Two ardent fishermen met on their vacation and began swapping stories about the different places they had fished, the kind of tackle used, the best bait, and finally about some of the fish they had caught. One of them told of a vicious battle he once had with a 300-pound salmon. The other man listened attentively. He frankly admitted he had never caught anything quite that big. However, he told about the time his hook snagged a lantern from the depths of a very deep lake. The lantern carried a tag proving it was lost back in 1912. But the strangest thing of all was the fact that it was a waterproof lantern and the light was still lit. For a long time the first fisherman said nothing. Then he took one long deep breath. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said slowly. “I’ll take 200 pounds off my fish, if you’ll put out the light in your lantern.”
Today’s gospel reading deals with fishermen. In fact the gospel account we heard today is from Peter. Mark is Peter’s gospel. And it is very unlike what we think of as a fisherman’s exaggerated story. It is almost stark in its simplicity. Today we read about our first Christians. What is it to be a Christian? Our readings today from Jonah and the Gospel reading offer us two views of Christianity. The first view is what the world thinks and the second is what Jesus taught.
In the reading from Jonah we see the prophet go to Nineveh. He did not want to go which is how he had ended up in the belly of the fish. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because it was the capital city of Israel’s primary enemy, Assyria. The Assyrians were a very cruel nation. The accounts written in the Bible talk of their cruelty, but there are also the archeologist’s reports. What the archeologists have discovered is that even the art with which they decorated their walls was of cruelty to others. Their art glorifies savagery and death, they have murals of mounds of heads and people being flayed, that sort of thing. That art was a depiction of their real life. No, Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He wanted them to all die. He wanted them to be judged and condemned. But finally he obeys God and goes and preaches. Notice in his short sermon he simply tells them they are going to be overthrown. But what happens? People got scared. And they stopped doing bad and tried to be good. This is one view of Christianity then, being a nice person, maybe going to church, maybe even giving money to worthy causes. This is the view of many in the United States today. If you ask the person on the street, “Are you a Christian?” Many would reply, “Yes, I try to be a good person.” And the postscript to Nineveh, God decided not to send the calamity he had planned to upon them. And this fits with that perspective as well. If I try to be good, then bad things won’t happen to me. This is why there are books dealing with the topic, ‘When bad things happen to good people.’ Our society doesn’t understand when this happens.
In the gospel reading today we see a different view of Christianity. We see Jesus calling Peter and Andrew and James and John to follow him. They immediately jump out of their boats and follow him. For three years they camp out with Jesus, and listen to him teach. They watch him heal the sick, cast out demons, and even make dead people come back to life. They get sent out to heal people and cast out demons. Can you imagine how that was? Can you imagine living with and talking to Jesus? I want to sit down and listen to him teach and talk about the kingdom and watch him touch people and heal them watch him cast out demons, walk on water and all that. But guess what? Jesus is not here in the flesh anymore. We do not have the option of jumping out of our fishing boats, to go and camp out with Jesus like the first disciples did. Following Jesus now is different now than it was. The Christianity we have now is on the one hand harder and on the other hand easier than it was for those first disciples.
It is harder in that we do not have a visible and physical Jesus to follow. It is harder because we do not get to see all the wonderful miracles that Jesus performed while he was here. It is harder now because we do not get to see first-hand what it means to live the kind of life he expects his followers to live. We don’t get to watch Jesus in real life dealing with people in every-day situations. We have to follow by faith.
On the other hand Christianity is easier. It is easier because now we have a big-picture of what Jesus did and why he lived the way he did; why he had to die on the cross. We do not need to be confused about what he was trying to do and why he did not for example try to kick out the Romans. We know why now. We see and understand that Christianity, that following Jesus is a whole life process. We see that following Jesus means we need to struggle against our own selfish urges and inclinations to do bad things, we struggle with the selfish and bad things that others do to us, and finally we struggle against the evil powers in this world. So we know that it will always be a struggle to live like God wants us to live. Following Jesus also means that focus of our lives moves from being centered here on this world to being centered on our heavenly home. This world is only the first chapter of our lives and compared with our eternal life, it is a very short first chapter; it is almost a preface. “When we have been there 10 thousand years” it says in Amazing Grace. 80 90, or even 100 years is a very short time compared to 10 thousand years. And 10 thousand years compared to a million is nothing. Following Jesus then is a total shift of what is important in life.
The bottom line is what we learn Christianity is from our gospel account is that Christianity is centered around following Jesus. Christianity is more than trying to be a nice person. Repenting from being bad like the citizens of Nineveh is great, God likes it, but only trying to be good doesn’t make one a Christian. Christianity starts with following Jesus. This following begins with believing that he was the God-man who died in our place to save us from the penalty of our sins. But He died why? He died so we could have a relationship with God, through Jesus. And that is the point of our Christianity, a relationship with God. But how is a relationship possible if he is not physically here?
We see a picture of it in our Psalms reading. ‘For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. In God is my safety and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge. Put your trust in him always, O people, pour out your hearts before him.’ Who is the God for whom we wait? Who is this God who is my rock and salvation, my stronghold so that I will not be shaken? Who is this God that we can pour our hearts out to? Who is he? He is Jesus. That is who God is. That is what God looks like. That is how we understand God. When we try to conceptualize God we think of him in terms of who Jesus is.
So Christianity is not simply a matter of trying to be good. Not that trying to be good is a bad goal. Christianity is to follow Jesus. In order to follow him we need to learn who He is. And we do this by learning all we can about what Jesus taught in the Scriptures. But that is only part of it. As we learn who Jesus is we see who God is and we are to be pouring out our hearts and developing a relationship with God because now we now know who He is.