To the Cross:
The Last Hours of Jesus and Why They Matter
Join us for our Lenten Thursdays on March 14, 21, 28 , April 4, and 11 as we share a time of food, fellowship, learning, and worship. This year we’ll be traveling through the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus’ final hours with his disciples, his arrest, his trial, and his crucifixion. We’ll explore the details of the story that is central to our faith, knowing that the resurrection of Easter holds deeper meaning when we truly understand what came before the empty tomb.
6:00 Supper with Soup and Bread
6:30 An Intergenerational Activity
7:00 Worship with a dramatic reading from the Gospel of Luke
Bring your questions. Bring your prayers. Bring a friend.
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’” Mark 1: 17-18
I am not an impulsive decision maker. I tend to agonize over decisions. Sometimes it feels like I need a multi-level algorithm just to buy a pair of socks. Black or blue? Solid or stripes? Wool or Cotton? Ankle-length or knee-high? It’s silly, really.
For decisions that are far more important than a pair of socks, like making a career change or moving to New Jersey, I’ll deliberate in several ways. I pray about it. I consult with people I trust. I make a list of pros and cons for the different options. I pray some more. I try to figure out what my gut is telling me. And it seems to work. All of the big leaps of faith in my life have opened the way to new adventures and relationships that have profoundly shaped my life – not without some struggle along the way, but I have no regrets about the big decisions.
Every time I hear this story of how Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, it absolutely knocks me over. They follow him immediately. Immediately. They drop their fishing nets and hit the road. We don’t hear anything about packing up their belongings or saying goodbye to loved ones or staring wistfully over their shoulders as they walk off with Jesus into the sunset. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and off they go.
It’s true that most things happen quickly in the gospel of Mark. By my count the word “immediately” appears 28 times throughout Mark, two of them in today’s passage. It seems to underscore the haste with which these four men change their majors from fishing to discipleship.
But come on. Deciding to leave your home, your family, your livelihood in a split second? I can’t imagine it.
That’s the thing about this story. It’s tempting to look at the rapid response to Jesus’ call as a kind of spiritual heroics – to think, “These guys were so faithful, so brave, so committed that they immediately set off on this new path without hesitation.” Maybe they deserve some credit, but we miss something when we make it solely about what those four guys did.
The first thing we miss is the role of Jesus. His voice is powerful. As we keep reading, we learn that Jesus rebukes an unclean spirit and brings it out of a man with just a sentence. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law, cures many other sick people, and chases off more demons. He cleanses a leper. He tells a paralytic to stand up and walk. He does it all with very few words.
When Jesus speaks with a command – “Follow me” – it doesn’t sound optional. So rather than make the disciples into superheroes, we should give credit to the power of the One who summons them. Jesus is where the call originates. He gives them the ability to listen and obey.[i]
Besides, as we know, the disciples were not perfect. There will be times throughout Mark’s gospel when they will be confused, stubborn, and downright difficult. In the end, as Jesus is being led to his death, these guys who seemed so eager to put down their fishing nets and follow him will run into the darkest shadows and hide out. In a crucial moment they will not defend their friend and teacher. They will not even admit that they know him. It’s right there in Chapter 14: “All of them deserted him and fled” (14:50).
To be called to follow Jesus does not mean that we will do so perfectly. That’s important to remember as we consider what Jesus is calling each of us to do and to be in the world. Too often in the church we speak of “being called” too narrowly, limiting it to discussions of those who are called to public ministry in official roles like pastors or deacons.
The language we sometimes use is vocation, from the Latin vocatio, which means “calling” – a special role to which we are summoned and by which we contribute to the world.[ii]
Every person is called. Each and every one of you. And furthermore, each and every one of you is called to multiple vocations – as you work, as you volunteer, as you go to school, as you play on a team. You are called as a family member, a friend, a leader, a colleague. We have so many callings that balancing our vocations can often feel overwhelming. We worry that work is keeping us from being the best parent. Or that being engaged with our families keeps us from volunteering more. Or that working hard on algebra keeps us from improving our hockey game. I find that when I’m feeling the most guilty about juggling vocations, it’s usually because I’m trying to rely on my own energy and motivation rather than leaning on the One who gave me these vocations in the first place – the One who says “Follow me” every day.
The person in today’s gospel who usually gets overlooked is Zebedee. This week I’ve thought a lot about the ways Zebedee was called. He was called to be a fisherman. Maybe he learned how to fish from his own father. Maybe his parents wanted him to be something else entirely, but he felt the call of the sea and loved the idea of hauling in the daily catch and working until his hands were calloused.
Zebedee was also called to be a business owner. We hear that he has hired men, so part of faithfully living out his vocation as an employer would be to treat those workers with dignity, pay them a fair wage, and mentor them in the trade he knew so well.
And Zebedee was called to be a parent. We don’t have any idea what kind of father he was, but I like to imagine that his guidance as he raised his sons prepared them to be people who could set out into the world with Jesus. It would have been much better for Zebedee if his sons had stayed home and continued the family business, but Jesus has other ideas. Zebedee, like every parent, had to let his kids follow their own path.
You may find it strange to think of your daily roles and responsibilities as vocations, but they are. They are holy work, blessed by the one whose voice is calling you to follow him. So follow him. Follow his commitment to doing all things in love. Follow his way of finding the people who need the most help. Follow his path of forgiveness – which includes forgiving yourself when you feel lousy at your vocations.
