Sunday, January 21, 2018

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:16-20

There is nothing like
an impending ballistic missile strike
to focus the mind
and make us assess our priorities.
When the message went out
over the cell networks in Hawaii—
“Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii.
Seek immediate shelter.
This is not a drill.”—
I imagine people’s priorities
got somewhat reshuffled.
I suspect people didn’t stop
to update the apps on their phones
or check in for flights the next day.
I am pretty sure no one bothered
to switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer
or to clean the bath tub.
And I would be very surprised if anyone
checked to see how the market was doing
or what was up with the Kardashians.
But I do suspect that people
did things that might have otherwise
seemed to be trivial matters
that could be put off:
embracing loved ones,
letting go of long-standing grudges,
offering a prayer to God
for mercy and protection.
There is something about the prospect
of a nuclear weapon hurtling toward you
that makes things you believe important
seem suddenly trivial,
and things you treat as trivial
seem suddenly urgent.

“Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
‘This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
Jesus is issuing the spiritual equivalent
of a warning about an incoming ballistic missile.
The drawing near of God’s kingdom
causes us to reshuffle our priorities,
making important things trivial
and trivial things urgent.

In today’s Gospel, our translation says
that when Jesus called Peter and Andrew
“then they abandoned their nets and followed him,”
and that when he came across James and John,
“then he called them,
so they left their father Zebedee in the boat…
and followed him.”
But a more literal translation
of the original Greek would be,
immediately they abandoned their nets and followed him,”
and “immediately he called them,
so they left their father Zebedee in the boat…
and followed him.”

Now when a preacher begins talking to you
about the original Greek of the New Testament,
I generally think you are permitted
to let your eyes glaze over,
since you are likely in for
an irrelevant yet ostentatious
display of the thin veneer of learning
that people acquire in formation.
But, in this case, I ask you to indulge me.
For the Greek word that Mark uses here—euthus
is one that he uses throughout his Gospel;
indeed, he uses it some forty times
in his sixteen short chapters,
to propel his story forward with a sense of urgency.
Once the story begins, everything happens “immediately”
as Jesus hurtles toward his destiny in Jerusalem,
launched on a trajectory that ends in cross and resurrection.
To be his follower is to be caught up
in that immediacy,
in that urgency,
which reshuffles our priorities,
so that possessions and work and even family
take second place to God’s kingdom.
Peter and Andrew leave their boat and nets,
their very livelihood,
in order to follow Jesus.
James and John leave their father Zebedee behind
in order to be Jesus’ disciples.

In our second reading, from St. Paul,
we find a similar sense of urgency:
“The time is running out.”
The preoccupations of this world—
family and possessions, joys and sorrows—
all look different in the light of the kingdom of God,
for, as Paul says,
“the world in its present form is passing away.”
Paul’s point is not, as some have suggested,
that Jesus is returning soon
and, therefore, we should focus our attention
on getting ready rather than on life in this world.
The point is rather than in Jesus
the kingdom has already drawn near
and the priorities and values of the world
are already in the process of passing away,
of being transformed
into the priorities and values of God’s kingdom.
For Paul, no less than for Peter and Andrew,
or for James and John,
it is the call of Jesus to follow him
that makes important things trivial
and trivial things urgent.
Paul writes to the Philippians,
“I… consider everything as a loss
because of the supreme good
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things
and I consider them so much rubbish,
that I may gain Christ.”

If you don’t feel a certain urgency in your life as a Christian,
you may have to ask yourself
whether you have truly understood who Jesus Christ is.
If your response to Jesus’ call to follow after him
does not involve a reshuffling of life’s priorities,
you may want to ponder the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis:
“When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.”
If you do not see why you need to respond immediately,
then you might want to listen again to the words of Jesus:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Indeed, it is hurtling toward us,
making important things trivial
and trivial things urgent.

But, in addition to its sense of immediacy and urgency,
the Gospel of Mark also has a clear-eyed awareness
that those who sincerely desire to be disciples of Jesus
often falter and fail,
that they let the priorities and values of the world
deter them from following him all the way to the cross,
that they do not yet know in the deepest sense
who Jesus Christ is.
Yet the promise with which Mark’s Gospel ends,
that the risen Jesus has gone before us
and will meet us on the way,
is the promise that, despite our faltering failures,
despite our misplaced priorities and values,
despite our blindness
to the presence of God’s kingdom in Jesus,
God is merciful and forgiving and relentless:
the call to follow is renewed again and again,
and the kingdom is still at hand,
hurtling toward us on love’s trajectory.
The risen Jesus still calls us:
This day is the time of fulfillment;
repent and believe in the Gospel.