I believe the primary purposes of a sermon are to teach the Gospel, to help people understand how it relates to them directly, and to use it to develop a language of God. And, for scriptures like the one we are considering today – the early calls to the disciples – a sermon needs to help us think about familiar words and stories in new ways. So, today’s sermon will be a bit different. Today’s sermon is in the form of a letter, written by James and John to their parents, trying to explain why they dropped everything and followed Jesus.
But, if you will first indulge me for a very quick lesson to set the stage. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were fishermen, and likely quite successful. It says in the scripture that they had boats, while Andrew and Simon only had nets. The two brothers were likely the primary source of financial support for their family, as was the norm then. Zebedee, their father, had probably inherited the family fishing business from his father and was planning to have his sons do the same. Fishing was a reliable income and a safe assumption to make is this family was financially comfortable. So, for James and John to leave it behind would have been a profound betrayal to the family and left the family in a dire situation.
Further, a word needs to be said about the location of this story. Jesus had gone to Capernaum, in the area of Zepulun and Naphtali – two northern tribes who had been conquered by the Assyrians 700 years prior – and the area never recovered. It was still steeped in sectarian violence and poverty. It was a crossroads for foreign powers, a place of poverty and not much hope. Isaiah in his prophecy says the region is in the shadow of death, but Jesus goes to shine a light into that shadow. But, this was not an auspicious location to start his ministry and the people of the region would have known that.
So, we have briefly set the stage: James and John have likely caused tremendous grief and anger within their family for leaving, and they are following Christ in their home region, one that was violent and poverty-stricken. So, let’s imagine them now trying to help their parents understand why.
Dear Mom and Dad,
It has been a few weeks now since we left and we want to try to explain ourselves and help you both understand why it is we needed to leave and follow Jesus. We know how angry you were at us and we can only hope you are willing to read this letter. We never stopped loving you, in fact it has become clear to us that what we are doing is an act of love for you and everyone we know.
We first met Jesus one evening after fishing, after you had left for the night dad. We were by the docks, cleaning up after a long day. Andrew and Simon were there too, though we were ignoring them like we always did – you always said not to bother with people who were so poor because they would just try to rob us. Anyway, they were talking to this man. He was just sitting with them, listening to them as they told their story and then talking to them. We didn’t know who he was, obviously, but we noticed because nobody ever talked to Andrew and Simon. We assumed that he was trying to get something from them, or maybe they were trying to scam some money from him. Anyway, it was odd but we didn’t pay much attention.
Later we went to get some dinner and there the three of them were again – this time eating together. Mom and dad, something was different about Simon and Andrew. They seemed entranced, they couldn’t take their eyes off of this guy and were hanging on every word he was saying. We were staring and the man noticed. He waved us over and we couldn’t help ourselves, so we went to join them. He told us his name was Jesus and that he was the son of God and was sharing good news with the world.
We need to stop here, mom and dad, because we know what you are thinking. You shouted it at us when we left. We know you think he is just another false prophet, someone out for his own self-interest. You were right when you said the world is full of those kinds of people, but please believe us when we tell you Jesus is not like that. He doesn’t have any self-interest. He is not trying to get rich. He isn’t trying to trick people into giving him everything they own. He is not like those hucksters who just cause problems and then disappear. But, we admit, when he first said he was the son of God, we were dubious.
But, then he started to talk. He talked about God. We have been going to Temple our entire lives and listened to Rabbis talk about God all of the time. But, this was the first time it felt like God was relatable, like God actually cared about us. He explained the lessons we had heard from the Torah in a way that we could actually understand. It was incredible! For the first time we actually felt like we had a teacher, not just someone who wanted to tell us the rules. In fact, Jesus told us that so many of the rules we were taught are actually not God’s rules, they were man’s rules. And it made sense. Why would God create human beings and then declare that most of them were not worthy of God’s love? Jesus says the opposite – that we need to start with the understanding that everyone is created in the image of God, just like our creation story says, and then go from there. We are all part of God’s creation and loved by God. We had never heard that before, but it resonated with us. Here we were sitting with Andrew and Simon, who grew up just down the road from us, but we were always told to stay away from them because they were poor. Why? In every way that matters, they are just like us, but we were always told that they didn’t deserve anything and God wanted them to be poor. In fact, when we started to talk with them that night, we learned they are really smart, they work just as hard as we do, their family is just as important to them as ours is to us. They are just like us, but it wasn’t until Jesus invited us to sit with them did we finally realize that.
