Sermon on Mark 1:14-20 for Epiphany +3B, Jan. 21, 2018
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Monday was Dr. Martin Luther King day, and I want to thank all of you who baked or bought snacks and fruit for us to pass out. It was a wonderful day of celebration of all that Dr. King’s movement has accomplished for civil rights in our country.
Dr. King liked to speak of his vision of a reconciled humanity as “the Beloved Community”.
That is a beautiful way of putting it. In a speech he gave after the US Supreme Court’s decision desegregating Montgomery’s busses, he said,
“the end [goal] is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” Kingdom language is a metaphor. To speak of a kingdom brings up the concepts such as systems of legal justice, of economics and social structures. This is all very intentional. To say “kingdom of God” sounds like a direct counter to “kingdom of Caesar” or “kingdom of Herod” – which it should sound like. There is a challenge in it. Kingdom of God means the way things work when God is in charge; when God’s will is done on earth, as it is in the divine realm.
Paul used other metaphors. He liked to speak of us as a body – the body of Christ. He also spoke of us as a family, or a building; even one time as a field. There are many metaphors, all of them capture something essential about who we are.
Common to all of them is that this community exists because it has been called into existence. We gather together because we have come to understand ourselves as called by God into this community. We have felt the tug on our hearts to look up, in awe and wonder, and gratitude. We understand this as the call of love.
So yes, as Dr. King said, “the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” There is something that has pulled us away from seeing the world as it is, the status quo, as the world as it must be. We have been called to a higher vision, a more beautiful vision of life as it could be – life as it was meant to be – life as it can be.
We have before us today the text from the Gospel according to Mark. This is what we call a “call story” or “call narrative”. We see Jesus bursting onto the scene as a full grown adult, calling people to follow him.
The text is almost mysterious. It leaves out all the background details. How does Jesus know these people to whom he says, “Follow me”?
What do they know about him? How is it that they are willing to simply drop everything and start following Jesus? Where will it lead? How will they live?
The fact that we do not know any of those details simply highlights the one detail in the story that we get to see: they encounter Jesus, who is calling them, and their encounter with Jesus and his call is compelling enough, all by itself. I think that is still true. Encountering Jesus is enough.
I was reading in John Phillip Newell’s book “Praying with the Earth: a Prayerbook for Peace” in which he recounts the story of what happened at a spirituality course he and his wife taught. Participants in leadership included a Jewish Rabbi and a woman who was a Sufi Muslim teacher named Ramah. He said after one of their readings of scripture, Ramah’s face was radiant. She said,
“I so love Jesus, peace be upon him. He is so compassionate. He is so humble. He is so merciful. I so love Jesus, peace be upon him.”
Her encounter with Jesus, through scripture reading, was powerful. It moved her. I think that is the effect Jesus must have had on people. He was clearly a person so seamlessly in touch with the Divine, with God, that people were drawn to him. So when he said, “Follow me” they did.
There is no doubt that Jesus was a mystic – that he had frequent and deep spiritual experiences – but he was not only a mystic. When he called people, he did not call them to a spiritual retreat. Though Jesus frequently spent time in spiritual retreat, he was also engaged with real people and real issues at the practical, grassroots level.
His goal was the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand; that the beloved community was a real possibility to live in, here and now. So he touched untouchable people and sat at table with people and created community where there had been hostility. It was always about the power of love.
We are here because we have had our own encounter with Jesus. We have felt the tug on our hearts of the call to follow Jesus. We know ourselves as part of the beloved community of the called. So let us encounter Jesus again today in this text.
The Date Stamp
Of all the details Mark could have given, the one that he draws our attention to is a date stamp:
“after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
It all started after John was arrested. We will later learn that John was killed by Herod. New Testament scholars believe that Jesus was originally part of John’s movement. That seems clear. We know that Jesus was baptized by John.
Mark’s gospel does not give us much detail about John’s movement, but we learn from Matthew that John seemed to believe God’s kingdom was going to come with a dramatic Divine Intervention – like an ax chopping down a tree or a great winnowing of chaff to be thrown into a fire.
But John was arrested and killed, and the heavenly armies did not appear to intervene. So, when Jesus came proclaiming the time had come and that the kingdom of God had come, it must have been a different sort of Kingdom vision than the one John had. And yes, it was different.
For Jesus, the kingdom was not coming with divine fire from heaven, but through the slow, steady growth of a community of people who had been called to embrace this new vision. God will not do it without us; and we cannot do it without God.
Make a Change
So it begins with a call to make a change. The word Jesus used is “repent” which now has been so loaded by people who have turned it into a word about guilt and shame that I sometimes think it does more harm than good. It literally means, “change your thinking” and if you think about things differently, of course, you will act differently.
In other words, the good news that calls for a change in thinking is that Caesar is not king, but that God is king, right here, right now. Embrace the vision that this moment can be lived with joy and peace, with hope and wonder, because God is here, in this moment. God is here, luring us to a new vision of a reconciled humanity. We have reconciliation with God, and reconciliation with each other. In other words, we have been called into a beloved community in which we know that we are loved by God, and that we have been put here for each other.
As Dr. King said,
“It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
There is a deep gloom of the old age that will not go away. It is the gloom of the world that some of us are old enough to remember; that others of us have seen the photographs and videos of. The gloomy, old, black and white photos of a world of nationalism and people in concentration camps. Of racism; of people being man-handled at lunch counters, of water cannons and attacking dogs.
But that world can be transformed by the power of love. That gloomy world can give way to the exuberant gladness of the new age of the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community. Miracles are possible in the hearts of people.
This is what Jesus came to proclaim. Change your thinking. Leave behind the gloom. Embrace the vision of the kingdom in which God’s will is done on earth, at every level, from the personal to the structural. This is the call to love that we have heard.
“Come”, Jesus says, “follow me.”