Writer Debie Thomas observes:
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the highly specific particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our muscle memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that [God] will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up…in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.[iii]
The daily stuff of our lives, however messy or imperfect it might be. That’s where faith matters most.
Listen. Do you hear it? It’s the voice of our Savior saying “Follow me.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I found this essay by Debie Thomas helpful: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1623
[iii] From Debie Thomas’ essay cited above.
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” Mark 1:10
You probably hear it before you see it. You’re pulling a shirt or a dress over your head – or you’re leaning over in a pair of pants that’s gotten a bit snug – when you hear that sound [tear paper]. Something has torn. A seam has ripped apart – perhaps you can feel cool air against your skin in a place where you shouldn’t be able to feel air at all. Or you stare in dismay at the ragged edges of the hole in the fabric. There’s nothing that can be done, at least not before you have to head out the door. When something is really torn, there’s no quick fix. You’d better find another pair of pants.
The gospel of Mark is pretty spare. It doesn’t include lots of extra details. This gospel doesn’t even give Jesus a birth story. No shepherds. No angels. No “Away in the Manger” pictures of a sleeping baby. The first time we meet Jesus, he’s fully grown and wading into the river to be baptized.
So it’s important to pay attention to the details that are included. For the stories that appear in more than one of the four gospels, it’s often helpful to compare accounts, to notice how the details differ and to imagine what those differences might say to us.
For example, in all three of the gospels that include a story of Jesus’ baptism – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – there is an opening of the heavens and a voice from God that pronounces Jesus beloved.
At that moment Matthew and Luke describe the heavens as just that – being opened. The author of Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, uses a different word. The heavens in Mark are “torn apart.” The verb is a form of “schizo” – to tear, rip, rend.[i] It’s the same root from which we get words like schism or schizophrenic. Mark suggests that some kind of barrier between heaven and earth is being ripped apart. It is not a gentle tearing. It is dramatic and bold and can’t just be sewn back together with some needle and thread.
This small detail highlights that God is breaking into the world in a new way in the person of Jesus. Whatever veil might exist between the heavenly kingdom and the earthly one is there no more. God will not be confined. God is on the loose.[ii]
We even have that image of the Holy Spirit coming down. Our translation this morning describes the Holy Spirit as descending like a dove on to Jesus. We could more accurately translate that to say that the Holy Spirit descends into Jesus. The Spirit will fully inhabit Jesus. It has entered into him and will throughout his life send him to the most unexpected places.
The Holy Spirit that enters into Jesus at his baptism will propel Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation from Satan. It will lead him into confrontations with evil in all its forms. It will send him across the sea of Galilee and into places that no one imagined the messiah would go. It will bring him to people who have been rejected by society because they were too sick, too strange, or – in many cases – merely too different from the people who held power. To borrow that classic movie line, “Nobody puts Jesus in a corner.”
I ventured into our church kitchen earlier this week and had a good laugh when I found the baby Jesus up on the counter by the dish drainer. It was the doll we use in the Christmas pageant, and I’m not sure how he got there, but it was the perfect reminder that Jesus is a Savior on the move. I joked that the spot on our counter was probably a step up from where he was born, and it certainly won’t be the strangest place that he will go in his life. At least here he can get some good coffee.
That’s what the gospels show us in the life and ministry of Jesus. There is no place that Jesus won’t go. There is no border he will not cross, no country he will not enter, no group of people he will not seek out. That includes the darkest corners of our own lives, the places we’d rather let no one see. Jesus is there too, telling us that even the most painful parts of our story can hold something holy.
Sometimes after a tragedy like a school shooting, you’ll hear people – even some prominent pastors – say, “This happened because we took God out of schools.” I take issue with that statement for two reasons. The first is that God is not a petty, vindictive deity looking to settle a score with us. But it’s also true that we couldn’t keep God out of schools if we wanted to. Schools of course must be places where children of all faiths are taught and loved and supported; that’s how it should be. But God is there. We don’t get to relegate God to the spaces that we deem appropriate. God does not consent to stay behind the barriers we try to build or the lines we try to draw in the sand. God certainly isn’t confined to this space where we worship but instead goes with us out into the world, walking with us in the joys and challenges of each day.
The other place where that verb for “torn” gets used in the gospel of Mark is in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Chapter 15, as Jesus is being tormented on the cross, we hear:
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last, the centurion said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ [verses 37-39]
At the moment of Jesus’ death, the temple curtain is torn, ripped apart, split in two. The curtain mentioned here was probably the one that separated the Holy of Holies, the place in the temple where people believed the divine presence lived, from the rest of the building. Nobody but the high priest was allowed there, and he only entered it once a year as part of a ritual to to atone for the sins of the people. So we see that in both his baptism and in his death, Jesus is about making sure that nothing comes between God and God’s people. Boundary-breaking is God’s specialty.
That tearing open of the heavens in Jesus’ baptism – it’s good news. Much better news than a rip in your pants. Because this kind of tearing does not have to be repaired. It opens the way for the repair of the world.
There is no place that Jesus will not go, no part of the world or of our lives that he does not hold in love. For that we can give thanks. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I am grateful for the observations about this language as found in Following God Through Mark: Theological Tension in the Second Gospel by Ira Brent Driggers, Preaching Mark in Two Voices by Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, and Mark (one of the Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) by David Schnasa Jacobsen.
[ii] I am influenced here by Donald Juel’s language and interpretation, as quoted in the sources above.