Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Living The Kingdom Life: A Sermon For The Third Sunday After Epiphany

It's been a long time since this blog was a regular thing.   I feel like I am slowly getting back to some kind of normal after the death of my wife Kay in November.  I miss her enormously, but I felt her keen intellect and critical eye on my work as I prepared this sermon.  It's a wonderful parish and I'm so grateful to be their honourary priest.  Hopefully you'll see more activity from me here in the days and weeks to come.  MP+

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario, on Sunday, 21 January 2018, The Third Sunday After Epiphany.

Readings for this Sunday: Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:9-31; Mark 1: 14-20.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16 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. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." (Mark 1:14-17)

Cartoon courtesy of www.agnusday.org 

A good adventure story begins with an invitation.   Sometimes that invitation is hard to refuse.   A wizard and might descend on a hapless hobbit and drag him off to a dangerous and lonely mountain.  A mysterious wardrobe may tempt some children to a magic realm called Narnia.   A wandering rabbi might appear on the lakeshore and turn some fisherman’s world upside down.  

Today’s gospel reading, like last Sunday, is about that moment of invitation.   Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew is just two simple words, “Follow me”.  Jesus doesn’t say anything about where they will go, how they will get there, or what they will do when they get there, but then again, you want suspense at the start of an adventure.   However, like any good adventure, there is a special destination -- the kingdom of God -- and unlike the magical realms of J.R.R. Tolkien, or the land of Narnia, it’s not imaginary.   The kingdom of God is real.  It’s now.  It’s close.

Today I want to talk about what it means when we say yes to those words of invitation:  “Follow me”.   I want to look at what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and at how Jesus invites us to follow him to a place called the kingdom of God.   Finally I want to talk about what the kingdom of God means, not just for us as individuals, and not even just as a church called St. Margaret’s and St. Giles, but in fact for us as The Church everywhere and always, as the means by which God shows himself to the world and by which he asks us to join him in his plan to save the world.

First, let’s think about what it means to follow someone.  “Follow” is an important word in the Gospels.  We heard Jesus use it last Sunday, in John’s gospel, to call Philip and then Nathaniel.            Now sometimes we use “follow” very casually, as when a business invites us to follow them on social media, but its significance is much more than that.   This past Thursday, those of us who were at Faith on Tap did some brainstorming around this question.   We talked about how to follow can be a very deliberate act.  To follow someone is to go where that person goes, to do what they do, to learn what they know.   To follow someone means to emulate them, to strive to be like them in a meaningful and transformative way. 

So when Jesus says “follow me” to the fishermen, or to you and me, for that matter, he isn’t just saying “hey, guys, let’s go somewhere”.   He’s inviting them to spend time with him, to learn from him, and to grow and change as people.  Jesus speaks as a rabbi or teacher here, inviting the fishermen to become his students, or to use the Greek word, his disciples.   A disciple in the ancient world was someone who learned by sitting at the feet of a wise and learned teacher.   St. Paul frequently gets at this when he talks about putting on the mind of Christ (Phil 2.5, 1 Cor 2.16).   To follow Jesus is to know him well enough that we become, well, Christlike in what we do and think and say.  After all, as much as we might use the slogan “What would Jesus do?” when confronted with a difficult life choice, we have no way of answering that question unless we know how Jesus thinks, and we can only learn how he thinks by spending time with him and attentively listening to him.

Following Jesus, therefore, is a decision to accept his invitation to follow, and to deliberately and carefully strive to become more like Jesus.  However, as soon as we use words like “decision”, we make it sound like this is all about our choice as individuals to respond to Jesus’ invitation, and that the ensuing relationship is all about this thing that happens between me and Jesus.   But it’s not, because there are other people in the relationship.

Being a follower of Jesus isn’t something that we do by ourselves.   We may think that the process begins with our decision to follow Jesus and to believe in him, but its more than that.  In our gospel reading, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John to join the twelve and the others, including women, who follow them.  To follow Jesus is to join together with other followers.   Think of it this way.  You made a personal decision to visit St. Margaret’s, and then you made another decision to stay, as my wife Kay and I did over a year ago.   However, despite that choice, St. Margaret’s is not you.  It’s all the people around you, all of us, trying as best we can to follow Jesus and to be more like him.

