Third Sunday after Epiphany (24 January 2021)
JoAnn A. Post
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
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.
There are heroes and there are antiheroes.
Who are the heroes? Wonder Woman. Batman. T’Challa, aka Black Panther. The “hero” is the character who seeks truth and justice, whose motives are good and whose heart is strong.
Who are the antiheroes? Walter White (“Breaking Bad”). Severus Snape (“Harry Potter”). Michael Scott (“The Office”). The antihero is the character who, though they might lack the will or courage to do the right thing the first time, in the end, somehow, eventually, their questionable actions might lead to a good outcome, a brave and selfless act.
Notice that all my examples of heroes and antiheroes are fictional. In everyday life, the lines are not so easily drawn, the motives so clearly seen, the outcomes so final. Most of us, in our daily lives, are a tepid soup of noble and ignoble motives, selfless and selfish acts, laudatory and lame outcomes.
There are heroes and there are antiheroes. People who do good first thing in the morning AND the people who have to warm up to the idea.
There are disciples and there are anti-disciples.
Disciples are those who follow without question, who reflect the master’s ways, who act out of devotion and determination. The true disciple is an elusive beast.
Anti-disciples? That’s a more common type. The anti-disciple is the follower whose motives may be suspect, whose actions lack integrity, who drag their feet and whine, “Are we there yet?”
This morning’s readings introduce us to both types. And beg the question: which one am I?
We first meet Jonah, the original anti-hero. Though we are dropped into the middle of the story this morning, you know how it goes. Jonah, a heretofore unknown biblical character, is sent to Nineveh to preach repentance in the name of the one true God. His first impulse? Nope.
God had invited Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, but, instead, Jonah hightailed it for the marina where he snuck passage on the first outgoing frigate. Mayhem ensues and Jonah is tossed overboard, only to be slurped up by a passing whale, marinated in the whale’s bilious belly, and, three days later, vomited up on the shore. Apparently, he upset the whale’s stomach, left a bad taste in its mouth. Jonah had that effect on fish. And people. (Jonah 1)
That’s where this morning’s reading begins. Jonah, covered in whale puke, crusted with sea salt, breaded with beach sand. Even then, prepped like chicken for the fryer, the whale didn’t want him. But God did.
“Look, Jonah,” God said, “you have two options. You can do it my way the first time. Or you can do it my way the second time. But you’ll do it my way.”
And Jonah did. He had no choice. But he wasn’t going to like it. Dragging his feet, muttering under his breath, Jonah barely crossed the Nineveh city limits before he muttered, hoping no one would hear, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
No one was more surprised than Jonah when the whole city heard him—from the king on his throne to the beggar in the street—and all repented, in sackcloth and ashes. God’s message was delivered, in spite of the messenger.
“Dang it,” Jonah said to himself. “I hate it when that happens.”
Jonah. The Original Anti-Disciple.
Humor me, for a moment, as we turn the page to Mark’s gospel, where Jesus is assembling his entourage. Humor me as we pretend, for a moment, that the disciples whom Jesus calls today are true disciples.
After all, when we first meet Simon and Andrew, James and John, they are eager and ready to follow Jesus. Without question. Without a wave goodbye. Without a glance back over their shoulder.
They changed their Facebook status from “single” to “in a relationship,” their work status from “fisher” to “follower,” dropped their nets and chased Jesus down the beach.
Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, fishing poles over through shoulders.
Like Thelma and Louise . . . driving over a cliff?
This story has always been a head-scratcher for me.
Seems a bit hasty, don’t you think to drop everything and follow the first guy who makes an offer. Kink of cult-ish.
Imagine the conversation at the table that night, when Zebedee, short two sons, has to explain to Mrs. Zebedee that the boys won’t be home for supper. For a while.
And all those fish that won’t be caught, those nets that won’t be mended, those bills that won’t be paid. Though Mark names them “disciples,” we might have other names. Ne’er-do-wells. Scofflaws. Ghosters.
But, at first blush, before we turn another page, they are true disciples. Seeking truth and justice. With pure motives and good hearts. Wonder Woman, Batman and Black Panther in hip waders.
It won’t be long before the disciples’ eagerness abates, their faithfulness flags. It won’t be long before we put a four-letter prefix in front of their designation.
After all, there are disciples. And there are anti-disciples. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. And sometimes they are the same person.
We have recently been witness to a whole lot of discipleship—dangerous discipleship. Images of camouflage-clad terrorists scaling the walls of our nation’s capital, carrying zip-tie handcuffs, chasing police, defecating in the hallways, these images haunt my sleep. Some of those terrorists were “true disciples.” They were ready to destroy, to kidnap, even to kill in allegiance to their criminal calling.
But among those dangerously misguided disciples were a whole lot of others who had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. School teachers and accountants. College students and grandparents. How many times have we now seen the tearful confession, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I went to DC to march, to protest. I didn’t know what they had planned.”
My heart goes out to them, and with a word of reminder. Following has consequences. Discipleship comes with a cost. Take that first step cautiously.
Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to death and mayhem, to division and destruction. Jesus calls them simply to follow—without a road map or a position description or a mission statement. “Follow me,” and something about his voice, his invitation makes that following seem like a good idea.
And here’s the really interesting thing about both discipleship models in today’s readings—the anti-disciple Jonah and the (temporarily) true disciple brothers. They weren’t asked to do much. They weren’t asked to go far. They weren’t asked to check their brains or consciences at the door.
Simple tasks. Easy to do. Close to home.
To Jonah, “Walk into the city. Read this script. That’s all.”
To Simon and Andrew, James and John, “Step away from the boat.”
We imagine that to follow Jesus requires some herculean effort on our part, that we’ll be called away from home and family, work and responsibility. But only 12 were asked to do that—only 12. The rest of us? We who would be disciples—or more likely, anti-disciples—are called to follow close to home, just one step away from the boat.
So, with apologies to Lin Manuel Miranda and Amanda Gorman, while history may have its eye on us, it’s God’s assessment that matters to me? What does God see in us—we would-be disciples?
A dear friend has been betrayed by one whom they had trusted. Everything in me wants to destroy that betrayer, return evil for evil, say out loud all the horrible things I feel. But I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, and I am called to forgive, to hold my tongue, to view that person as one whom God loves. And that’s what I am doing. Reluctantly, like Jonah. Foot-dragging, like Jonah. Begrudgingly, like Jonah. But I am a disciple of Jesus Christ and I do things his way. I hate it when that happens.
We cannot underestimate the division in our country, our community, even in our congregation. Though most of us would never harm a person with whom we disagree politically, terrorism is like a leaky roof. What starts as a distant drip, drip, drip, left unattended destroys the whole house. Danger is all around. And you and I feel powerless to stop them. What would a disciple do?
A disciple would make peace close to home. A disciple would take that single step into relationship, swallow that single word that would feel so good to say, extend a single kindness to one with whom we disagree. We are not called to defend truth, justice and the shop-worn American way. We are called to follow Jesus in our own stupid little lives. To take one step. To say—or swallow—one word. To forgive one failing.
It’s not a lot.
There are heroes and there are anti-heroes. Wonder Woman and Walter White. They are all fictional.
There are disciples and there are anti-disciples. Those who follow Jesus whole-heartedly, and those who lag behind, muttering all the way. But regardless of the robust or wimpy nature of our faithfulness, it is enough that we are disciples.
Say the word, my friend. Step away from the boat.
Jesus calls us. But he doesn’t call us to go far.