Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – After the incident with the big fish, God told Jonah again to go and call Ninevah to repentance. He did. They believed him. The king called a fast and told the people to turn from evil and violent ways. God changed his mind about destroying Nineveh.
Psalm 62:5-12 – For God alone my soul waits in silence… Steadfast love belongs to the Lord, who repays all according to their work.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 – The appointed time has grown short. Don’t get married, grieve, rejoice, shop or deal with the world. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Mark 1:14-20 – Jesus preaches in Galilee and calls disciples: The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good news. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to fish for people. Jesus calls James and John.
Some traditions recognize the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25.
January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Texts can be found here.
5th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service
Thursday, January 25, 7:00 p.m.
St. Paul Methodist Church in Houston
The text for this coming Sunday is Mark 1:14-20:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Last week we had the story of Philip and Nathaniel from John 1. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks. Philip responds, “Come and see.”
This week we have a call of Simon and Andrew and James and John, sons of Zebedee, as recorded in Mark 1.
Jesus proclamation of the Good News
The first thing is to observe the content of Jesus’ preaching according to Mark.
- The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
- Believe the good news.
It strikes me that the first is indicative and the second is imperative. My New Testament professor pointed out that Paul does the same in his letters. Indicative, followed by the imperative. First, what God has done or is doing, then what we need to do. After 11 chapters about what Christ has done and is doing, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, be transformed by the renewal of your mind, don’t think too highly of yourselves, be devoted to one another, bless those who curse you,” and so on. Imperative.
It seems to me our preaching is vapid if we don’t have both the indicative and the imperative. If we have the imperative without the indicative (do this, don’t do that), then the sermon is all law and no gospel. If we have just the indicative and no imperative, no call to follow Christ, no invitation to respond to the gospel, then we have cheap grace, grace without the cross, grace without a call.
In Mark, Jesus begins with good news. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Marcus Borg points out that Jesus’ use of kingdom language is political. The Roman Empire did not call itself an “empire.” That’s our word. Their word was “kingdom,” η βασιλεια (basileia). It was the Kingdom of Rome. Jesus juxtaposes the Kingdom of Rome with the Kingdom of God.
Today we might do the opposite. Since kingdom language is rarely used, except in a few Middle Eastern monarchies, we might talk about the kingdom of God as the empire of God, or the government of God. That might help people not tune out the language, and help them appreciate the radical nature of what Jesus was preaching. A new empire.
The Kingdom of Rome was a system of domination. Wealth and power flowed to the few. You did what you were told or you were crucified. Jesus proposes an alternative, in the prophetic tradition. It’s probably what got him crucified. He’s very political. If he had wanted to avoid politics, he could have found another way of saying this.
This Kingdom of God coexists with the Kingdom of Rome, but transcends it. The Kingdom of God is breaking in now, Jesus says, because the time is right. The many healings that follow in Mark’s gospel are a sign that this is so.
The second part of Jesus’ preaching is, “Repent and believe the good news.” Borg points out that we often think of “repenting” as “feeling bad for our sins.” But repentance actually means changing our mindset. Repent (μετανοειτε), means to change, or transform your mind. We need to meta our noia.
Canadian Indigenous Bishop Michael MacDonald points out that our society does not have the capacity to think of sin as systemic. We view it as personal autonomous behavior. We look for a perpetrator to blame. But racism rarely has one person to blame. It’s baked into the laws, into our culture, into our mindset. That is what needs to change.
In Romans 12. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” the gospel is about something that happens in our minds. It’s thinking about the world differently. It’s a different world view, mindset. It requires a transformation, a change of mind, almost like being born all over again. In Philippians, Paul says, “Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus…” He goes on to talk about Jesus’ emptying of himself for God. Being “in Christ” is about dying to yourself, emptying yourself, and transforming your mind.
The gospel calls us, invites us, to see the world differently, and believe the good news. What good news is Jesus telling us to believe? The good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus? Probably not. Jesus was not asking people to believe any doctrines. He was asking them to believe the good news just stated: It’s time; the Kingdom of God is breaking in.
Gordon Lathrop’s book, The Four Gospels on Sunday, is a terrific read. Lathrop points out that the genre of gospel was invented by the evangelists (contrary to Ben Witherington III, who claims Mark is a bios, a biography in the classic sense, promoting virtues, like Plutarch’s biographies). Lathrop presumes Mark invented the gospel, since Mark is generally accepted as the oldest gospel. (Some might argue for Thomas.) The gospels conveyed the good news of Christ. The literary genre was new, but the idea of good news was not.
“Good news” (τω ευαγγελιω in today’s text) was what the Emperor brought back from a military battle. The good news was the good news of victory. More subjects. More power. More slaves. More revenues. Less taxes (none for those in Rome). Caesar’s victories mean the gods are on Rome’s side, and on his side, as emperor. The gospel writers juxtapose Caesar’s good news with Jesus’ good news, which they present as better news. For Caesar, the good news was that Rome wins, peace is restored in the the world through the pax romana. For the gospel writers, the good news is God wins, the poor win, the marginalized of the world win.
The preacher has the joyful challenge of bringing home this good news. We create a bubble where our cultural worldviews, the capitalistic worldview, the military worldview, the Republican worldview, the Democratic worldview, the socialist worldview, and all our other worldviews give way to the gospel’s worldview. We begin to see what is important to God, through Jesus – through his life and ministry. If we do our job well, with story and vision, our listeners say, “Ahhhhh. Yes. It’s true! I get it! I see it! That’s what really matters in the world.”
And then, like a one-two punch, while they’re still fully in the Kingdom of God bubble, we hit them with the imperative: repent and believe. Because of what God is doing, here’s what we have to do! Indicative and imperative. Good news and call to discipleship. Before they walk out those doors and the other worldviews begin to push out the Kingdom of God, we invite them to commit to acting on that Kingdom. We invite them to eat bread and drink wine, and to become what they eat: the body of Christ.
