Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20, Heaven & Hell #59 (see below)
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With today’s text, we are near the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has recently been baptized by John the Baptist, and then spends some time in temptation in the wilderness. Now, as John’s time in prison is foreshadowing the price that is to be paid for challenging the powers-that-be, Jesus steps into the public domain and begins his ministry. He starts by calling two sets of brothers to follow him. They are fishermen, and they *immediately* lay down their nets and follow Jesus. The greek word euthus, translated variously as “at once” or “immediately” is a favorite of Mark’s, and he uses it often. It lends an urgent tone to his narrative overall, where things seem to happen at a rapid pace.
Let us think for moment about the disruptive nature of what these brothers did. Fishing was their livelihood; the livelihood of their families. In another 10 verses or so, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, so clearly at least Simon was married and likely had children. There would have been a clear expectation about how these brothers would fulfill their responsibility to the family business. Yet, James and John literally leave their father, Zebedee, in the boat. Certainly we can imagine his puzzled expression, trying to wrap his head around why they would leave him to follow this nobody from Nazareth, without so much as a goodbye, or an explanation.
Let us now contrast this story with that of Jonah. Our text from today is pretty much the only part of the Jonah story that goes well. Jonah is famous, not so much for proclaiming God’s word, but for running away from God’s call. It is a well-known story. God asks Jonah to go to Ninevah, a large Assyrian city, to tell them to repent or they will be destroyed. Assyria at this time, was Israel’s number one enemy. So, Jonah says “no way” and hops on a ship going in the opposite direction. But the story says that God sends a storm to threaten the ship, and so Jonah eventually comes clean and allows himself to be tossed overboard so that the storm will stop. He is then swallowed by a big fish and remains in its belly for three days and nights. When it finally spits him up on dry land, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh. To Jonah’s dismay, the Ninevites repent immediately and are spared, as we hear in the text. And Jonah is enraged. He feels like a fool, for he suspected this would happen. He says at one point: “I am so angry I wish I were dead.” Such a drama queen. But the Lord asks him (and the story itself ends brilliantly on this question) why should God not have a concern for a city comprised of 120,000 people? Why not indeed.
So, in one story we see the brothers drop their net and stride with purpose away from the ocean. In another, Jonah ends up jumping into the ocean. One to become “fishers of men” and the other “fish food.” What else is different about these two stories? Certainly, the brothers followed God’s call right away, and Jonah did not. But neither will have an entirely straightforward path. The disciples will make many mistakes, including —a biggie—abandoning Jesus at the cross. This seems just as big a betrayal as Jonah’s reluctance, and Jonah did eventually do what God asked of him. Discipleship is clearly a winding path, with some successes and some failures. So I’m not sure it helps us to think that the brothers were perfect in their response and Jonah delinquent. Rather, I find it more interesting to explore the conditions surrounding their call. Even as much as the brothers were leaving the expectations of their context, they did not leave their context entirely. They dropped their nets and went away from social expectations but went into community. The brothers were with each other, they journeyed with Jesus in a group of disciples, and the bible tells us in the same chapter, returned to Simon’s house to heal his mother-in-law of a fever. In fact, they encamped there at Simon’s house to heal many many more people. As itinerant as this rag-tag band was, the gospels are filled with accounts of meals together in houses, of crowds gathering together to hear the good news, to be healed, to be fed. Even at the end, at the resurrection, it is Mary Magdalene and Salome, and Mary the mother of James, wife of poor puzzled Zebedee, who go together to anoint Jesus’ body. Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by layers of community, each stepping up when the other could not. Yes, they went out, they responded to the call, but not in a way that severed their connections to each other.
