RSS Feed

Bishop Stephen's Lent 1 Reflection

Here is Bishop Stephen’s first personal reflection on discipleship, as revealed in Mark’s Gospel, recorded for Lent 1.  The text of the reflection is available below.


Lent 1. Mark 1.16-20: The call of Simon and Andrew and the Sons of Zebedee

Growing disciples and going deeper in our faith is one of the most important parts of our diocesan strategy. In our Church of England lectionary, this is the year of Mark. I thought that it would be a good opportunity for all of us, including myself, to reflect this Lent on what we learn about discipleship in Mark’s Gospel. Everybody is free to use these reflections as they choose, either to start a conversation with others or to reflect alone, or not to bother with them at all if you are busy and already have a plan for Lent. They are a gift, not an obligation. By all means, focus prayerfully on one paragraph or sentence if that is where the Spirit leads you.  

This is the first of my personal reflections on Mark’s depiction of discipleship through his gospel. We begin with the call of Simon and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee in Chapter 1, verses 16-20.

Before I read the relevant verses, we need some background. Most biblical scholars agree that Mark’s was the first gospel to be written down only a few years after destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. One of the most important things for us to consider about the primacy of Mark is that he created a unique literary genre. There were plenty of examples of grand tales about great men – including about themselves like Julius Caesar. There were also plays and poetry about the pantheon of Roman and Greek Gods. Mark gives us something wholly different from the first verse of his writing: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. His writing does what no other person had sought to do hitherto, it creates a gospel, a narrative which sets out the mighty acts of the one God in and through the unique Son, Jesus Christ.

During my period of sick leave last year, I found consolation in building up a small library of books about food and cooking. It was not a genre that I was familiar with as a busy single man relying upon sausages and fishfingers. I have been reading about different cultures of food as well as absorbing and experimenting with all sorts of ingredients. My freezer is chockful of my successes and failures. I encourage you to think about the genres of literature that you mostly turn to, whether that’s detective fiction, zen motorcycle maintenance or a daily newspaper. Ask yourself why the idea of a gospel of good news that you can read in an evening has such power. For me, the reason is that Mark is setting out, using Jesus’s own words, what it means for the world that the Son of God has come. Like reading a cookery book with its delicious photographs, we are drawn into the story of the recipe for salvation and what the mix of ingredients is to create disciples able to follow Jesus to the cross. Please think about what that blend of ingredients looks like in your life. What has it produced so far? Part of Mark’s narrative affect is to draw all future disciples into the story. We are going to look particularly today at the call of Simon and his brother Andrew and of the Sons of Zebedee, James and John; but before we look at them, ask yourself where you fit into Jesus’s story.

Another key part of the background is that while the question of discipleship is highlighted in an unvarnished way by Mark, the story is about God’s revelation of Himself to which we respond and follow. The Father tells the Son that he is the Beloved with whom he is well pleased at Jesus’s baptism and it is the Spirit who drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted. God is at the centre from the start, in unity with himself in three persons. We may think that we are worthless and suffer from impostor syndrome, both of which may be true; but what counts is that we are invited freely to receive the grace we do not deserve. May people suffer from low self-esteem and have very low aspiration for themselves and for their families. What does it feel like when God calls you, Beloved? What does it feel like when you feel like you in a desert waste like Jesus was, being abandoned and tempted away from God?

It’s fine having a new literary genre, but what is it for? Well, Jesus provides the answer: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe the good news.” Repentance means for Jesus among other things to have your mind changed by the coming near of the kingdom. The kingdom may lie in the future, but its power is drawn into the present time by the presence of Jesus. We don’t have to wait for 1-10,000 years to reap the benefits of God’s kingly reign. In these uncertain times, it is difficult to see what the near future might bring. We have hope because we trust that God has not abandoned us and that God’s blessings are not postponed; but how might you feel strengthened by the promise that the power of his kingdom future can be applied right now when we might feel that we are running in low gear?

