Today’s Gospel lesson holds before us the call of the Lord’s first disciples. We pick up where we left off last week – with John the Baptist, who had borne witness to Jesus when Jesus came onto the public scene. But now we hear that John has been arrested by Herod, and we know that with his arrest, his ministry has come to a close, and that soon he will be dead, beheaded by Herod.
This end of the ministry of St. John the Baptist marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – the close of the Old Testament, and the opening of the New. The whole history of Israel, in a sense, builds up to this moment, and the whole history of the Church springs from it.
St. Matthew says:
When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Caper’na-um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali,
toward the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles –
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of
light has dawned.”
Remigius of Auxerre notices a practical lesson for us to draw from Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Galilee. He says that Jesus made this move, “that he might enlighten more by his preaching and miracles. Thus leaving an example to all preachers that they should preach at a time and in places where they may do good to as many as possible.”
And St. John Chrysostom associates the Lord’s departure from Nazareth to dwell by the sea of Galilee, with his laying the foundation of the Church, in the calling of the Apostles, who, after the death of Jesus, will go throughout the known world preaching the Gospel. Chrysostom says that Jesus “departed from Judea… seeking… to fish for those teachers of the world who [then] dwelt in Galilee” – i.e. the Apostles.
“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,’” (Matthew 4.17).
I often say that Jesus preaches the nearness of the Kingdom by means of demonstrating his own nearness to his hearers, because – as I like to say – Jesus is himself the Kingdom of God, the physical location where God’s will is carried into force, which illuminates how being incorporated into his Body means entering into the Kingdom, and by extension why, as St. Cyprian of Carthage said: outside the Church there is no salvation. I.e. because the Church is his body (Ephesians 1.22-23), and he is the Kingdom.
[And] As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb’edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb’edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
A medieval commentary called the Glossa Ordinaria says that Jesus “rightly goes to fishing places, when about to fish for fishermen,” which brings us to one of the deeper meanings of this passage. Jesus calls each of us to follow him. Notice what the text says about those who follow him: “immediately” they leave their former station and follow him. So with Peter and Andrew: “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” And with James and John: “immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”
When Christ calls to us, our task is to root our attention, our perspective, so firmly in him, that all else becomes contextualized by his hegemony over our lives. An anonymous church father in the 500’s says “there are three things which we must leave who would come to Christ; carnal actions, which are signified in the fishing nets; worldly substance, [signified] in the ship; and parents, signified in their father.” Being a disciple of Jesus means that we can no longer do whatever we want, and it could mean alienation from those whom we love. I have had friends who have quit jobs that they could not reconcile with the obedience they owed to Christ.
The realization of what the Lord’s disciples lost in order to follow him should be a convicting one. What am I willing to lose for the sake of Jesus? Suppose being his disciple meant I lost my house, or my car, my job, or my position in life? The predicament is more difficult, in a sense, for contemporary Americans, because the choices are more subtle, and the possibility of keeping up appearances – and so deceiving even ourselves – is more real. Its one thing to be told to renounce Christ or die, like St. Agnes, or St. Vincent, or St. Fabian, whose feasts were last week. But in a go-along-and-get-along culture like our own, more often the choices fall along the lines of accepting a promotion that will mean working on Sundays, or allowing ourselves to become involved in a personal relationship that overreaches the Gospel’s parameters, or failing to practice our piety publicly – to say nothing of obeying the Lord’s mandate positively to lead others to him – in the name of a misplaced broad-minded liberality.
Very often we prefer to remain in our boats, with our nets and our Father, Zebedee – because its legal, or because it doesn’t hurt anybody, or because no one will notice if we aren’t in Jesus’ entourage, or aren’t in it one Sunday – or simply because the way is hard and the gate is narrow. But, as GK Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
So, in the words of the collect for today, we ask that the Lord would “give us grace… to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and [to] proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Chrysostom: he departed from Judea both to soften Jewish animosity, and to fulfill a prophecy, seeking moreover to fish for those masters [teachers] of the world who dwelt in Galilee.
Remigius: He left one, viz. Nazareth, that he might enlighten more by his preaching and miracles. Thus leaving an example to all preachers that they should preach at a time and in places where they may do good, to as many as possible.
Pseudo-Chrysostom: Christ’s Gospel should be preached by him who can control his appetites, who contemns the goods of this life, and desires not empty honors. From this time began Jesus to preach, that is, after having been tempted, He had overcome hunger in the desert, despised covetousness on the mountain, rejected ambitious desires in the temple.
Ibid. – … He would have made John be lightly accounted of, and John’s preaching would have been thought superfluous by the side of Christ’s teaching; as when the sun rises at the same time with the morning star, the star’s brightness is hid.
Chrysostom: In this commencement moreover he speaks nothing severe, nothing burdensome, as John had concerning the axe laid to the root of the condemned tree, and the like; but he puts first things merciful, preaching the glad tidings of the kingdom of heaven.
Gloss: He rightly goes to fishing places, when about to fish for fishermen.
Pseudo-Chrysostom: As he who casts his net into the water knows not what fishes he shall take, so the teacher casts the net of the divine word upon the people, not knowing who among them will come to God. Those whom God shall stir abide in his doctrine.
Ibid. – Fishers of men, that is, teachers, that with the net of God’s word you may catch men out of this world of storm and danger, in which men do not walk but are rather borne along, the Devil by pleasure drawing them into sin where men devour one another as the stronger fishes do the weaker, withdrawn from hence they may live upon the land, being made members of Christ’s body.