But Jonah, throughout his story, seems entirely alone. Entirely alone in his truancy, in his distress, in his proclamation, and in his anger. There was no brother to assist him in his preaching, no family to help him countenance his reluctance, or process his anger. The belly of a fish held him fast as he repented of his desertion, but it is a poor substitute for the arms of a community. And it is true that a prophet and a disciple are called to different things. There is an aloneness to the prophetic voice that is perhaps unavoidable. But, we can also sense that Jonah’s pouting and his anger made him more alone than he needed to be. And sometimes, isn’t that how our challenging emotions make us feel? Our shame, our regret, our anger, our resistance gives us a kind of tunnel vision. We are reduced to nothing but that feeling and it is hard to see anything more. I’m sure we can all think of times when this has been he case for us, when our overwhelming feelings have led to a sense of social isolation.
But what if it doesn’t need to be that way for Jonah or for us? What if Jonah had had community surrounding him? What might that have looked like? How do *we* make community for the Jonah parts of ourselves, for the times when Jonah rises up within us? When we want to run, when we want to hide, when we doubt, when we rage, when we cry. How do we enfold the disruption of God’s call, of God’s challenge to our status quo, within the structure of community?
I read a quote this week from Professor Karoline Lewis, a quote that I know I really needed to hear:
“Sometimes, I think we forget that being saved by Jesus, to follow Jesus, means that you have others around to save you on a daily basis. To remind you of who you are and who you are called to be. To see you and appreciate you and celebrate you. To tell you how far you have come and where God still needs you to go. To come alongside you so that you realize you are not alone.
She continues: When Jesus calls the disciples in Mark, notice what’s absent -- no individualism, no being left on your own, no pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. No, “you can handle this, so, buck up, buttercup.” No, “follow me and good luck with that.” Rather, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That is, follow me and more followers are to come. Follow me and you will never be by yourself. Notice -- Jesus calls them together, not separately. Andrew and Simon. Then James and John. Discipleship is not an autonomous profession.”(1)
In discipleship, God calls us into community. And this is really important because to do what Jesus asks, as in verse 14, Repent and believe the good news, we need other people. As I preach over and over, spiritual work can be hard, scary, exhilarating, exhausting….and changing the way we think, trusting in the goodness of the world, all of these thing are harder done alone than with companions. God calls us into community, so that when we are asked to do the things that are difficult, and the Jonah parts of us rise up, we can stay with it. We might feel like we deserve to be in the belly of a fish, but we have a community to tell us differently. Being in a community doesn’t protect us from failing; from pouting like Jonah or constantly not understanding what the kingdom is about like the disciples. But the resurrection, God’s ultimate statement about the existence of a universe that stands for life, and growth and transformation, this brought the disciples back into community, and they went on to form christian community around the world, and through the ages.
Now, Swedenborg doesn’t really tell us a lot about the phenomenon and practice of Christian fellowship. He writes a little bit about how a church should function ecclesiastically and about the responsibilities of its leaders, but not so much about walking together in Christian community, about “doing life together” in modern Christian parlance. What he does write about, a lot, is of course, heavenly communities. In Swedenborg’s worldview, heaven consists of countless communities of the heart, people joined together in fellowship because of the similar loves that they share. All these communities have different roles and functions, and they fit together in a cooperative and inter-related manner like a human body. Swedenborg calls this the Grand Human. The greater Christian world has a similar idea applied to the church: the body of Christ.
Community and inter-relatedness are part of the divine design. The theologian Brian McLaren writes: Although you can learn beliefs in isolation, you can't learn love apart from a community.(1) Whether it is through communities of family, work, church or other, we need other people in order to learn how to love, to challenge us, to hold space for us, to trust us, to believe in us. The God of Divine Love would have it no other way. And as we stand on the precipice of a holiday devoted to gathering for the purpose of thanksgiving, let’s us praise a God who made us for each other.
(2) Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, p56
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Mark 1: 14-20
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Heaven and Hell #59
The Whole Heaven, Grasped as a Single Entity, Reflects a Single Individual
It is a secret not yet known in this world that heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual. In heaven, though, nothing is better known. Knowing this, knowing particulars and details about it, is the hallmark of angelic intelligence there. In fact, many other things follow from it and do not come clearly and distinctly to mind without this as their general principle. Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human -"divine" because the Lord's divine nature constitutes heaven.