“Immediately: without lapse of time; without delay; instantly; at once, with no object or space intervening.” This is the way the dictionary defines the word ‘immediately’ but if you want to see what immediately looks like, just observe Peter, Andrew, James, and John in the first chapter of the gospel of Mark. Mark says that when Jesus called to them, these four responded “immediately”, without delay, at once, with no thought of what they left behind.
Have there ever been times when you have responded immediately with no hesitation to a call? A few weeks ago when word got out that Alfred Pharmacy was taking appointments for the Covid vaccine, I know a lot of you responded “immediately.” You didn’t say, “Let me add that to my to do list for tomorrow,” or “I’ll give them a call after lunch.” You got on the phone immediately, and probably got a busy signal because a thousand other people responded “immediately.”
In the case of the vaccine, your quick response was because you knew that there is a limited supply and you wanted to get your name in before they ran out. Often when we respond to something immediately, it is for fear of missing out, but I don’t think that’s the reason that Peter, Andrew, James, and John responded so quickly to Jesus. It’s not as if Jesus was about to hop on a jet plane — the disciples could easily catch up to him if they decided to join him later. Why did they feel compelled to go that minute, without even taking the time to put their boat in dry dock before they left for this long-term journey?
Perhaps it was from the impulsiveness of youth that is always seeking adventure. When my son Mathew graduated from college last spring, he brought four years of college life home with him and stuffed the boxes and bags into our basement. He told me that he would be home for a month before moving to Florida and then to California where he would begin his new job and adult life, and looking at the number of boxes stacked in our basement, I anticipated that he would spend several days of his time at home going through his things choosing what to take with him and what he would leave behind. As the day for his departure drew near, however, the boxes remained untouched.
“If he leaves this to the last minute,” I thought, “it will take him forever to get on the road. There is so much to think about; so many decisions he needs to make about what to take. After all, he’s moving to the west coast, it’s not like he’ll be able to just drop by the house again if he forgets to bring something.” Mathew remained unmoved by my worry and on the morning of his departure, he jumped out of bed at 7:30, packed a few things in his car, and was gone by 8. Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Mathew took what he needed for that moment and went “immediately.” The call of the new life was too exciting to spend time worrying about what he might be leaving behind.
Most of us, however, are no longer in the flush of youth but have been around the block a few times. We are less likely to grab new opportunities without thinking them through. We know how quickly the shine wears off those glittering possibilities and we have experienced the many pitfalls that lie among the promises. Moreover, as we get older, we become more entrenched in responsibilities that are not as easily discarded as those of a 21 year old. We are less like the impulsive Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and more like poor Mr. Zebedee who still has to get the fish in in spite of being suddenly bereft of his sons’ strong hands.
“Oh, that’s OK, boys,” I can imagine him yelling after James and John, sarcasm dripping from his voice, “Don’t give me another thought. Somehow I’ll manage to catch enough fish without you to keep the family from starving this winter.”
Generations of Christians have heard preachers extoll the commitment of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and the immediacy with which they responded to the call of Christ, suggesting that we should all do likewise. And church members listening to those sermons wonder if worrying about the mortgage and our children’s college tuition and asking who is going to feed the cats while we chase off to become missionaries in outer Mongolia makes us somehow less Christian. Is impulsiveness a Christian virtue? Is worrying about our responsibilities a vice? While I agree that our commitment to Christ may call us to take on new challenges, I have to ask, would Christ ever really ask us to commit ourselves to those challenges in such an impulsive way that everyone else in our lives has to pick up the pieces after we are gone?
I remember very clearly a conversation between my mother and father on the way to church one morning when I was about 12. My mother mentioned some friends of hers who had decided on a whim to spend the weekend in Toronto and my father shook his head and replied, “I think it sad to have so few responsibilities that it doesn’t make a difference to anyone if you suddenly leave town.” It wasn’t that my father never took a weekend off; it was the idea that one’s life might be so free of commitments to other people that you could go wherever you pleased whenever you pleased and no one would care. For my father, his responsibilities to his family, to his church, and to the students he taught were not burdens but were things that gave his life meaning and purpose. Although there were many times when he certainly felt God tugging him in a new direction, he always considered those calls in light of his current responsibilities saying that he felt that his obligations to family and others were part of the entire picture of God’s vision for his life. Anyone who knew them would have described my parents as faithful disciples and yet I can’t remember a single occasion when they answered Christ’s call to them “immediately.” When they took in foster children, they did it only after a lot of prayer and conversation. When they joined the Baptist Peace fellowship, when my father began offering conflict resolution courses in churches, they researched how best to proceed and the trade-offs that they would be making before making that commitment of their time. My parents are not alone in their deliberate approach to Christ’s call: I have known innumerable people who have taken on challenges because they felt it was what Christ was calling them to do, but I can’t think of a single person who engaged in that discipleship impulsively and without regard for the responsibilities they had to others.
What then, do we do with this passage? What is it telling us about our call to Christ and about what it means to be his disciple?
After years of struggling with this passage, I have come to the conclusion that the nature of the disciples’ response is not the central message of the gospel; what we are supposed to hear in this story is the compelling nature of Jesus.
“Let me show you who this Jesus is,” Mark says in the opening chapter of his account. “Jesus is a person that you want to be with and to know more about. There is something so compelling about his vision that when you hear him speak, you realize your life has been without purpose until he came along; you realize that nothing makes sense without him. Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, you suddenly recognize that this man is the one you need walking at your side.” We aren’t supposed to read this scene as a command to impulsively chuck all of our responsibilities in the name of Jesus; we are supposed to read this passage and say, “I too, cannot imagine my life without Christ in it and I, too, will work to find a way to be with him every day, to live in the presence of his love and shape my life to fit into his vision of God’s realm.” The disciples charged off after Jesus compelled to follow because they could not imagine the emptiness that they would feel if this remarkable presence left them behind.
During Dexter time today, I had people in the congregation call to Dexter to try to get him to leave my side but no matter how enticingly they called to him, he remained steadfastly with me. I had been pretty confident that that is how he would react because he is, what some people have called, a velcro dog. When I am working at my laptop in the living room, Dexter is asleep comfortably on the couch next to me. If I go upstairs to my bedroom, Dexter immediately leaps off the couch and charges up the stairs where he goes back to sleep on the bed. If I sit at the dining room table, he curls up asleep under my feet even though the more comfortable couch is a mere four feet away. And when I leave the house, Dexter runs to the door without hesitation. He has no idea where we are going — we could be going for a walk, we could be going to church, to the office, to a friend’s, to the groomer, to the vet, to Timbucktu – it doesn’t matter. What is important to Dexter is simply that he is with me. He is a velcro dog.
The gospel called us to be velcro disciples. We are called to attach ourselves so securely to Christ that we walk with him every day of our lives. Whenever we face a decision, we should immediately turn to Christ and spend time in prayer considering carefully what he would have us do. When we are angry or hurt or inclined to lash out, we should immediately ask, “Jesus, how do you want me to react to this person? What is the most Christ-like response?” When we are moved by the suffering of the world, we are called not to immediately charge off impulsively on a half baked mission but to immediately turn to Christ as we thoughtfully and prayerfully consider our way forward. We are called to be velcro disciples attaching our hearts so securely to this man that we make no decision, take no action, form no opinion, before turning first to him for guidance.
Immediately: without delay; instantly; with no object or space intervening. May we all respond to his call by becoming velcro disciples, with no object or space intervening between our lives and the heart of Christ.