I see from my notes that the last time I preached on this gospel passage was nine years ago, the day before the 2006 federal election in which Stephen Harper first became the prime minister of Canada. I remember that during that campaign he told Canadians that they had ‘a choice between two visions of Canada’. If we chose his party, he said, we’d be embracing their vision and working towards it with them. If we chose his opponents, we’d be endorsing a different vision. The decision, he said, was ours to make.
When you and I participate in a general election, we understand that the decision we make is not just a private thing that affects only our own personal lives. The moment in the ballot box may be private, but the choice we’re making is a public choice. To cast my vote for a political party has the effect of strengthening that party and ultimately helping to decide who will lead our country.
With that in mind, I want to think with you for a few minutes this morning about the decision Jesus asked people to make: the decision to become his followers. What kind of decision is it? Is it a purely private thing? A lot of people seem to think it is. They think it means turning away from personal sins like dishonesty and lust and lying; it means believing in Jesus as my ‘personal Saviour’, and trying to live my private life according to his teachings.
I think there’s more to it than that. I think that the decision to follow Jesus actually has a lot in common with the kind of decision we make on an election day. I think that when the people of Galilee heard Jesus announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, and calling them to repent and believe in the good news, they would have heard him calling them to a public decision – even a political decision – after all, ‘kingdom’ is a political word! They would have heard Jesus challenging them like this: ‘Choose which vision for God’s world and God’s people you want’. And there were lots of alternatives for them to pick from. Did they want to collaborate with the Roman invaders, or did they want to participate in an armed rebellion against them? Did they want to transform society according to God’s law, or was society just too far gone, so that the only option was to withdraw from it altogether?
Jesus announced the coming of God’s Kingdom and invited people to choose to be a part of it. It was a personal choice, but it had huge social and political implications for them. Let’s look a little more closely at the text and try to find out more about this together. Let’s start by examining the proclamation Jesus made: ‘The kingdom of God has come near’.
In an election campaign, political parties set out their party platforms. Hopefully, in the midst of all the noise, thoughtful voters will actually examine the party platforms and asked themselves ‘How does this compare with my vision for the future of our country? Which manifesto can I most readily commit myself to?’
Mark tells us that Jesus ‘came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’ (vv.14-15). This was Jesus’ manifesto, drawn straight from the pages of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament scriptures there are a number of words and phrases that cluster around the same theme – words and phrases like ‘the day of the Lord’, ‘shalom’, ‘the year of Jubilee’ and so on. All these words and phrases spell out the idea that the world as we see it is not the world as God intended it, but that the time is coming when God is going to act to restore his original plan.
This is spelled out poetically in Isaiah 2:2-4:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In this vision, Isaiah sees the nations and races of the earth coming to God for instruction, and committing themselves to living by God’s ways, the ways of peace and justice. Other Old Testament passages add other aspects of this. The poor, the widow, the orphan will be cared for. Land and wealth will be shared fairly so that everyone has enough and no one has too much. Life will be characterised by wholeness, harmony, and peace.
This is what the people in Jesus’ day meant by the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’. They certainly didn’t see God’s Kingdom as some sort of ethereal afterlife in which we all stroll through fields of green forever. They expected to see it fulfilled as an earthly reality, in real time and space. And now Jesus arrives and makes this startling announcement: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near’. The Gospels make it clear that the reason the Kingdom of God is near is because Jesus is near, and he is God’s anointed King. His arrival is a challenge to people to make their choice: are they for or against God’s manifesto for the future, which Jesus represents?
It’s in this context that the call to follow Jesus is given. It’s a personal decision, but it has huge social and political implications. The Kingdom of God is about fairness, equity, and justice – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a world where over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, a world where those in the top 1% income bracket will soon own 50% of the wealth? The kingdom of God is about peace and reconciliation – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a world torn apart by hatred and violence? The Kingdom of God is about accepting God’s instruction for living – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture where everyone claims the right to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong? These are only a few of the social and political implications of choosing to be a part of the Kingdom of God.
So this is what the Kingdom of God is all about. Now let’s look at the issue of how to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
The Gospels make it clear that everyone has to make their mind up about this: do I want to be in the Kingdom, or out of it? Jesus was preaching this message to Jewish people; many of them would have assumed that because they were Jewish, no decision was required. “I’m one of God’s chosen people; therefore I’m in”. But Jesus still challenges them to make a decision. Likewise, being born in what has sometimes been called ‘a Christian country’ has no significance at all; the New Testament knows nothing of Christian countries, but only Christian people, people who have made a decision to willingly participate in the Kingdom of God. What does that decision involve? This scripture passage outlines four things. In verse 15 Jesus says, “Repent, and believe in the good news”, and in verse 17 “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”.
We’ll look at the first two together: repent, and believe in the good news. This is, of course, the same good news that Jesus has already talked about, the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand. This is good news because it tells us that this world belongs to God, not to tyrants or terrorists or greedy billionaires or even ordinary members of the 1%. God created this world out of love; evil has corrupted it, but God is not sitting back quietly and accepting that situation. God has acted by coming to live among us as one of us in Jesus; he has lived and died and risen again to defeat the power of evil and reconcile us to himself. And he is calling people everywhere to participate in a revolution of love that will transform the world and restore it to his original intention for it. This revolution will succeed, because it doesn’t depend on human ingenuity, but on the power and patience of God.
