Repent and Believe and Follow Me

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Mark 1:14-20.

Jesus came to Galilee, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says: not just ordinary time, but God’s time: the time of creative transformation, the time of new possibilities, the moment of becoming that is filled to overflowing with the energy of God’s love, the time when God will do a new thing and now it bursts forth – that time is filled full, Jesus says. And that means the kingdom of God, God’s active, reigning presence, right here and now, right in the midst of every ordinary thing – God’s reign is near now. God is moving in the world now, Jesus says, and what we must do to be part of that movement, Jesus says, is to repent; and, because we repent, therefore to believe in that good news.

Now usually, when we hear the word “repent,” what we think of right away is something negative. We think of repentance as being sorry for our sins, or beating our breasts for our failings, or bargaining with God that we’ll never ever do bad things again if God will just this once get us out of this mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into. We usually think of repentance in the purely negative sense of turning away from that which is sinful or evil or bad.

But the word that Mark uses in the original language of this passage means more than just “turning away.” The original word is metanoia; and what that word means, translated literally, is “a change of mind” — to change your way of thinking, to be transformed in the habits of the heart by which you recognize and respond to yourself, and your neighbor, and your world, and your God. Metanoia means not just “turning away” from what is bad, but “transforming toward” what is good, it means being opened to new ways of thinking and feeling and behaving that participate in the very goodness of God.

And repentance in this sense leads precisely to believing in the good news. Our English word “believe” is related to the word “beloved.” To believe is not just to accept something as true even though you can’t logically prove it; but to believe is to give your heart, to place your trust, and to pledge yourself in your turn to being true and trustworthy too.

So to repent and believe is to be transformed in the way we are mindful of God, so that we give our heart and put our trust in the way God is with us; we give our heart and put our trust in the way God’s grace acts in and around and through us; we give our heart and put our trust in the way God’s love lifts us up when we are beaten down and rejoices in heaven when we are made whole; we give our heart and put our trust in the way God empowers us to reach out beyond ourselves and be built together into a beloved community.

All of that is what Jesus means when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

And I think a perfect example of that kind of repentance and belief comes in the call of the first disciples. When Jesus meets Simon and Andrew and James and John, his first words are not, “Be sorry for your sins and you can follow me”; his first words are not, “Accept these propositions about me and I’ll let you be my disciples”; his first words are “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

“I will make you fish for people.” Jesus recognizes Simon and Andrew and James and John for who they are: fishermen: “uneducated and ordinary men” as the Book of Acts calls them: working guys who are decent enough, but who are not religiously trained, and probably not ritually pure. Jesus recognizes them exactly for who they are — and he calls them exactly for who they are, he calls them to be who they are, but to be who they are in a new and a bigger way. “I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says: I will take the skills and abilities and know-how and experiences and personalities you already have, and I will put them to a new purpose, I will fill them with a new meaning, I will take them up to work the work that God is working in the world.

That’s the sort of metanoia to which Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and James and John: not that they should turn away from everything their lives have been, not that they should reject the thoughts and feelings and actions that have brought them this far in life – but that they can be transformed in their mindfulness, they can wake up to the love of God with them and in them and all around them all the time, and their own actions can thus become instruments of that greater godly love. “Repent and believe,” Jesus says. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you able to be who you are in a new and God-centered way.” And so they gave their hearts to him and trusted him and left their nets and followed him — and their lives became fulfilled with more love, and more spirit, and more risk, and more strangeness, and more challenge, and more joy, than they had ever imagined possible.

“Repent and believe and follow me,” Jesus says — and today Jesus says that to us, too. This gospel asks us: How can we repent and believe and follow? How can we transform our way of thinking, so that we give our hearts to the Way of Jesus, and learn how to be ourselves in a new and bigger and more godly way following him? How might Jesus take up everything we are and make us living signs and active instruments of God’s reign of justice and peace and love in our world here and now?

One piece of that – maybe not the whole of it, but certainly one big piece of that in our time and place – is taking all the gifts and skills and talents we have and using them to build and to rebuild a genuine sense of community in our neighborhoods and towns and associations and county and state and nation. More and more it seems as though our society is fracturing, and what had been polarization is becoming more and more outright enmity and hostility and violence. The way we speak about each other, the way we think about each other – and that influences the way we act toward each other – seems breaking down into vulgarity and manipulation and lies. And it seems to me that I’m seeing this on all levels of our society: from politics to government (they’re not the same thing) to letters to the editor to social media posts to rallies to exchanges on the street. In so many ways we seem today to be treating each other as rivals and enemies, not as neighbors and sisters and brothers in the love of one loving God.

But we don’t need to stand by idly while that happens – and we certainly don’t need to be part of that happening ourselves. Jesus calls us to something better.

Jesus calls us to transform the habits of the heart by which we respond to each other.

Jesus calls us to give our hearts to trust that God wants love and well-being for all of us.

Jesus calls us to take the skills we do actually have – skills like speaking and listening and paying attention and being with people and learning about each other and being neighborly and spending thoughtfully and giving generously and making community – whether you realize it or not, the simple fact that you come to Holy Communion week after week means you have built up a sense of what it is to make community – Jesus calls us to take the skills we do actually have and put them to a higher purpose, following Jesus, reaching across divisions of race or class or gender or party or self-identification to build up the genuine Beloved Community of God.

Jesus calls us to repent and to believe and to follow him, because the time is filled full, and God’s new possibilities are at hand.

How will you change your heart? – how will you reach out? – how will you follow Jesus this week?

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