The last preparatory point to make is that reading Mark reminds us of the urgency of Jesus’s ministry and of his call to discipleship. One of the distinctive characteristics of Mark’s writing is his regular use of the adverb ‘immediately’ (ευθυσ). The word appears 58 times in the New Testament, and 41 of these is in Mark. There is an urgency in the narrative of Mark about keeping up with the pace of Jesus himself. Jesus began his ministry saying the Kairos had come, the conjunction of earthly time and God’s eternity. This is a moment when time is thinned and the kingdom of God is poured in. Every time we are able to receive communion at the altar rail, the space between heaven and earth is very thin for all of us. Please reflect upon your experience of those thin moments, close to heaven in your own lives. Have they ever or always been moments that you expected?

Now we get to the main attraction, Mark 1.16-20. I am reading from the NRSV version of the Bible. Feel free to rely upon the translation with which you are most familiar.

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—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.”

We read that Jesus was passing by the Sea of Galilee. Until his Passion which takes up a third of the gospel, Jesus is on the move. People have to keep up with him. The fairly static rabbis were sought out by those who wished to learn from them; the disciples of Jesus followed after him as he chose them. The alacrity with which the two sets of brothers leave everything to follow is the first sign of the power of Jesus. This following is not simply an ethical decision or a philosophical choice: this is an event of grace. Not everybody has an instant conversion. Some commentators on the modern church say that it can take up to four years for people to feel at home in a church from the first Sunday they cross the threshold. Please reflect on your own experience of this encounter with the grace of God. How can you share this with recent responders?

There is clearly a class difference between the two sets of brothers. Simon and Andrew fish from the shore with their special circular weighted nets and James and John belong to the family fishing business of their father, Zebedee. Before I began to read the Bible, the only Zebedee I knew of was the lead character in the Magic Roundabout who galvanised the other characters. The father of James and John plied a good trade on the Sea of Galilee with his sons and the hired hands. You can see a well-preserved Ist century fishing boat in a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea today.  As we observe the varied vocations to be disciples we see that some people seem to have given up more than others to be followers of Jesus, just as some of us can afford to pay more of their wealth to the church and to charity than others. But please notice that it is the practice of the poorer brothers, Simon and Andrew, gathering fish from the shore in their weighted circular nets which inspires Jesus to believe that he can make both sets of brothers into fishers of people. God’s call is very diverse. We also observe the important point that Jesus mostly encounters people in everyday settings and not just in specialist religious spaces.

Some people hearing this may be working in family businesses and were expected to follow their parents into the firm. The first thing to say is that we really appreciate what you are doing in difficult times, especially as you keep people in employment and sustain hope for the future. However, there are those who break free of their birth family’s expectations. Tom Wright gives the example of Sir John Betjeman who became poet laureate instead of joining the family business. I knew a priest in the North East who had been expected to take over the family engineering business but who chose to be a community priest in one of the toughest areas of Newcastle. One of the most significant things about Jesus calling two sets of brothers is that he is creating a different kind of family built into the new story of the kingdom of God. This is a family of the new covenant rather than the first covenant with Abraham. The link is still firmly there, not least in the call upon Abraham to follow God dramatically far from home; but this is the covenantal family of Jesus. It is also a family the foundation of which is not only relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit but with our sister and brother disciples forever. I wonder what we make of that in our own church family, not least in how we are looking after people in lockdown and  whom we are praying for.

Finally, I take comfort and assurance from the fact that the call of these first disciples is very challenging; but it also has continuities with their lives. They are still people who go fishing.  The context changes but everything good about them and their experience is carried into the future. When I have been in Africa I have often prayed that God would raise up many more missionary accountants to help stabilise and set free locally led charities and NGO’s.  Too often I hear of people thinking they have nothing to offer to God in response to God’s call. As you may know, I’m a great fan of Dolly Parton who says that you have to be rich to look as cheap as she does. There is someone who wants no statues or medals but just to give people joy in thanksgiving to God. There’s a lesson for me if not for you.

Have a blessed week with God.

Page last updated: Sunday 21st February 2021 2:58 PM
First published on: 19th February 2021
Powered by Church Edit