Let me ask you today if you believe that. Do you believe that the future God has in store for this world is better than what we see around us today? Do you believe that the book of Revelation is telling the truth when it says that the day is coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, when death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away, and God will have made all things new (Revelation 21:4-5)? Do you believe that one day the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea? Do you believe that the day will come when we will see an answer to the prayer we pray every day: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’?
If you do believe those things – if you ‘believe in the good news’ - you will see life differently from those who think that their one chance for happiness is this brief interval between birth and death – those who believe that ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world’, that ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’, and so the only way to live your life is to ‘look out for number one’ – yourself. We Christians believe that these are all seriously defective ways of seeing the world. And the way you see the world matters, because it changes the way you live your life.
That’s what repentance is all about. The word ‘repent’ translates a Greek word that means ‘to change your thinking’ or ‘change your mind’. And of course, it means a change of life too, as we turn away from personal and social sins and commit ourselves to doing God’s will as Jesus has revealed it to us. So it always translates into concrete actions. In Luke’s gospel John the Baptist explains this in concrete ways:
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Luke 3:10-14).
And this leads us to the third thing; we’re called to follow Jesus. What sort of people can spread the kingdom of God? The answer is obvious: people like Jesus! And so Jesus called people to become his disciples – his apprentices, if you like. Apprentices of Jesus listen to his teaching, they watch his way of living, they learn from him, and they imitate the good things they see.
Jesus’ call still goes out to people today – the call to follow him and become his apprentices. Jesus is busy changing the world, one life at a time. The curriculum is the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, the commandments to love God and love our neighbour, and so on. Each day, we apprentices pray for guidance and strength to apply the teaching and example of Jesus to our daily lives.
This isn’t just a sweet romantic ideal; it leads to concrete actions. Many years ago when I was a student, a friend and I were walking down Bloor Street in Toronto comparing notes about our summers. I mentioned in passing that my watch had cratered over the summer; without hesitation he took his own watch off and gave it to me. “I’ve got two”, he said, “and after all, the Bible says that if we have two coats and our brother has none, we’re to share what we have”. Now I ask you, what would that principle mean for those of us who have two houses in a world where many are homeless? Or two cars? Or two guitars? (there are four or five in my house!) Often the answers are difficult, but as Christians, we absolutely must struggle with these questions.
So we’re called to repent, believe in the good news, and follow Jesus. Finally, we’re called to fish for people. All of us are here today because someone ‘fished’ for us. In my case, it was my parents, and especially my Dad who challenged me to give my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. As a result of other people’s fishing, you and I became apprentices of Jesus. Now we apprentices are called to do our own bit of fishing – that is, to invite others to become Jesus’ apprentices too.
I actually like the King James Version here. Our NRSV makes it sound as if Jesus is compelling us to do something we don’t want to do: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’! Now that may be true – we may really not want to fish for people and bring them into the kingdom of God! But that’s not what Jesus said. The King James has ‘Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men’. In other words, if we follow Jesus, he will make us into the kind of people who can fish for others. He’s not just compelling us to do it; he’s equipping us as well.
Note that fishing for people isn’t an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, or for those who happen to be bubbly extroverts. The one thing leads inevitably to the other: Jesus says, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people’. To make new disciples for Jesus is an integral part of the package of being a follower of Jesus. If you take this element out of the package, you’ve made Christian discipleship into something completely different.
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous understand this principle. The Twelve Steps of AA are a comprehensive program for personal transformation. But step twelve, the final step in the process, says ‘having experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we then tried to take this message to others’. This isn’t optional – it’s an integral part of the program. Wise members of AA know that if they don’t do this, they become inward looking and self-absorbed – which is the first step to going back to drinking. And Christians who refuse to follow Jesus in his work of making new apprentices also short-circuit their own growth as his disciples.
Let’s go round this one last time. Jesus comes to us with the tremendous news that the Kingdom of God is at hand – that God’s power and love are at work in the world to defeat the reign of evil and to bring about a revolution of love. The future of this program is not in doubt: God’s kingdom will come, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. We can count on that.
Do we believe that? Do we believe that the promise of the kingdom is worth more than all the lies of power and wealth? If we do, we’re called to respond. We’re called to put our trust in Jesus, God’s anointed king – to turn from our old way of life, to follow Jesus, and to learn to do God’s will. And part of God’s will is that what’s been given to us needs to be passed on to others, so we will do all we can to spread this message and fish for people, because that’s how the kingdom of God grows – one heart at a time.
This is our decision, today and every day. Jesus comes to us and says ‘Follow me’, and we respond, ‘Yes’, or ‘No’. It’s a private decision, but it can’t possibly stop there. The world is changed by disciples of Jesus who follow him and then live to do God’s will. We can choose to work with God and further his vision for his world. May God give us strength, today and every day, to make the right decision.