This time after Epiphany is a season of revelation of God’s presence among us. Signs and miracles that, as promised at Christmas, God really is here to live and abide with humanity. It is a season of transformation. When we stand side by side with God in human flesh, truth is revealed: As the psalmist reminds us, it is in God’s light that we see light. Our readings from scripture in this season remind us that merely standing in God’s presence is transformative. We are slowly revealed for who we are, gifts and warts and all. As we are revealed to ourselves and others, we are given instruction and we are equipped for the path before us as disciples and followers of Jesus.
In today’s Gospel reading, disciples are called to follow Jesus. Next week, demons are cast out. The week after, Jesus works a miraculous healing. The week after that, we hear of the Transfiguration atop Mount Tabor where the whole glory of God present in Jesus is revealed to James and John. Over the next few weeks we’re going to examine how we are called and how we are gradually transfigured so that we become exorcists, healers, and reflections of God’s glory. We will look at some of the ways we are made into little Christs—Christians— for the life of the world.
Today’s Gospel passage begins with Jesus quoting John the Baptist: Announcing that the kingdom of God is near and calling those who hear the good news to respond by repenting. Repentance. There’s a word that brings up a host of feelings for most of us. When you hear the word “repent” as an imperative—a command—what does it mean? How does it make you feel?
Repentance, for many of us, is bound up in feelings of guilt, shame, chastisement, unworthiness, disappointment, humiliation, and fear. It is true that to repent means to recognize something in our words and actions that is not as it ought to be; we become aware of something that is not entirely of God and to set about trying to change it. To repent is much more than an apology. It is a commitment to do our best to repair harm we have caused and to do better in the future. In so many circles, within and without the Church, the emphasis is placed on apology and shame. Apologies are important. They are recognitions of harm done and this is the critical first step in repentance. But the much longer portion of the work is based in repairing damage and changing our patterns of thought and behaviour so as to make better, holier, more Godly choices when we are next in similar circumstances.
In his 2017 translation of the New Testament, David Bentley Hart translates this term, not as repentance, but as “change of heart”. In the context of Jesus’s teaching, particularly here at the outset of his public ministry in Mark’s telling of the Gospel, I think this is a very sensible translation. It is also a helpful way to think of the work that both Jesus and Jonah are doing in the readings today.
Jonah has been sent to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria who are hostile toward Jonah and his people. Not only is he headed to enemy territory, but he is there to prophesy against these people, to call them to repent for their sins against God. Once Jonah makes it to Nineveh, after the famous incident with a large fish, the Assyrians are persuaded to completely change their hearts. Every citizen of Nineveh—including the livestock—wear sackcloth and ashes as a way of demonstrating their awareness of their wrongheadedness and their desire to do better going forward. A powerful change of heart, to be sure.
In today’s Gospel passage, as Jesus calls Andrew, Simon, James, and John, he calls each of them to a change of heart. This call is a little more subtle than Jonah’s prophecy against the Assyrians, but it is no less profound. In the case of all four men, they are living good lives. They have work, families, support networks, and communities. In the case of James and John, their family business is prosperous enough that they have staff and a fleet of fishing boats. They may not be power-brokers or fabulously wealthy, but they are comfortable, successful men.
When Jesus calls them to follow him, he is calling them to change their hearts. To shift the dwelling-place of their hearts from the business and community that they have known to something bigger. Jesus calls them to leave behind something of their self-interest for the sake of the world. To begin to truly love God and neighbour in the way that they love themselves. To take on this new covenant that God has offered and become living icons of the good news for their friends, family, and neighbours. It’s a big request, one that requires commitment and sacrifice. People are rather harder to bring in than a haul of fish; evangelism is a much more delicate relationship than casting nets in the water and dragging the other home with you.
So, here are we, hearing Jesus’s call to repentance and to follow him as disciples, just like Andrew, Simon, James and John did. What would it mean, today, to hear that call and take a step in Jesus’s footsteps and change our hearts, turning them just a little bit toward God? What is it in our lives that we’ve been carrying and perhaps don’t need anymore? Something that we picked up because it seemed helpful or comforting but now is weight on the road, holding us back?
Or maybe we’ve done a good job of managing that kind of clutter in our lives. Not too many relationships, habits, or patterns that aren’t good for us. But are we traveling a little too light? Perhaps we’re not carrying enough of God’s provisions with us, thinking we can do it on our own.
Maybe our repentance includes admitting that we need some help along the way. This Christian life isn’t an easy road to travel and, often, being transfigured into a more holy, more Christlike version of ourselves includes some hard, uncomfortable moments. The good news is that Jesus calls us to this way of life together. We’re not meant to do this in isolation, but with God’s help and alongside one another.
Over the next couple of months we will live through the seasons of revelation in Epiphany and preparation in Lent. Preparation for us all looking toward Easter, but especially for those discerning the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. I hope that our communal sharing of scripture and prayer, conversation and silence, experience and insight will be fruitful for all of you. Most of all, I hope and pray that you will see and hear Jesus in your lives, calling you to good and holy changes of heart and holding out to you the courage of heart to follow where Christ’s way leads.