This brings us to the destination of our journey as followers of Jesus.   Mark tells us that before Jesus met the fishermen, he was preaching a message “that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (1:15).   What is this kingdom?  Where is it?   Jesus says that it is real (“it has come near” – it’s already happened) and that it is near.   Almost in the same breath, Jesus says “repent and believe in the good news” (1:15), as if these things, repent and believe, are the ways we get to the kingdom.   Repent to us often has a moralistic quality, as in “to feel sorry for something”, but the Greek word “metanoia” can mean “a change of mind or a new way of thinking”. 

One commentary about this verse suggests that Jesus is saying something like this.  “The kingdom of heaven is so close – wrap your minds around this new reality”.   Or maybe “Try to understand this amazing thing, that the kingdom of God is just next store”.   So, to go back to our idea of the journey, Jesus’ words to the disciples, “follow me”, assumes a destination, “the kingdom of God”.  Jesus is saying, in effect, follow me and we can get to this amazing place, the kingdom of God, if you dare to believe it.

It’s natural for us to think that the kingdom of God means heaven, the place we go to at our live’s end.  I know that as my wife Kay was dying, she firmly believed that she was going to God, and that she would be safe when she got there.   However, I think that Jesus also links the kingdom of God to our decision to follow him on earth.  If we want to be followers of Jesus, if we want to learn from him and to become more like him, then we not only come closer to the kingdom of God, but we make that kingdom more visible for others, which is perhaps the most important role of the church.  Here are three examples of how that can work.

Take money and wealth.  We live in an age of growing inequality, where crazy amounts of wealth are gathered into the hands of fewer and fewer people, and where it becomes increasingly acceptable to blame the poor for being somehow lazy and corrupt.   Jesus has a lot to say about how we should use our money, and tells us that the way we treat the least among us is how we treat him (Matthew 25:40).   As I write this sermon, I know that our treasurer and corporation are carefully reviewing our year end numbers, and say that St. Margaret’s is doing pretty well.   So at our vestry, or around our family dinner tables, how can we talk about how we as followers of Jesus should use our money and our wealth to make the kingdom of God visible?

Take gender.  We live in an age of the Me Too movement, where women in the entertainment industry and in business are telling us that the sexism and abuse of powerful men has to stop.  Almost every day we here about domestic violence and murder directed against ordinary women and children in our communities.   What should we as followers of Jesus learn from how he treated the women around him?  The scholar and novelist Dorothy Sayers once famously said that “it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross”, because Jesus never once in all his teaching suggested that women were in no way inferior or in any way deficient to men.   How can we, in our lives as a congregation, in our homes and workplaces, show that all people, regardless of gender or orientation, are fully loved and equal citizens of the kingdom of God?

Or take power.   Some people say that we live in an age where freedom is more and more the exception, where tyranny and repression are more and more common around the earth.  Governments have huge powers of electronic and digital surveillance, journalists are threatened, and minorities like the Rohingya in Maynmar/Burma can be terrorized and driven from their lands.   In fact, at the very start of Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes preaching “after John was arrested” (1:14), so oppressive regimes are nothing new.  If we truly want to be his followers, then Jesus can teach us much about how God’s power has nothing to do the supposed strength of kings and emperors.   In our Faith on Tap discussion this week, we asked Jesus’ politics and asked if he was in fact a socialist, but maybe that’s the wrong question to ask.  We use political labels to build up our side and tear down those we disagree with.    How can we, as a congregation, set aside these labels so that we can really listen to Jesus and try to model our lives and actions on the justice of the kingdom of heaven, where all are created by God and loved and valued by God?

Let me close by returning to the idea of the invitation to adventure.   In the best stories, any good adventure is difficult.  The hobbits suffer to get the ring to Mount Doom.  The children who find Narnia must fight to defend it from the White Witch.   Jesus asks more of us.  Later in Mark’s gospel, he explains that anyone who wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and follow me (Mk 8:34).   To be a follower of Jesus is not an easy thing.  To be a follower of Jesus is to sacrifice our self-importance once we realize that every other follower has equal value.  To be a follower is to have demands made on our time, our money, to be willing to sacrifice friendships if needs be because we have to say things and live out values that might not be popular.   To be a follower is to be willing to have our comfortable values and assumptions challenged and turned upside down.  But that’s what we agree to when we follow Jesus.   “The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news”.   Or, if you like, “The kingdom of heaven is so close – wrap your minds around this new reality”. 

Jesus is calling.  Are you ready for an adventure?


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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