[Mark 1:14-20, Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 19:1-10]
Before Jesus came along, some of the people who became his disciples would have resented each other. And in two cases at least it’s safe to say they would have hated each other. Their roles in society pitted them against each other.
The four fishermen probably would’ve gotten along okay. They were all fishermen, these two pairs of brothers.
There were small class differences between them. The brothers Simon (also called Peter) and Andrew were probably the poorest kind of fishermen. We hear they were fishing from the shore, which means they didn’t own a boat. On the other hand the brothers James and John were probably a little better off – we’re told they owned a boat, with their father, and had hired workers. But as fishermen they were still all lower class. They did not have power and the people who did have power used it to take as much from them as they could. This the Roman occupied world, remember, and fisherfolk were at the same place as the peasants in getting gauged without getting anything in return. There was severe taxation on the lower classes – with no representation, only repression. It was basically a protection racket; the Roman army was like a gang lording over a neighborhood.
I say all this in order to conjure up how common fisherfolk like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, would have felt about some of the other people Jesus invited in, in particular tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus. Tax collectors: why was that such a big deal?
Rome ruled over Judea and Galilee, and like they did with their occupied nations, they had client kings – King Herod and then his son during Jesus’ time. The King employed tax collectors from “the natives” who extracted tribute, with threat of force, from their neighbors (literally their neighbors) – tribute for the King and tribute for Caesar and little something extra to keep for themselves.
Your average Jew in Judea and Galilee hated the tax collectors, they were sell-outs, who sold out their people and were getting rich by doing the dirty work of the occupying empire.
Now, another one of Jesus’ core disciples was Simon the Zealot (a different Simon from Simon Peter the fisherman). Simon the Zealot was part of a militant liberation movement that was all about killing Roman soldiers and assassinating Jewish collaborators, like tax collectors.
Talk about a divided society.
That’s part of what the New Testament writers call the Kingdom of this World. Where we follow earthly powers that are about dividing and conquering and plundering
Into that all-too-human kingdom, Jesus shows up. As the Christ he is anointed by God with the authority to overthrow that earthly world order and replace it with the Kingdom of Heaven, the Realm of God.
When Christ – not Caesar – is the sole authority, the social order is a surprising kind of Kingdom – some Christians have called it an “upside-down kingdom”. “The last shall be first, the first shall be last.” Some Christians like to call it a “kin-dom”, not a kingdom.
When Christ is the sole power, the social order is not about power and rank and status, but about us all being siblings with each other in Christ.
People who are truly dedicated to this Way of Jesus live in the Kin-dom of God even though the kingdoms of human powers rage around them. That’s why you find people of grace and mercy and courage who treat each person with the care and respect deserving of a fellow child of God, even if society tells us that this person doesn’t deserve dignity because of how they look or where they come from or how they talk – their status. Someone who lives in the Kin-dom of God will live in this way despite what the kingdoms of this earth have to say about it.
For example, the Christians and other people of good will out in the desert of Arizona who for years and years have been leaving water and food out in the desert for folks who are fleeing north. They have been doing this despite all the trouble that this can get them in with the authorities, who are so caught up in their earthly roles that they actually go around sabotaging these gifts of life-giving water. That’s just one example.
But back to the gospel stories, about the fishers and filchers, the sinners and saints who all join as followers of this Jesus and his Kin-dom of God:
The story about the fishers begins with bad news: King Herod has arrested John the Baptist for the crime of holding the king accountable to a higher law than just his own will. The powers of the earthly kingdoms seem to triumph.
But Jesus arrives with Good News – and the word here is significant. “Gospel” good news. Up to this point Gospel is a word that is only used to mean “Good news about Caesar’s mighty victories.”
Jesus arrives with a surprising message, with a different gospel, that in Christ we find a new realm, a kin-dom of God. Jesus embodies that, he bears it in his very being, in the way he looks into the depth of each person’s soul.
So all he has to do is show up and say “come follow me and be part of this good news,” and the people who are receptive to it drop what they’re doing, drop their old roles in the old social order – they repent, turn away from sin and come home to God’s embrace.
Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, “Follow me and with me you will fish for people.” He invites them to come into the Kin-dom and bring others into it. Caught into the net … the net that Dr. King would call “the inescapable web of mutuality” from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The inescapable web of mutuality … we are all related, we all need each other, as children of God … so the kin-dom of God catches us and drags us away from the kingdoms of human powers.
The wonderful and uncomfortable thing about God’s drag-net is that it is indiscriminate.
It drags together fishers and filchers, sinners and saints, priests and prostitutes, Jews and Gentiles, zealot revolutionaries and filthy sell-outs, immigrants and ICE officers, rural folks and city folks, left-wingers and right-wingers, rich and poor, black and white … to be one, citizens of eternity, part of in a new body politic which we call the body of Christ.
The Apostle Paul says that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female …” That we each have a role in that body of Christ, just like our physical body has different organs and tissues and cells that work together – each necessary for the whole, each equally vital.
That’s what a church can be. That’s what I love about church, an experiment in living with other by grace.
But all of this can just be a whole lot of kumbaya unless we hear what Jesus is saying when he calls his disciples:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the Realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Repent, which means letting God turn our lives away from relying just on our human powers and our human laws, and following instead God alone and God’s outrageous and demanding Grace. turning around “letting go, and holding fast” …
Grace is free, but it’s not cheap.
The Grace of God calls us to let go of some things that we hold dear that are keeping us from God and from living with others in the Kin-dom.
The gospel stories have dramatic examples:
The tax collector Matthew left his booth, his tax office for good. Zaccheaus gave away half his wealth to the poor, and paid back four times what he owed the people he defrauded. The fishermen left behind their families and their entire livelihoods.
It doesn’t need to look that dramatic for each of us. But I think in our heart of hearts we know it is for us… what we need to let go of us let God’s love in and let God’s love out, to be more free to be the beloved child of God that we are each created to be.
The good news is, we’re not alone. We’re in this together. We’re part of a larger kin-dom. We have a good guide, a Good Shepherd.
Thanks be to God.