January 26, 2014
“There’s no need to fear. Underdog is here!” Underdog was a cartoon superhero voiced by Wally Cox. Normally Underdog was known as humble Shoeshine Boy. But when trouble or danger loomed, Shoeshine Boy would rush into a phone booth and emerge as the fearless Underdog. The damsel in distress that Underdog was always saving was Polly Purebred and the main villain, maybe the only villain, was Simon bar Sinister. Underdog was a bumbling sort of superhero. I remember he crashed a lot. But he still managed to save Polly and save the day.
I wasn’t very old when I watched Underdog. But I remember whenever he said his battle cry I would say it right along with him. “There’s no need to fear. Underdog is here!”
Underdog and Batman played by Adam West are the two superheroes that I remember from my early childhood. But superheroes of all sorts were a part of my growing up, just as they have been for my kids. My friends and I watched the cartoon Spiderman in the afternoons after school. Zach, who has loved superheroes ever since he could talk, told me, and I tell this with his permission, that some of his first memories are of the times when he would be sick late at night and the same Spiderman cartoon that I watched as a kid would be playing. I would let him watch it till he could fall asleep.
Zach comes by his love of superheroes naturally. Matt loves them. My three nephews love them. We have a variety of superhero movies in our DVD collection, and I’m sure more will be added. There are so many different superheroes being portrayed in movies today, I can no longer keep up. Along with Spiderman and Superman and Batman, there’s The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Ironman. My kids get frustrated with me when I ask questions such as, “I know Thor is a good guy, but Loki? Good or bad?”
All of this is to say that superheroes have been around for a long time; in comic books, in television shows, in movies. As a culture, we love them and I suspect that love will continue. Maybe it’s because we like the idea of there being people who live among us who seem to be ordinary, regular folks, just like us. But when trouble or danger appears, they drop their ordinary façade and reveal their true super selves. They rush in and save the day, stop the bad guy or guys, and make things better. When we hear about another shooting, in schools or movie theaters or malls, don’t we wish, secretly or not, that there was a superhero or two to come in and make things better?
You probably think I’m about to connect this love of superheroes with the expectations people in the first century Near East had of a savior. It’s true that some of the disappointment that people eventually felt about Jesus was that he wasn’t the warrior they expected. The people who followed Jesus would not have had our version of a superhero in mind, but they would have expected a fierce warrior prepared to go to battle against the powers of oppression and tyranny that dominated their lives. Jesus was not this kind of warrior. But the superheroes that I’m actually thinking of are the disciples; the disciples that we read about in our text from Matthew. These first four disciples – Simon called Peter, his brother Andrew and another pair of brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee – are the superheroes I’m thinking of.
As you heard already, these four are minding their own business, literally. When Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, he sees the four at work. They are fishermen. Peter and Andrew are casting nets into the sea. Jesus calls them, and immediately they drop their nets and follow him. Jesus walks a little farther and he sees James and John in their boat mending nets with their dad, Zebedee. Jesus calls them as well, and they drop the nets, hop out of the boat, leave Zebedee and follow Jesus.
The commentaries and Biblical scholars that I turn to each week for better understanding of scripture have done a great deal of work demystifying this passage. It’s quite likely that the disciples did know about Jesus already. The passage begins by telling us that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum. Capernaum would not have been a big city where you could get lost in the crowds. It is quite possible that the disciples would have already encountered Jesus, either in person or by reputation. Maybe they had heard him preach or teach. Maybe they had previously heard his call to repent. The point is that Jesus may not have just been some random stranger who walked up to them, said, “Follow me.” If they knew him or at least knew of him, it might explain a little more why they dropped everything and ran.
It is plausible to think that the disciples, having some knowledge of Jesus, realized what an amazing invitation they were getting and accepted. However I’m not sure it matters that much for our purposes and understanding if they knew Jesus beforehand or not. What matters is that when his call came, they answered. But I also think it is plausible to believe that had the disciples known exactly what they were getting into, they would have told Jesus, “No, thank you.”
I talked with different people this week about a time when they’ve made a decision or a choice that changed their lives. Maybe it was a decision they made impulsively, not knowing what was awaiting them. One friend of mine said that she made a decision to provide foster care for some children for a week. Just one week. Now, a year and a half later, she’s still caring for those children. They have become part of her family. But if she had known that the week she promised to give would turn into an ongoing relationship, she might have said, “No.” In fact it’s a good bet she would have definitely said, “No.” Not because she isn’t caring or loving, but because it is a huge and demanding commitment.
I wonder if the disciples didn’t accept this call to follow Jesus, to be fishers of people, in the same way. They accepted quickly, maybe without much thought about what they were getting into. Had they had an inkling of the challenges they would face, the true nature of discipleship, they might have said, “No.”
But they didn’t. Jesus called and they answered. They dropped everything and followed him. They left livelihoods and friends and family and answered the call. Poor old Zebedee, one minute he was working with his sons, mending nets, the next minute he was left in his boat. I wonder if he was thinking, “Wait? What?”
These must have been extraordinary men to do what they did. They must have been exceptional, because surely that’s why Jesus chose them, called them. He had to have known that they would follow. He had to have seen something remarkable in them, something special, some quality or trait that ordinary folks didn’t have.
To be honest, that’s what I’ve always thought about them. I realize that Jesus was compelling, extraordinary and they probably recognized something remarkable in him. But they must have been pretty incredible as well to do what they did; to leave everything and everyone and follow. They must have been, because even on my best days I can’t do what they did. I need to know I’m leaving one thing for something else. I need to know I’m going to have some security in whatever call I’m answering. I am not like those disciples. I try but I don’t have their courage or their fortitude or their willingness to answer a call from Jesus with their whole hearts, minds and bodies. That’s what I’ve thought.
The problem with that thinking is that it makes the disciples seem more like superheroes than just ordinary folks. But they weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary people, just like me, just like you. To claim the label “ordinary” doesn’t meant that we don’t have talents and abilities and something special within each of us. To claim the label “ordinary” means that we don’t have to be anything more than we are right now to answer Jesus’ call to follow. No matter how much we want to believe that the disciples were just a little higher up on the scale of specialness than we are, they weren’t. They weren’t superheroes in disguise. They were just ordinary.
We see that lived out time and time again. They follow, but they don’t get it. Peter – dear, wonderful, rash, impulsive Peter – tells Jesus in one breath that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, the One they have been waiting for … and in the next breath tells Jesus to knock it off with all this talk of death, crucifixion and rising again. You’re scaring the other guys!
The disciples were just ordinary folks. Just like me. Just like you. Jesus called them in all of their ordinariness. God worked through them, imperfect though they were, to bring about God’s purposes and God’s kingdom. They were ordinary. So are we. They were called to follow, and sometimes they stumbled in their following. Their faith wavered. They messed up. They were afraid and disbelieving. They weren’t superheroes. But sometimes they did extraordinary things. And so do we.
Jesus calls us ordinary, everyday folks to follow, to be fishers of people, to trust that we can do what we are called to do, whatever that may be. Jesus calls us to follow, not because we’re superheroes, but maybe because we’re not. Jesus calls us to follow because of who we are already, with all of our failings, all of our flaws, all of our ordinariness. We’re just ordinary folks and Jesus calls us, us, to be fishers of people. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.