Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dispensing with Approval

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. (Mark 1.19-20)

Over the Moon

If you’re a devotee of American musicals, you know the pivotal number the instant you hear it. It’s the ebullient reckoning, the bone-rattling tune that bursts out of nowhere when the lead character—or sometimes the entire cast—figures out things are about to change. In West Side Story, Tony sings, “Something’s coming. I don’t know what it is, but it is gonna be great.” In Sweet Charity, Charity lets loose with, “There’s gotta be something better than this.” In Rent, the performance artist, Maureen, invites the cast to welcome change as they sing, “Only thing to do is jump over the moon.”

To a one, Sunday’s readings seem poised for a pivotal number. In Jonah, God is primed to destroy Nineveh; but seeing the city’s repentance turns God around. In Psalm 62, the poet reminds us there’s no benefit in trusting human promises, realizing “power belongs to God.” (v11) In 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, Paul concludes, “the present form of this world is passing away.” Don’t hang on to anything, he writes—not spouses, sorrows, joys, possessions, or businesses—because there’s no time dawdle on things that may not survive the change. Wow. That’s Paul at his most overwrought, drama-queen finest, spoken with all the conviction of a man without notable family or business ties. We’re fine with turning him down a few notches--until we open Sunday’s Gospel, Mark1.14-20, where see what Paul describes in theory play out—not once, but twice.

Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee, spots two sibling fishermen, Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. “Follow Me and I will make you fish for people,” He says. Without hesitation, they quit and follow Him. Maybe they hate their jobs so much that anything would be better. Maybe they sense something’s coming. Scripture doesn’t say why they drop everything and sign on with Jesus. They obviously have no idea Who He is. He’s not from around there, isn’t a fisherman, and has no following of any kind. (They’ll be His first disciples.) Yet something compels them to leave what they know to “fish for people” (whatever that means). And we could write off them as kooks, except the scene repeats within minutes, when Jesus spots another set of brothers, James and John. Mark doesn’t even bother quoting Jesus’s offer this time around. They drop their nets—leaving their father and the family business behind—to go with Jesus. “Leap of fate,” Maureen sings in Rent, “only thing to do is jump over the moon.” Which is one way to describe what Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John do. They jump over the moon.

What’s the Point?

If Sunday’s drop-everything passages make you queasy, get in line. I confess to high levels of discomfort with texts that equate following Christ with severing all ties to family and livelihood. I also admit to being highly suspicious of those who advocate the sorts of whimsical moon jumping we witness in the texts, because more often than not, people who get all fired up about such dramatic turnarounds just so happen to be in the people-fishing business. Radical conversions keep them fed. Finally, I have a hard time squaring a God Who insists we sacrifice everything with One Who uses total loss to demonstrate divine love and power to restore what’s lost.

For those of us who struggle with the all-or-nothing terms in Sunday’s Gospel, there’s something else we might want to consider. Reading further along, we discover the disciples really don’t leave everything behind. They hang onto their boats and nets throughout their time with Jesus, keeping His ministry afloat with supplementary income. They stay in touch with their families, some of whom eventually join Jesus’s band of followers. So it turns out this moment may not be as dramatic as the abandon-everything romantics like to paint it. It may not deserve a big number like “Something’s Coming” or “There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This” or “Over the Moon”. It may be as simple as trying a new thing to see how it works out. And if that’s all we’re looking at, what’s the point?

Opportunity to Be Changed

Often what Scripture doesn’t say distinguishes it from run-of-the-mill self-help manuals and cautionary fables that come prepackaged with explanations. Its sketchiness becomes its most illuminating strength, as it draws us into the narratives, where we discover truth in absentia. So we ask what’s missing from this story? What don’t the newly minted disciples do that you or I wouldn’t conceive of neglecting before we quit our jobs and left our families to follow a Stranger we’ve never met?

They dispense with approval. Simon and Andrew don’t ask for a few minutes to discuss the proposition. They don’t pause to puzzle out how discipleship will impact their family and business. James and John don’t turn to Zebedee and say, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?” Jesus says, “Follow Me,” and they do it. We can’t imagine anyone who watches them drop their nets and head off with Christ possibly feeling at ease. We can hear Zebedee, other family members, and business partners call after them, “What are you doing? Where do you think you’re going? You don’t know this Guy!” The disciples don’t know what they’re doing. They have no clue where Jesus is leading them. But this they know: Christ’s voice calls to them and passing their opportunity to be changed for life because others don’t approve is a sacrifice they can’t afford to make. Immediately leaving their nets liberates them from inhibitions tangled up with seeking approval. When they return to their families and livelihoods, they are better, more productive, and freer for having followed Jesus without hesitation.

Dispensing with approval is the first step in discipleship. And for those of us who don’t see that in the disciples, Paul comes right out with it in 1 Corinthians. “From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none," he writes, "and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” Something's coming. African-American slaves, whose very lives depended on their captors’ approval, put it like this: “My heart is fixed, my mind’s made up. Nobody’s gonna turn me around.” Following Jesus is a matter of saying yes to His call and letting go anyone or anything that might discourage us or disapprove of our decision. Drop your nets. Quit the boat. Follow the Keeper of your heart. Don’t sacrifice your opportunity to be changed for life. Jump over the moon.

Jesus, we hear You call us to follow You. We’re not always sure where You come from or what “fishing for people” means. But Your voice calls to a place in us where none but You can reach. Quicken us to dispense with our need for approval. May we drop our nets, knowing we’ll return to what we’ve left better, more productive, and freer than we’d ever be by remaining behind. Amen.

Dispensing with approval frees us to follow Christ; passing the opportunity to be changed for life is a sacrifice we can’t afford to make.

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Sherry Peyton said...

Oh what a great reflection Tim. I took a quite different turn on it, but frankly not all that different. I love how you point out that the really didn't leave everything,it remained with family and friends to use in the support of the ministry. Still, they went unhampered with questions or asking advice which was my point. I just got so caught up with Jonah on this one that it took me in a different direction, though ultimately....all roads lead home! Blessings! Sherry

Tim said...

It was tough choosing between Jonah and the disciples, Sherry. I'm so glad we split our focus, because there's much I'm sure you've found that will be good for me. (How's that for selfishness?)

It's easy, I think, to write off the disciples' quickness to follow Jesus as impetuousness. But it strikes me as independence--which implies tremendous courage and sensitivity to one's own depths. Something resounded in them and they acted on it. And look what happened!

Many blessings, dear friend,