The good news about Jesus Christ is that the kingdom of God has drawn near. That is how Mark introduces his gospel (Mark 1:1-15). The first half (Mark 1:16-8:30) narrates the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the activity of Jesus. The second half (Mark 8:30-16:8) identifies Jesus as the suffering servant who gives his life for the world and inaugurates a new world.
The setting for the first half is Galilee while the setting for the second half is the journey to and ministry in Jerusalem. The former is focused on Jesus’ authority, teaching and mentoring of the disciples while the latter is focused on the passion of Jesus in both anticipation and actualization. In the first half Jesus is the amazing, authoritative teacher who speaks and acts as God’s representative while in the second half Jesus is the redemptive sufferer for the world.
Jesus’ Galilean ministry begins with the call of his first disciples. Mark introduces four key people who will figure promienently in his narrative. He also introduces the language that will shape his understanding of these figures–they followed Jesus. In Mark 1:16-18, Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, two brothers. In Mark 1:19-20, Jesus calls two other brothers, James and John. In both stories, the final line (in v. 18 and in v. 20) in Greek is “they followed him” (though in Greek it is two different expressions with an overlapping semantic range).
“Follow” is Mark’s word for discipleship (akolouthew is used seventeen times). The concept, however, is more important than the word itself. Discipleship is foundational to the ministry of Jesus. It is his first concrete act in the Gospel–he calls others to follow him. “Come afer me,” he says to Peter and Andrw. He “called” James and John. They left everything, but not in the sense that they would never fish the sea of Galilee again or no longer have homes. Rather, they left everything in the sense that they fundamentally reoriented their lives. Their calling (vocaton) to follow Jesus is more fundamental than their careers as fishermen. Their vocation now shapes their careers and what they do with their careers. It is a realignment of priorities.
For us as well, discipleship is a fundamental realignment of our priorities. We find our vocation in following Jesus no matter what our careers may be. Indeed, our careers, shaped by discipleship, are means by which we follow Jesus as we embody the kingdom of God in our various jobs. Those jobs are forms of discipleship as we follow Jesus. Our careers, as they participate in the mission of Jesus, are one means by which we live our calling (vocation).
What does Jesus call them–and us–to do? The funadmental message of Jesus is key (Mark 1:14-15) and when linked with the language of human fishers a significant point emerges. The language of “fishing” for people is present in the Hebrew prophets (Jeremiah 16:16; Ezekiel 29:41, 38:4; Amos 4:2; Habakkuk 1:14-17), but there it is associated with divine judgment as God gathers humanity for an accounting. The language is also present in Qumran–a community contemporary with the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. They regarded themselves as the instrument of God’s ingathering.
The disciples as fishers are those who heraled the message of Jesus to “repent and believe the gospel.” In other words, they are called to gather a community of penitent believers who live in the light of the coming kingdom, the coming eschatological reality (including judgment). As Lane writes, “The summons to be fishers of men is a call to the eschatological task of gatering [a community] in view of the forthcoming judgment of God” (Gospel of Mark, 68).
To be “fishers” is, then, evangelism, the heralding of the good news (gospel). However, we should be careful that we do not immediately associate this with contemporary revivalist preaching or witnessing. Evangelism certainly includes such but the vision is much larger than that. It is the gathering of a community of disciples among whom the kingdom reigns as they live penitently and humbly in anticipation of the eschaton. This envisions a community that heralds the reign of God in all its dimensions–economic justice, ecology, and peace as well as the forgiveness of individual sins. To be “fishers” is to participate in a community of disciples that heralds the reign of God.
Through calling disciples, some of whom will be called the “Twelve” (Mark 6:6), Jesus mentors a community whose task is evangelism. That community, now empowered by the Spirit poured out at Pentecost, continues in the church. One cannot follow Jesus without participating in community, without heralding the good news, and without praticing the kingdom of God in their lives. Just as we followed Jesus into the water and then into the wilderness, so we follow him in heralding and practicing the good news of the kingdom of God.
In this text, Jesus calls four disciples. These are the first of millions. Contemporary believers are part of that group, and contemporary believers, just like Peter, Andrew, James and John, must be mentored (discipled) by Jesus. That is why we read, study, pray over and meditate upon the Gospel of Mark. Through such Spirit-led focused attention–both in private and in community, we learn how to follow Jesus.