our preconceptions of who God calls into his service and exposes our tendencies to look to the obvious and outward things that mark some people out as ‘holy’ or ‘the right sort’, rather than applying Gods criteria.
Q: We may find that we are unduly harsh towards others in this regard or perhaps unduly harsh towards ourselves, thinking ‘why would God call them/me into his service given what they/I am like...’ Is this an attitude which you need to address in order to free yourself or change your assessment of others?
The story also tells us that Jesus asked Peter for help and that it was a genuine request which affirmed Peters worth and set Jesus and Peter in partnership.
Q: In what ways has Christ asked you to use your skills and experiences and in doing so affirmed your worth as you are? Do you think of yourself as in partnership with Jesus in fulfilling his call and mission?
Finally we are perhaps struck by the degree to which Jesus enters the world of those around him. If we have a tendency to remain in a holy huddle, rarely venturing outside of our comfortable christian world, expecting people to come to the church on our terms, then we are confronted in the strongest possible manner.
Q: How much of your time is spent in church activities and groups? Do you hide away in a comfortable and holy huddle? If so, get out there and enter the world around! Perhaps it’s helpful to remember how Jesus entered your world?
Revd Simon Butler
Simon Butler, 19/12/2013