Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Following Jesus is tough, especially for those of us who have grown up in a part of the world where we have been schooled to believe we are the center of the universe and it is our manifest destiny to have our way.
We talk a good game of how we are God-fearing, Jesus-following, Spirit-empowered people only wanting to do God’s will, but our actions say something quite different about us, if not as individual believers then at least as a people.
Scripture warns us about trusting first in military, economic and political might (Psalms, the prophets, Revelation – and Jesus, of course) and tells us to lean, instead, into the Spirit’s softer values of hope, peace, humility, gentleness, kindness, justice, mercy, compassion, sacrifice and love.
Threaten us for a moment with violence, though, or a reduction in our standard of living and we are ready to agree that, yes, while Jesus’ way is how we should behave, we live in the real world, after all, where that kind of discipleship could get you killed. The Bride of Christ seems often like a nervous bunch needing constant reminders that getting killed was exactly how God chose to work to redeem the world in Christ.
The contemporary Bride of Christ has forgotten – or never knew (shame on us, preachers and teachers) or chooses to ignore – that our faith is one established through the death of Jesus and built on centuries of martyrdom. When the early Christians were faced with life in a violent, godless world, they found the power of the Spirit calling them to absorb the violence into themselves, thereby testifying to the power of God.
Before you think I have fallen off my proverbial rocker or have been reading too much liberation theology again, let me state that I am writing this piece as much for myself as for anyone else. Following Jesus is no easier for the pastor than it is for the flock.
Even in the challenging economic times in which we live, our lives are easy compared to most of the world. The ease seduces the soul into thinking life is easy for all God’s children or, at least, whispers to pastor and flock reminders that the broad path is certainly much easier on the soles of your shoes, if not our very souls. Why rock the boat?
We pastor-types love our congregations, too, you know, and are sometimes guilty of living up to Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation (or at least I’m remembering it was Niebuhr – so much for footnotes!) that sometimes the flock gets bad preaching because pastors love them too much to tell the truth and mess with their worlds.
Jesus had another life in mind when he called us to become his disciples, and it resides in two short verses from Mark 1. By the time we get to verses 14 and 15, Jesus had been baptized and affirmed by the Spirit of God come upon him. He had spent 40 days in the wilderness praying, fasting and being tempted by Satan, who used the same old tricks of power, money and fame in attempts to seduce him to the dark side.
In the wilderness, the gospel (the good news) was at risk; Jesus’ very life was at risk as he held on to his true and perilous identity as the Beloved of God who was headed for a cross. He refused to let the world define him. He had been birthed, baptized and anointed by God, to hear God’s voice and to do God’s bidding.
“The kingdom of God is near,” he said. What startling words these must have been for those with ears to hear. Jesus is preaching that, in a startling new way, Israel’s ancient hope for a king would be fulfilled and residing in him, not in another king like David.
“The time is fulfilled.” The Kingdom of God – the reign of God – is near and here and now in the person of Jesus. Repent of your preconceived ideas about power, of your sinful allegiances to the kings of this world, of your fear of the powerful and the violent, of your lack of faith that God will keep God’s promises of presence and salvation. Believe Jesus is the only sovereign that Israel (and we) will ever need.
Repent and believe that the kingdom of God might reside in you, too. Repent and believe for the kingdom of God is a state of being in the world with Jesus. It is a condition of finding Jesus nearer to us than our breath. It inhabits our desire to be known by Jesus and to know Jesus. It resides in our compassionate compulsion to want to share Jesus’ gospel alongside our world. Repent and believe as the kingdom is being transformed into a grand household of faith embracing believers in every time and space.
Believe that you might find yourself living the radical way of the gospel of Jesus by:
- loving your enemies,
- seeking treasure in heaven,
- ministering to the poor and broken,
- taking initiative in forgiving others and seeking their forgiveness,
- seeking moral purity and moral justice,
- seeing yourself as the servant of others,
- putting Jesus first in your life and
- honoring his lordship over your wishes and desires.
When the going is tough and evidence is to the contrary, believe.
When you feel like you are the only one to do so, believe.
When it challenges your non-God-centered priorities and causes you to question your lifestyle, the call of God upon your life and the way you are a help or a hindrance to the work of God, believe.
Pastor of Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia.