Detachment from Fear

Third Sunday Scripture Readings

Last Sunday’s gospel, taken from Saint John the Evangelist, showed us two of John the Baptist’s disciples leaving him at the Jordan and following Jesus. If our speculation is correct and the disciples were Andrew and John, then we’ll find in today’s gospel from Saint Mark the same two also following Jesus but in an entirely different context. We don’t have to tie ourselves into knots trying to reconcile these two narratives. All we need to remember is that the two evangelists—John and Mark—wrote with very different purposes and perspectives.

At the very least, we can see that John’s purpose was to show how the Baptist was not himself the Messiah, but the precursor to the Messiah. John, who himself had been one of John’s disciples but who left him to follow Jesus, testified to that. In contrast, Mark let us see that Jesus came not to call the chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, and Herodians, who were the leaders of the people of Israel, but he called common blue-collar workers—what we would call commercial fishermen.

As we examine today’s gospel, notice that nothing in the text suggests that the fishermen, Andrew and John, were not also disciples of John the Baptist. The roles weren’t mutually exclusive. All Mark is doing is reminding us that the four principal disciples of Jesus—Andrew and Peter, James and John—were fishermen and not people of high status. As always, if we were to ask, “Did the scene we read about in today’s gospel really happen exactly as Mark described it?” I would have to say that we’d be asking the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking, “What lessons did Mark intend to convey by presenting us with this event?”

There is, of course, the point I mentioned that Jesus came for the little people—God’s anawim. In addition to that, I believe that there are two somewhat deeper lessons that Mark considered critically important for the fledgling Christian Community. One lesson comes from the fact that Andrew and Peter left their nets and boats to follow Jesus. What would it cost to leave one’s livelihood and the promise of security to follow a spiritual teacher? The other lesson comes from the brothers James and John who left their father Zebedee and his company to follow Jesus. How difficult would it be to leave one’s family and friends behind to give oneself to spiritual pursuits? In other words, in terms of security and human relationships, what is the cost of discipleship?

Christian writers and preachers throughout the ages have been promoting “renunciation.” After all, Jesus himself was quoted as saying, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; … Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” [Matthew 10:37-38]. Christian literature is full of references to self-denial. The season of Lent that will be upon us in just a few weeks is practically dedicated to it. How often have we been asked, “What are you giving up for Lent?” In a similar vein, we’ve also seen Jesus quoted as saying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor … Then come follow me.” [Matthew 19:21] This isn’t news to us. Yet, does the Christian message suggest that spirituality means we should be destitute and alone? I don’t believe that. I think the gospel has an even deeper meaning.

To reach this more profound understanding, perhaps it might help to ask a question that few have posed: what is the purpose of spirituality? Don’t we pursue a spiritual life in order to establish and maintain intimate, conscious contact with our God? Yet, even with the gospels as our guide, it’s hard to know what we need to do. Maintaining that spirituality is often a struggle. What gets in the way of our intimacy with God? In a word, it’s fear. Simply that. Some say that faith conquers fear. That’s not my understanding. At least for me, faith in the existence of God, although necessary, isn’t sufficient. How does simply believing in God benefit me? Just because I accept the existence of God as a fact, doesn’t make me a spiritual person, nor does it relieve me of my existential fears. Spirituality requires more—much more. In addition to faith, spirituality requires what we call hope, or, in other words, trust in the God we believe in. And that, I believe, is the underlying message of today’s gospel.

Living in unmitigated fear is unendurable. We seek a remedy to fear—call it “security,” or call it “salvation.” At its core, all fear can be distilled down to the fear of extinction. That’s the flip side of our survival instinct—the most powerful instinct of all. We crave an antidote to existential fear. We look for the antidote in people, places, and things, but they fail to satisfy. We plot and plan and struggle to acquire whatever we imagine will be necessary for our survival, but success is elusive. Life is a struggle. We’re constantly striving to achieve some modicum of security. No amount of effort is too extreme, and no expense too great to attain that goal. Yet even the Buddhists understand that it’s that desire to achieve and to attain that’s the source of all our suffering. Why? Because all of our striving through our own willpower is an exercise in futility. There’s an old saying that goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

The message of today’s gospel—which is the essence of the Christian message—is detachment. Andrew and Peter were free to follow Jesus and attain intimacy with the Father because they lived detached from their business and their livelihood. James and John were free of any hesitation to follow Jesus and live a spiritually-based life because they were detached from their family and their home. We mustn’t imagine that these things—business, livelihood, friends, family, and home—are bad things. No. Of course not. But God wants us to recognize that the pursuit of these things alone cannot save us. They can’t bring us peace, satisfaction, or salvation from our fears of failure and death. We’re cautioned against clinging to any of these things. Detachment is the Christian way.

Let’s take this lesson to its ultimate conclusion. In today’s gospel, Jesus calls us as well as Andrew and Peter, James and John. He calls us to detach with love. He invites us to use our free will not to acquire, but to release our death grip on the results of our own plans, wants, and desires. It’s said that mankind proposed, but God disposes. Trust that God knows what he’s doing, and that the One who holds the universe in existence has the capability and the will to do what’s best for you, regardless of how it looks or feels. That trust is the source of our hope and the remedy for our fears. When we pray, “Thy will be done,” we’re not asking God to do anything. Instead, we’re committing ourselves to surrender to God’s will. Our trust in God allows us to detach from the expectations we carry about the results of our actions. That detachment is our only hope for peace and serenity and freedom from fear. God’s will will be done, with or without our cooperation. Some say, “Let go and let God.” The fact is, let go, or be dragged.

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