[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:14-20. You can read the text here.
I’d like to invite you to cast your minds back, if you can, to the summer of 1985. Ronald Reagan had begun his second term of office as US President; Mikhail Gorbachev had risen to power as de facto leader of the Soviet Union; scientists had recently announced the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer; and the soap opera Neighbours had made its first appearance on Australian television. And there were no doubt many other significant events that happened that year.
But whatever else was happening in the world back in 1985, for me, as a nearly 15-year-old lad from South Yorkshire, one event happened that summer that far surpassed anything else in its significance and consequences. Under the rather grand title Mission: England, American evangelist Billy Graham held a series of rallies at Bramall Lane football ground in Sheffield.
Looking back, it seems like a bit of a cliché, but after listening to Billy Graham talk about God’s love and forgiveness, I was one of hundreds who responded to the famous invitation to “Get up out of your seat”. I went forward, prayed a prayer of repentance, confessed Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, and turned my life over to God. I can honestly say it was an event and a decision that changed my life forever.
Called from a context
Of course, I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to go and hear Billy Graham and become a Jesus-follower; there was a context to my decision. As a child and a teenager growing up in a largely secular, post-Christian culture, I’d always been captivated by space, the cosmos, the stars… and where it all came from. I was fascinated by questions like “Why is there something instead of nothing?” So for me, the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus was a compelling answer to an existential question. Finding Jesus – or rather, being found by Jesus – gave meaning and purpose to my life in ways that nothing else could.
In today’s Gospel reading, we heard about four people – Simon and Andrew, James and John – who also responded to the call to follow Jesus. Like my decision back in 1985, their decision to put down their nets and follow this wandering teacher came in a particular context. What was that context?
Well, first of all, unlike our secular, post-Christian culture, theirs was a deeply religious culture. They weren’t preoccupied with existential questions like “Why is there something instead of nothing?”; they already knew God as the creator and sustainer of all things. So whatever it was that Jesus was calling them to, it wasn’t simply a set of ready-made answers to life’s great questions.
Secondly, Jesus called them in a particular location: Galilee. It’s tempting for us to picture Galilee as a gentle, tranquil backwater where nothing much ever happened. In fact, Galilee was at the centre of a political, commercial and military crossroads through which armies, traders and diplomats often passed. It had a thoroughly cosmopolitan population: if you went to the markets, you’d see Jews, Romans and Syrians and you’d hear Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic all being spoken. It was a busy place – and a place of potential conflict and threat. This was the kind of place where Jesus chose to call his first disciples.
Thirdly, Israel had been under harsh Roman occupation for the best part of a century, and there was a growing social and political groundswell that was driving the nation towards what would be a ruinous insurrection, revolution and war. The situation was tense: Israel was a tinderbox just waiting for the spark that would set the whole thing alight.
And fourthly, there’s the individual context out of which Jesus called these four Galileans. They were fishermen – men who worked hard to earn a living, with families to support. Mark tells us in his characteristically matter-of-fact way that they simply left their nets and their boats and followed Jesus; we can well imagine that it was no small thing to set aside their livelihoods, their reputations, and whatever meagre security they had and become followers of a prophet and teacher who would very quickly be dividing opinion and causing controversy.
We’re also told right at the beginning of today’s Gospel that John the Baptiser had just been put in prison. And here comes Jesus, in a sense continuing the work John had begun, but only after John had been arrested and imprisoned. Jesus’ ministry – and the journey into which he invites his first disciples – is a dangerous ministry right from the start.
So Jesus calls these four fishermen with no instructions beyond “Come and follow me!” They’re called to a totally uncertain future, in a perilously tense social and political climate. No doubt they’d have been scared out of their wits if they’d known what was in store for them down the road.
Called to a kingdom
But what exactly were the disciples called to, other than an uncertain future? Well, they were called to the one thing that Jesus really spent his entire ministry talking about and demonstrating: what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. This kingdom was not some otherworldly realm you’d have access to after you died, provided you responded to an altar call and asked Jesus into your heart; rather, it was God’s great project, inaugurated in and through Jesus, to remake the world. The vision Jesus presented and embodied was of a world organised around the principle of love expressed in forgiveness; a world where the littlest, the least and the lost were found and cared for on equal terms with the great and the good; a world where the only kind of sacrifice was self-sacrifice.