It might be like this: Yes, hurting people matter to God! And if so, they matter to me too. God promises to be present when we serve the least of these. Therefore, I need to arrange my life so that I bump into these folks, for their sake and for mine. What opportunities are available to me? Where do I sign?
Ultimately, the gospel is about the transformation of our minds, so that we are part of God’s transformation of the world that God loves so much. It’s not about growing churches. It’s about growing disciples that serve the world in Jesus’ name. As Reggie McNeal pointed out, Jesus did not say, “I have come that you might have church, and have it abundantly.” Our product is not church. It is transformed lives, that transform the world in Jesus’ name. “Church” is simply the community of those who have been baptized into this vision, God’s vision for the world.
Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John
This preaching leads unquestionably to the calling of disciples, those who will live out this gospel, as the body of Christ. Jesus goes hunting, or rather, fishing for those who will be caught up in this vision of the kingdom of God. He calls Simon, Andrew, James and John, to drop their nets and leave their family businesses behind, in order to devote themselves full-time to the kingdom of God. Not everyone is called to do this, to leave their nets, to leave their job. We are all called to devote ourselves full time to the gospel, but not everyone has to leave their business to do so. Jesus’ call to Simon, Andrew, James and John, to drop their nets and follow Jesus on his itinerant ministry of healing and exorcism, is not for everyone. One wonders what their father Zebedee thought about this. Their spouses? We ministers of the gospel are challenged to this calling, but the vast majority of Christians are called to a baptismal vocation served out in the world, in their life situations. The preacher must address this.
Jesus says that he is going to teach them a new vocation, a different kind of fishing: fishing for people. He is not above analogizing the market. Instead of gathering fish, they will be gathering people, into the Kingdom of God. He will spend the next couple of years training them to do so, on the job, through ministries of compassion and healing, through preaching, teaching and baptizing. This is what we are called to do as well. We are fishers of people.
I love it that James and John are mending the nets. There’s a certain amount of net mending that has to take place if the fishing is going to get done. We sometimes make the distinction between maintenance and mission, or maintenance and ministry. This is a helpful distinction, but make no mistake, communities need maintenance too. Steven Oelschlager, ELCA Stewardship Program Director, talks about the difference between learning about nutrition, learning how to cook, and learning how to run a restaurant. All are about food, but knowledge and expertise in one area does not imply anything about the others. I take Steven’s comments like this: theologians are nutritionists. When we pastors and deacons preach the gospel, we are cooking. Then there is running a congregation. This latter is important too, if we want evangelizing communities to thrive.
The nets are the tools of the trade. If you told a fisherman, “Don’t worry, God provides the fish”, s/he would say, “Of course, but we’ll still need nets, right?” And as the net technology advances we will want to keep up. When new kinds of nets become available, that don’t break as easily or rot as quickly, we will want to keep up on our game.
It might be worth our time as a church to think about how much time we spend fishing, and how much time we spend mending nets. We probably spend too much time sitting in the boat mending nets. Congregational leaders (lay and clergy) who spend most of their time in the boat will likely not be effective at fishing. If James and John sat in the boat all day mending nets, there would be no fish. If, however, they spend the whole time fishing, and don’t take care of their nets, they’ll eventually have problems. Both are important.
I once read an article that said stable/declining churches spent 80% of their time in committee meetings and 20% of their time doing ministry. Their research showed that growing churches spend 80% of their time in ministry, and 20% of their time in meetings. In other words, 80% fishing and 20% net-mending. Sounds right. My years as a pastor lead me to believe that most people would prefer to fish. Most people would rather be actively engaged in ministry than sitting on a team that organizes.
Russ Crabtree just came out with a book called The State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: An Organizational Intelligence Perspective. He found, after surveying 288 ELCA congregations and 57,000 members, most people perceive their ELCA congregation to be more inwardly-focused than outwardly-focused. It may be counter-intuitive, but internally-focused congregations are rarely happy ones. This is, after all, the point of the gospel. Until we die to ourselves, we do not find joy. It is part of The Gulf Coast Synod’s mission statement to become a network of “Christ-centered, outwardly-focused congregations…”
In an article I wrote a few years ago, “Insiders/Outsiders” https://bishopmike.com/2011/12/05/insiders-and-outsiders/, I suggested that we need to become obsessed with fishing – reaching the outsider. This is not to the exclusion of the insider. When a church grows, it usually does so because it has taught insiders how to fish. Outsiders become insiders, who then become fishers of more outsiders. We work with the insiders by turning them into evangelists. The whole organization becomes bent on welcoming those not yet present.
This text lends itself to further preaching and conversation on evangelism and outreach. Another direction, however, might be to talk about calling. What’s your calling in life? How do you know? What are some of the signposts along the way? How can we become better at listening for God’s call? How can we find others who have the same calling, with whom we can team up?
This is personal stuff. The preacher cannot stay at a safe distance. It’s important to tell your own call story. Why have you, as a pastor or deacon, devoted your own life to this work? If you are a second-career pastor or deacon, what caused you to leave your nets? How did you personally hear this call, internally in your spirit, and externally from others? What were some of the hiccups along the way? Did you have any Jonah moments? What wisdom do you have for your flock in hearing their call?
Those of us who have devoted ourselves full-time as ministers of the gospel have a unique call, but in baptism all are called to a vocation of following Christ and fishing for people, each in our own way. It is a great privilege we share to have the opportunity to help others find their own God-given calling in the context of the good news that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world. When someone finds their calling, their higher purpose, their ministry, there is great joy. When you help someone find that, they will be eternally grateful. Go, fish for people, make disciples.