Saturday, 19 February 2011

Following Jesus

Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’.
He goes on to say, ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’

There are three calls here.

  1. The call to listen

We are called to listen to what Jesus has to say.  

And the reason that we are to listen to Jesus, according to Mark, is because of who he is.

He is the Son of God. Mark’s gospel begins with those amazing words, ‘The beginning of the gospel (good news) about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’; You cannot get more a dramatic opening than that.

And Mark claims that Jesus is the one promised by Isaiah and the OT prophets. The whole of the OT points to him.
He is the Christ, the Messiah, the one chosen by God to be his ruler in his world;
John the Baptist pointed to him, and said that he was the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit;
The voice from heaven tells us that he is the one who is uniquely beloved of God;
He is the one who has been in the desert with wild animals – but who has come through;

And here, he is the one who declares that the Kingdom of God is very very close.

Philip Pullman wrote a series of three novels, ‘Dark Materials’ which is, I’m told, meant to do for atheism what CS Lewis with Narnia has done for Christianity. I don’t think it really works – but you would probably expect me to say that. But Pullman comes up with a brilliant analogy in his second book, The Subtle Knife. Pullman envisions a parallel world which is alongside this world (he buys into the idea of multiple universes). But in this book there are places in this world which are incredibly close to places in the parallel world. They are separated by a thin veil. And there is a special knife which, in those places, you can make a cut in the air in this universe and step through into the other universe. They are that close. And that universe is similar to this universe, but it is also slightly different (although Pullman’s parallel universes are depressingly similar to our universe, where self-centredness and violence and fear and death still rule supreme)

Well, to use that illustration for Jesus’ teaching, it is almost as if Jesus is saying, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven, the place of the rule of God, where there is love and beauty and joy and goodness and abundant creativity and intimacy and absolute freedom and glory, is just there. All it needs is for the veil to be cut. And Jesus does that, not with a subtle knife, but by his death on the cross. And as a result the door has been opened, and the life of that universe can begin to penetrate into the life of this universe. And the first place where that begins is here, in the human heart. And there is a doorway between that world and this world, there and there and there, in the heart that has heard Jesus’ call. And one day, says Jesus, when he returns, the life of that universe will pour into this universe, and it will overwhelm this universe. And heaven and earth will be united. 

This really is good news. It is the news that God has not given up on us, or abandoned us. It is the news that this world is not all that there is; that sin and death do not have the final word. It is the good news that we can begin to glimpse the life of that kingdom here and now; and that even for those people for whom life is a living hell now - there can be hope, a certain unshakeable hope.

Simon and Andrew, James and John could so easily have missed it all. They could have been too busy with their fishing and their mending, that they just didn’t hear Jesus. They could have been so focussed on the things of this world – their boats, their nets, how much money they had made, whether the overdraft could be paid off, who fancied who, who had succeeded and who had failed, whether Capernaum FC were going to beat Nazareth United in the local Derby - that the last thing that they would have done was listen to Jesus when he spoke about another world, an invisible world, the Kingdom of God being near.

But by the grace of God they didn’t. They listened and they heard.

And my dear brothers and sisters I beg us to listen. There really are times when we need to stop and to open our ears and to listen. Not, in this case, to listen to the world, not even to listen to our hearts – because we are incredibly good at self-deception – but we need to be prepared to listen to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

  1. The call to repent and believe

Jesus says to them, ‘Repent and believe the good news’.

This is not just about repentance. It is not simply a matter of saying sorry for the wrong things we do.

For a start we don’t really know whether what we do is wrong or not. Sometimes we feel dreadfully guilty about things that we do not need to feel guilty about. At other times we are quite blind to the things that we should feel guilty about.

A person may scrupulously make sure that their tax affairs are correct to the last penny and go to sleep with a peaceful mind, when actually they have built their whole existence on their business, and they are heading for hell. 
A person may resolutely decide that from today, ‘I am going to be a better person’, but they are defining what it is to be a good person in their own terms, and they still think that they can do it themselves.

Jesus is not calling us here to be sorry for the bad things we do, and to turn over a new leaf.

He is calling us to a complete change of mind and of life orientation. The problem is that we live for this universe and the things of this universe. We have become blinded by our self-centredness. Even if we profess to believe in God, the god we believe in is a god who exists to make our life better and more successful in this world.

Jesus calls us to repent, to wake up: to realise that God is there, that he is real and that His kingdom is not our kingdom. His agenda is not our agenda. We need to stop seeking the things of this world, and to start seeking the things of that world.

That is what repentance is – it is, literally, about a change of mind – a choice to put God first, to put our trust in God and in his promises and to put God’s kingdom first. It is about living in the light that the door from that universe to this universe has been blown open, and it is about allowing the life of that universe to flow into this universe in us and through us.

And of course we will mess up – but it will be messing up in God’s terms and not on our terms. And that is where confession comes in – saying sorry. But we are confessing our sins as people who are repentant, as citizens of the kingdom. And because of Jesus we know that we are forgiven.

That is why we cannot separate ‘repent and believe’. To truly repent is to turn from living for ourselves and to live for God; it is to put our trust in God and what God has said; and specifically it is to live as if the Kingdom of God is very near.

  1. The call to follow Jesus

Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’..

And that call to follow Jesus is repeated throughout Mark’s gospel.
He calls Levi, the tax collector, to follow him (Mark 3:14)
He calls the rich young man to sell everything, to give to the poor, and to follow him (Mark 10:21)

And to his disciples he says, ‘If you would come after me, you must deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me’.

And at a key point in the story which Mark tells, toward the end of Jesus’ life, as he is about to enter Jerusalem for the last time, we are told of a blind man called Bartimaeus. Jesus heals Bartimaeus and, Mark writes: ‘Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road’ (Mark 10:52)

For the first Christians the call to follow Jesus was quite literal. They followed him as he travelled and taught.
But Mark’s gospel is written to show us, who were not there with the historical Jesus, what it means to follow Jesus.

A person who follows Jesus is learning to live to the glory of God as he lived to the glory of God, to trust God as a loving heavenly Father as he trusted God as his heavenly father. They live in the light of the Kingdom of God, which is very close. And because of that they are learning to take up their cross, to live as people who are dead to this world and alive to that world, who are allowing Jesus to baptise us, to overwhelm us, with his Holy Spirit. And that person will have a passion for God, a deep love for people, and hope and joy – and they will be incredibly attractive. They will become fishers of men: they will catch people for life.

And by the way, Mark’s gospel also tells us that people who follow Jesus may end up crucified.

At the mens’ breakfast yesterday, Malcolm Gifford was telling us that in many strict Islamic countries, believers will not necessarily identify themselves as ‘Christians’. The word Christian has too many negative cultural overtones for their Moslem neighbours. Instead they identify themselves as ‘Followers of Isa, Jesus’.

Jesus says to Simon, Andrew, James and John, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’

As members of the church, our first task is not to see St Mary’s or St Peter’s grow in size; it is not to increase the numbers of people making use of the church building or sitting in pews – much as we long to see that happen; it is not to provide services that are primary entertainment or to offer a place of beauty and quiet; nor is it to provide social services or pastoral care or even a religious framework for our society.

Our first task is to be people who follow Jesus. And as we follow Jesus, then we will be changed and people will be caught for life.   

We do not necessarily need new structures or new initiatives or new programmes or new events. What we do need are to be people who listen to Jesus, who have repented and who live in the light of the Kingdom of God, who choose to follow Jesus every day of our life.

Prayer of St Richard of Chichester

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day. Amen.

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