“Following” Colchester Federated Church, January 21, 2018, (Mark 1:14-20) Third Sunday after Epiphany

My mentor Pash sometimes tells a story close to his heart that he shared when preaching at my Installation.  So some of you have heard this before (though it’s a story worth hearing again!)  The story goes that a rabbi asked his students how they could tell when night had ended and day was coming back into the world.  One of the students asked, “Is it when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether or not it’s a sheep or a dog?”  “No,” the rabbi responded.  Another student asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”  “No,” the rabbi again responded.  The students asked the rabbi to answer the question he had posed.  The rabbi said, “You can tell when night has ended and day comes back into the world when you look on the face of another person, and see them as your brother or sister.  Because if you can’t do that, then no matter what time it is—it will always be night.”[1]

Looking at one another and seeing each other as beloved children of God doesn’t always come easily.  Fear and anger can get in the way.  Stereotypes come to the surface.  Sometimes we look at another person and think what is wrong with them and why can’t they see the world the way that we do?  Yet, as Christians we are called to look at one another with the loving eyes of Jesus himself.  Even when we disagree with someone to the core of our beings, we are commanded to respond by speaking the truth in love.  Let’s remember that Jesus set out on his own and began his ministry by saying to anyone who had ears to hear, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[2]

New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell relates that the reign of God is a central theme in Mark’s Gospel and Jesus talks about it more than anything else in the pages of this particular book of the Bible.  Think about it, Jesus is already discussing God’s reign in Chapter 1.  Now reign of God is actually a more accurate translation than kingdom of God so we’ll go with it here.  Over all, it’s a concept that was taken from some Old Testament writings.  Though Jesus made it his own.  The Gospel of Mark goes so far as to begin with Jesus declaring that the time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come close.  The followers of Jesus are told to believe in this revelation and to change their lives in light of the reign of God.  That’s what repent means after all, to turn and return to God.  Thus, this is how Jesus begins his ministry at 30 years old in the region of Galilee: the time is fulfilled, the reign of God has come near, return to God, believe in this good news, and follow me!

The phrase reign of God refers to God ruling and Mark presents this concept as a lived reality now.  Every week when we are in our sanctuary and pray the Lord’s Prayer (the Prayer that Jesus taught us) we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Christians are actually asking for the same thing twice when we pray these words—God’s reign comes when God’s will is done.  In the compelling words of the prophet Micah, God wills us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.[3]

If we understand that the reign of God means God ruling our lives in the present, it helps us to better comprehend a lot of the stories in the Gospels since Jesus talks about the reign of God all the time.  Here’s one example: remember when Jesus says that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God?[4]  It’s not exactly a popular teaching in some Christian circles.  We won’t hear those who preach the Prosperity Gospel preach on these words from Jesus found later in Mark’s Gospel.  Not when they are preaching in their Evangelical megachurches that God’s will for people is always financial blessings and good looks and if you just have faith, speak positively, and give more money to our ministry—then God will make you more blessed and wealthier than you can imagine.

In fact, what Jesus is getting at here is that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for God to rule a rich person’s life.  Kingdom of God in this passage isn’t about a rich person having a hard time getting into heaven in the afterlife.  It’s about how hard it is for a rich person to radically change their lives and start living the way that Jesus was teaching us to live now.[5]

To live in such a way where the first will be last and the last will be first.  Where the poor and hungry, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed.  Where the lowly are lifted up.  Where we are commanded to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Too often Christians focus on being saved and getting into heaven, not on helping Jesus create the reign of God here on earth—the teaching that Jesus talks about more than anything else in the Gospel of Mark.  Let God rule your life now.  And not just to get saved for later, but to help Jesus himself create the reign of God on earth.  We can help Jesus co-create heaven on earth by being his hands and his feet, by looking at one another with his loving eyes.  For as that other wise rabbi said, if we can’t look at others as beloved children of God our world will never see the dawn.

At the end of the day, these teachings of Jesus are supposed to affect us and change our lives if we would only let them.  That’s why Jesus begins his ministry by talking about the reign of God and then immediately calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John to get to work helping him create it.  Jesus meets them where they are and invites these fishermen to come along in a way they will understand with: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”[6]  They immediately leave their nets to follow him.  Because this isn’t work that Jesus can do alone, creating the reign of God on earth.  Jesus needed people who bought into his vision and dreams, who believed his teachings to be true and worth altering one’s life to follow.  Jesus needs us still.

A good and rather dramatic example of Jesus’ reign of God changing a person’s life comes from the theological world of the 20th Century.  Albert Schweitzer (who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his philosophical beliefs) was a Lutheran theologian, pastor, accomplished organist, and eventually a doctor who founded a hospital in the country of Gabon on the west side of Africa in 1913.  Now Schweitzer was a famous scholar—his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, sparked some controversy because some of the arguments he made are a little out there.  However, Schweitzer’s life (not his scholarly work) is what makes him so noteworthy.  He gave up his fame in Germany to travel to western Africa as a medical missionary.  Schweitzer went back to school and became a doctor, eventually using the money from his scholarly career to found a hospital.[7]  Basically he was the polar opposite of a Prosperity Gospel preacher living in a multimillion dollar mansion and asking his congregation to buy him a private jet.

As UCC Minister (and Albert Schweitzer fan) Robin Meyers reflects, “It is ironic that none of those who took issue with Schweitzer’s theology and cursed his writings gave up fame and fortune or membership in the highest stratum of German society to live among the poorest of the poor.  Theologians who sat in endowed chairs took his Christology to task, while he scraped infectious legions off . . . natives in the steaming misery of equatorial Africa.”[8]   It always has been and always will be easy to criticize somebody from a lofty place while they are down in the trenches, trying to improve the lives of God’s people and live out the Christian faith that they proclaim.  It’s easy to nit-pick, find fault, and criticize when we are safely sitting on the sidelines and not playing in the game.  Albert Schweitzer didn’t just study Jesus and the New Testament, he studied and then changed his career, his home, his whole life in order to help God’s people.  Talk about someone who saw the world with Jesus’ eyes!

In the end of Schweitzer’s famous scholarly work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus he interprets this morning’s Gospel lesson: the call of the disciples.  In fact, some have even said that it’s this morning’s passage of Jesus calling his disciples by the shore of the Sea of Galilee that compelled Schweitzer to work in Gabon in the first place.  Schweitzer wrote, “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside.  He came to those men who knew Him not.  He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the task which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”[9]

What Schweitzer wrote is that Jesus is revealed to us when we follow his ways, when we follow the Way of Christ.  Jesus is revealed to us when we answer his call, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Jesus is revealed to us when we have experiences of God’s grace and love for all people.  Not all of us will respond to Jesus’ call as dramatically as Albert Schweitzer—going to medical school, leaving our homes, and founding a hospital in the developing world.  Though all of us can respond to Jesus’ call in our own ways: the time is fulfilled, the reign of God has come near, return to God, believe in this good news, follow me.  How can Jesus’ words to his first disciples change our everyday lives?  That’s entirely up to us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Paraphrased from “Signs of Daybreak,” in Margaret Silf’s One Hundred Wisdom Stories from around the World, 84.
[2] Mark 1:15, NRSV.
[3] Micah 6:8.
[4] Mark 10:25.
[5] Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to The Gospels, 50-51.
[6] Mark 1:17.
[7] Albert Schweitzer Biography for the Nobel Peace Prize, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1952/schweitzer-bio.html
[8] Robin R Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, 17.
[9] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, as quoted by Robin R Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church, 16-17.