Third Sunday after Epiphany

How many do we need?

Coventry Cathedral - Fish
Spence, Basil. "Coventry Cathedral - Fish," from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

January 21, 2024

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Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

Welcome to the Third Sunday after Epiphany, the continuing season of Light.


Much has happened in the Gospel of Mark by the time we reach this week’s Gospel text.

  1. The beginning of the Gospel has been announced.
  2. John the Baptist has appeared and has offered a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins to the people.
  3. Amazingly, Jesus has been baptized by John.
  4. Jesus has endured 40 days and nights of Satan’s wilderness temptation while being cared for by angels.


Our pericope opens with the barest notice that John the Baptist has been arrested (verse 14). This foreshadows Mark 6:14-29, where details of John’s arrest—and execution—will be revealed. The readers are also put on tacit alert that Jesus may be in for political trouble as well in his own future. Jesus then speaks his first words in the Gospel of Mark (1:15). As such, they are programmatic for the rest of the Gospel. Jesus 

  1. announces that God’s kingdom has come near (is at hand), and
  2. invites his hearers to repent 
  3. and to believe the good news.

Thus Jesus’ opening statement of the Gospel partially mirrors John the Baptist’s call/invitation to repentance.

Then, in by far the bulk of the passage in terms of verses and words spoken, Jesus calls his first four followers, namely Simon, Andrew, James, and John (Mark 1:16–20).  

Repent and believe the good news

If I am not mindful enough of my driving when I go to get gas at my favorite gas station in the town where I live and approach the station from the west rather than from the east, I end up having to drive an extra block, sometimes two. This is because of the many “No U-turn” signs that drivers encounter in this area (designed, I am told, to prevent cruising up and down the town’s main boulevard). 

So it is that Jesus’ invitation to “repent” calls the hearer to a not-so-easy undertaking.

Making a U-turn is a pretty good image for repentance: make a 180-degree turn, a full-on about-face, in your spiritual life. Turn around; turn back to God. Get on track with fulfilling all that God calls you to be and do.

Oh yes. Not only that, but also believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. Which leads us straightaway into the following verses …

The first four followers—in other words, believers

In verses 16–20, Jesus calls his first four followers, Simon and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. These four fishermen immediately respond to Jesus’ invitation and follow him.

Jesus will, of course, end up calling a total group of 12 followers. He will call Levi in 2:13–14, and will call the remaining seven in 3:13–19: Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, (another) James, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot.

How many do you need? I’ll take a dozen disciples, please

I recently attended a large congregation of a certain denomination that is experiencing precipitous declines in attendance in worship and participation in congregational ministries—as are many congregations in some countries these days, of course. A number of years ago this congregation had an average of several hundred people in two services of Sunday worship each week; a flourishing Sunday school program for children, youth, and families; vibrant community ministries such as a food pantry, participation in community homeless services, et cetera. 

On my visit I was told that there are now a mere 20 people in the larger, later service; perhaps 8–10 in an earlier service; no Sunday school; and drastically scaled-back community engagement.  The thought recently occurred to me: How many do we need? If Jesus began his movement with 12 apostles/disciples, why can’t we? Looked at in this way, this congregation that I was visiting had more than double the number of disciples that Jesus started with. 

Setting aside the usual preoccupation with numbers, what would we need? Greater faith? Stronger commitment? More engagement? Probably all these and more. But a smaller number to begin with does not necessarily mean that the congregation cannot succeed in a fresh start or renewal for ministry. This kind of approach to this Gospel lesson and the church’s ministry today has the advantage of celebrating, honoring, respecting, and challenging those who are present rather than showing anxiety over those who are not.

Whom does Jesus call to follow him today?

The preacher where I was worshiping one Sunday some years ago had a very creative appropriation of this text. When she came to the list of names of Jesus’ original 12 apostles, she named the original 12 and then asked, “What are the names of those whom Jesus calls to follow him today?” 

Then she made bold to step down out of the pulpit and down into the pews where the worshipers were seated. She proceeded to call out the names of a number of parishioners and say to them: “________, Jesus calls you today to come and follow him!” She then capped off the sermon by holding up a directory of congregation members and saying, “If your name is in here, Jesus calls you today to come and follow him!” And as a sort of lighthearted coda to her preaching, she said, “And if your name’s not in here, let’s talk!”  

So if you start with a small number of strong, committed, faithful followers of Jesus, or if you refresh the calling of everyone in your congregation or other ministry setting, Jesus’ proclamation in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is good news: “Come and follow me!”