Jesus didn’t stop there, pretty soon he started to talk to us about the Kingdom of God and what that means. We fully admit, at first we were pretty nervous. The things he was saying about how the Roman Empire isn’t really ordained by God to be in charge, that was a lot. We got worried that someone would overhear and arrest him and us. We even tried to tell him to keep his voice down, so people wouldn’t hear, but he didn’t. He said people need to hear this. They need to hear that God doesn’t just care about the powerful. He even said that Caesar isn’t the prince of peace like he says he is. He said that the Jewish people are not meant to be slaves who just make sure the rich stay rich. He even said that God’s favor isn’t with the powerful, it is with regular people. He said the Roman Empire will come to an end and God’s Kingdom will rule. We had never heard anyone brave enough to say that before. Even though we were first worried that someone would hear, pretty soon we knew that everyone needed to hear it.
Mom and dad, we sat up all night listening to Jesus and asking him questions. And for the first time we felt hope. Hope that this world could be a good place and that we will finally feel peace. It took us a while to figure it out, but we started to realize that we had never felt real hope before. And we think that is because Jesus talked to us like equals, like people who deserved to understand how much God loves us. He knows the scriptures and commandments better than anyone we have met, but he is the only teacher we have met that wants us to understand what they mean for our lives. And when we listened to him explain God, we finally felt love. So, when Jesus said he was going to help everyone who would listen to him understand God’s love, we knew we needed to help. That’s why we left. We know that dropping everything to follow a teacher isn’t for everyone – but it felt right for us.
We didn’t leave because we don’t love you. And it wasn’t an easy decision. We know how much you need us to fish and make money for the family. We know we let you down and that maybe you will never forgive us. But we hope you can. We think, pretty soon, you will start to hear about Jesus too. It has only been a few weeks and people are flocking to him. They are coming in huge crowds to listen to him. Everyone is listening to him teach. Some people are trying to catch him out, but, like we said, we have never met anyone who knows the teachings of God better than him, so he is always able to answer their questions.
And, mom and dad, we are seeing miracles. Jesus is healing people. People are coming to him sick and broken, but then he touches them and they are whole again. Even lepers, he is touching them and they are cured. We sometimes worry about how to feed the huge crowds who are coming to listen to him teach, but somehow there is always enough food. Blind people are seeing again, and people who couldn’t walk at all are leaping for joy. But, even more amazing than that, the most amazing miracle we are seeing is the faces of people who are told that God loves them. For so many, it is the first time they are hearing that.
Now, we need to confess something. When we were kids, when you thought we were sleeping one night, we overheard you two talking about how it would be best for us if we left Capernaum – to go somewhere we would have more opportunities and someplace not so violent. We heard you say that maybe we should even leave the country and try to get as far away as possible. You said ‘there was no chance of a good future’ here. We never forgot that. So, we are wondering if you are angry at us because we left home but are staying in this area. Maybe you wouldn’t be so mad if we left completely and tried to find a place that was better. We know how bad things here are. Believe us, we see it every day now. But, we can’t give up on this place. For the first time, Jesus has helped us understand, that just because things seem bad now, doesn’t mean that it will always be like this. Even for Capernaum. We want to do what we can to make this part of the world better. Jesus is teaching us that is what is most important, because if we all do that, if we all work to make our corner of the world better, then it will spread – and pretty soon we will all realize what the Kingdom of God really means.
Mom and dad, we love you so much. We hope this letter helps you to understand why we had to leave. We feel like we have a purpose in life and that God needs us to do this important work – even though at times it feels a little dangerous. We have finally found a teacher that helps us to really understand. And we finally feel like we are a part of a community of people who are trying to do good in the world, and not just looking out for themselves. You always said you wanted our lives to be better than the ones you led, and we hope you understand that we are trying to make that possible, but not just for ourselves, for everyone.
We think about you all of the time and pray for you whenever we can. We probably will be back in Capernaum soon, traveling with Jesus and the other people who are trying to learn from him. We will stop by the house and introduce you to him. We think you will understand then. Maybe even realize that we are doing exactly what we are supposed to do. In the meantime, remember that we love you always. Your sons, James and John. Amen