A couple of weeks ago I preached on Jesus calling the first disciples (Mark 1:16-20), and something jumped out at me in the reading of that text that I chose not to incorporate into the sermon for the week, but it is an idea that continues with me several weeks later.
I don’t believe, for all the sermons I’ve heard, that I have heard any pastor reflect on the fact that the first four disciples Jesus calls are brothers- Simon and Andrew, James and John. These are men who have known each other since birth. There are have fights over favorite toys, questions about which parents loves which child more, pressures to live up to expectations set by the older broth or to change the reputation of the family the older brother has set.
As adults, rivalries (surely still present beneath the surface) are put aside as they enter into their co-ventures as fishermen in Galilee.
So when Jesus calls these two pairs of brothers, I’m left wondering both some practical questions and some deeper theological ones.
Practically, did the ability to have his brother along for the unknown journey give each man the courage to step out of the boat and into the line with Jesus? Often we don’t want to take risks alone but have more courage to do so if we are with someone who knows us well and who we can trust to have our best interest at heart. Is that one of the reasons Simon and Andrew, James and John were willing to take this risk? They would not be journeying alone.
The second reflection has to do with Jesus’ later words about biological families. There’s his own harsh words he offers when told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, “Who are my mother and brothers?… Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:32-35). Or in Matthew when Jesus calls a man to follow him, and the man requests to go bury his deceased father first. Jesus replies, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22).
So much of Jesus’ ministry is about a redefinition of family beyond traditional biological ties and ethnic culture but the new community formed through his witness to the Kingdom of God and later through baptism into the new life of resurrection. If this redefinition of family is a central part of Jesus’ message, then why begin his family with two sets of biological brothers?
There may be a point that familial ties are not our primary identifiers once we belong to Jesus and his Kingdom, but our biological families are welcome to witness to that kingdom with us. Simon and Andrew, James and John may show us how families can witness through their common work to the ministry of Jesus.
Finally, I hear this call of these two sets of brothers and I think of all the other sets of brothers in the Bible and their less than ideal relationships. You have Cain who murders his brother Abel because God prefers meat to Cain’s vegetables (Genesis 4). Then there’s the whole debacle with Noah’s sons shortly after the flood waters recede(Genesis 9:18-29). You have Ishmael and Isaac, both sons of Abraham by different mothers who are separated by Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be banished to the wilderness (Genesis 21:1-21). You have Jacob who tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright and impersonates his hairy sibling to win the blessing of their father (Genesis 25:27-34, Gen. 27). And lets not even get into the issues that David’s sons deal with (2 Samuel 13 thru 19).
Based on previous performance, it wouldn’t look like God would call a pair of brothers to carry out God’s new heaven and new earth mission. But perhaps that’s what grace looks like, redeeming the very relationships that have sullied our human relationships so much.
As a new parent to two children (though a son and a daughter, not two sons), I am drawn to these sibling narratives in new ways, and I think these stories tell us that siblings can be both trusted and helpful travel companions on the journey of faith or they can lead to our destruction, isolation, resentfulness, and anger. Who remains at the center of our sibling relationships may be the key. For Simon and Andrew, James and John, service to God through their work with Jesus is what bonds them together and will eventually empower their greater witness through the early church.
May the brothers and sister we know cultivate these same relationships of mutual focus and concern on the ministry of our Lord, that God’s will might be what binds us, heals us, empowers us, and calls us continually to serve.