Of course, the actual world in which Jesus and his disciples lived was very different from the kingdom Jesus described. It was a world organised around the principle of power enforced by violence; a world sharply divided into the haves and the have-nots, where money and connections were the currency of success; a world where victims were routinely sacrificed to the gods of imperial power, so that wars could keep on being won and subjugated nations kept firmly in their place.
In fact, this kingdom of God – the new, remade world Jesus was inviting his disciples to help inaugurate – was so radically different from the existing order that the only way you could see it and enter into it was to have a complete change of worldview. You had to abandon all the things society and culture considered crucial to being a successful citizen, and instead embrace a whole new way of looking at the world that would often result in people calling you crazy or even dangerous. To describe this radical change of mind and heart, Jesus used the same word John the Baptiser had used before him: repentance. We’ve so often reduced repentance to feeling guilty about bad things we’ve done and asking God to forgive us; but really it’s so much more than that: it’s about turning away from the old order, abandoning the old rules of the game, and embracing God’s new way of arranging the world. Jesus was looking for volunteers who were willing to take the risk of laying down their former worldviews and ways of thinking, and embracing and modelling the kind of new society Jesus envisioned. And the first ones he called were these four ordinary men, who were far from educated or powerful, but were willing to risk what little they had to follow him.
What do we need to repent of?
I suppose the question we might ask, then, is what is Jesus calling us to leave behind? What must we repent of, if we’re to respond to the call to follow him and be participants in the work of the kingdom he began all those centuries ago? As I said a moment ago, we tend to think of repentance in terms of feeling guilty about bad things we’ve said or done, and making an effort to do better. Of course, it’s important to confess our failures to God and ask him to help us learn and grow. But maybe repentance needs to mean more than that for us, just as it did for Jesus’ first disciples.
So let me make some suggestions.
In a culture, like ours, that places supreme value on achievement and success, perhaps we need to repent of envy, self-promotion, and all our attempts to enhance our reputation and climb the social ladder. Perhaps we need to be on the lookout instead for the have-nots, the down-and-outs and the socially marginalised, the ones who’ll never be successful or popular. Perhaps, if we do that, we might begin to join with Jesus in remaking the world.
In a culture, like ours, that’s obsessed with compulsive consumption, to the point where it’s killing the very earth that sustains us, perhaps we need to repent of dissatisfaction, greed, and all the ways we participate in the cycle of always wanting more, newer, bigger and better. Perhaps we need instead to embrace Jesus’ novel idea that it’s better to give than to receive. Perhaps we need to make a determined effort to use what wealth we have to help those less fortunate than ourselves, rather than just to fill our own barns with grain. Perhaps, if we do that, we might begin to join with Jesus in remaking the world.
And, today of all days, on this Remembrance Sunday, when we remember those who paid the ultimate price for the way the world is arranged, in a culture, like ours, that believes to its core that might makes right, and that he who has the most firepower always wins, perhaps we need to repent of our allegiance to violence, our deeply held belief that our violence is righteous and just, while our enemies’ violence is evil. Perhaps we need instead to ask the Holy Spirit to show us opportunities to turn the other cheek, to repay evil with good, even to beat swords into ploughshares. Perhaps, if we do that, we might begin to join with Jesus in remaking the world, and we might one day, finally, see an end to war.
To summarise, then, Jesus came into a complex and volatile context, and he called ordinary people to turn away from the old, established ways of viewing and organising the world, and to embrace a new, radical, subversive and often costly way of seeing and being in the world. He wasn’t simply looking for people who would pray a prayer, agree with a set of religious beliefs and go to church to worship him once a week; he was looking for people who were willing to take a risk and dare to believe that the kingdom of God could become a reality not in some remote afterlife, but in the here and now.
Jesus comes to us now, in our own complex and volatile context, and his call to us today is just the same as it was back then in Galilee: “Come and follow me!” How will we respond?