January 25, 2009

A sermon on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, given on the concluding Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
I Corinthians 7: 29-31
Mark 1: 14-20

I am not a preacher! I think that I am more comfortable when Amanda stands up here. And by the time I’m finished, maybe you will be too. Preaching is not my natural gift. I teach. I lead my students through their studies, and help them with their questions. But I don’t normally stand at the front of a worshipping congregation to preach the Word of God. I’m much more comfortable with my own words.

But today, I’m preaching because it is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is a special Week in the Christian year for me and for Amanda, because we are what has come to be called an “interchurch couple.” We share together in each other’s churches. Perhaps some of you do not know this already. I am Roman Catholic. Amanda and I met when she was at seminary, and I was beginning my graduate work in ecumenical theology. We share together in an ecumenical vocation.

Here, already, is a distinctive Catholic word. For Catholics, “vocation” captures part of the meaning of the word “mission” for Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians. A vocation is simply a calling, but a special one. One that comes from God. Amanda and I believe that God has called us to be a family. We share together a unity that our churches cannot yet share. We are called, in marriage, to share a unity that Christ intends for the whole church.

Every one of us, every Christian, has a vocation, a special calling from God. In the Catholic Church, we used to talk about the vocations of priests and nuns, but until the past few decades we didn’t really understand that lay people have a vocation too. This was something that we learned from you. The Protestant Reformation emphasized the ministry or priesthood of all believers. In response, Catholics insisted on the special ministry of clergy. It was only when we began to study Scripture and theology together that we each began to realize that our vocation — our calling — finds its meaning not in status or privilege, but in being called and sent by Christ.

Today’s readings invite us to explore what it means to be called by Christ to mission and ministry in his name.

Let us turn our attention to Jonah first. In the chapter that we read today, Jonah arrives at the gates of Nineveh. As he enters the city, he shouts out that the city will be destroyed. That’s it. He doesn’t tell them to run away. He doesn’t tell them to sell all their property, or say goodbye to their loved ones. He doesn’t tell them why God is punishing them. He doesn’t tell them who God is. He doesn’t even tell them to repent.

Nineveh is not a Hebrew city. This is a city of Gentiles, the heathen. From Jonah’s perspective, and of the Israelites who pass the story to later generations, the Ninevites believed in false gods. They are not expected to repent. In fact, Jonah is angry when the people repent. We are told that when they heard Jonah’s proclamation, the people of Nineveh “believed God.” This does not mean that they believed certain doctrines about God, it simply means that they trusted Jonah’s proclamation and believed that this foreign God would indeed destroy them. They have an unexpected response: they immediately repent, proclaim a fast, and put on sack cloth.

In the final verse that we read today, God relents. Do you remember the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham convinces God to save the city on account of ten righteous souls. In both stories, we see that God is open to a change of mind. Now, in response to repentance, God decides to preserve Nineveh from destruction. In this story, we are introduced to two related themes in religious life: repentance and conversion. Nineveh is not only described as sorrowful, but as “turning from their evil ways.” Repentance does not simply consist of a sincere regret for one’s sins, but in turning away from those sins.

To turn around, to turn away from sins, is conversion. In English, “conversion” signifies a change, like converting the spare bedroom into an office. In Latin, “conversio” means, literally, to turn back. To change direction. True repentance — as in Nineveh — leads to conversion, to a new relationship with God, one in which we turn our direction towards God. In this new relationship with God, our faults are forgiven.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to Corinth, we find him dealing with questions about this new relationship with God. The early Christians believed that Christ was about to return. When Christ does return, the new relationship with God initiated in the covenants with Israel, in the Law and the prophets, in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, will all be complete. History itself will be complete. In expectation that Jesus would return at any moment, Paul advises the people of Corinth to put aside the ways of the world, and turn their attention to God. Paul doesn’t tell them to abandon their husbands, wives or children, to set free their slaves, or abandon their masters. A few verses before today’s reading, he tells them: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” However, any attachments that interfere or obstruct our relationship with God are to be avoided. The materialism of our age is equally as distracting as the attachments listed by Paul. Material things have their purpose, but they are not the ultimate purpose of creation.

The twin themes of repentance and conversion that we found in Jonah are found again in Paul’s advice to Corinth. Putting aside worldly attachments takes us beyond repentance: we are called to avoid those things that tempt us, to change and turn away. To be converted is not only to turn away from our evil ways, but to turn towards the Lord, and to seek to live in closer relationship with God. Now we see a new theme: discipleship. From Paul’s perspective, to be a disciple — a follower of Jesus — involves giving up our worldly desires and putting our trust in God.

So, we turn to our Gospel reading from Mark. Here we read of Jesus coming out of the desert after 40 days of temptation. John the Baptist has been arrested and now Jesus comes proclaiming the good news of God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Unlike John the Baptist who invited people to prepare the way for the coming Lord, Jesus now proclaims the fulfillment of history: “The time is fulfilled… The kingdom of God has come near.” This connects us back to Paul’s advice to the Corinthians. The fulfillment of history described by Paul is already present in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus tells us that we are to repent, which will then lead us to a belief in the good news of God. Repentance leads to conversion.

Our Gospel text today introduces Jesus’ ministry. Here he calls four disciples, first Simon and Andrew, and next James and John, sons of Zebedee. These four are fishermen tending their nets on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, telling them simply “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” This is a command — Follow me! — without any explanation. We are given no evidence that he even knew them. However, they drop their nets and obey. Next, he sees James and John. Once again he calls them. When they drop their nets and follow him, they abandon their father and the family servants. This short scene describes the calling of central figures in the Gospel of Mark. Each of these disciples is presented as responding to the call without question, without protest, and without hesitation. Later in the same Gospel, these disciples are presented as confused, but here there is immediate acceptance even to the point of abandoning boats, family, and livelihood.

Our central themes of conversion and discipleship come together in this text. The four fishermen turn to Jesus and follow, becoming disciples who will be sent out to fish for people. A fourth theme is found here. Conversion leads to discipleship, which will result in being sent out in mission. Just as the disciples will “fish for people,” all of Jesus’ followers — you and me — will be sent out into the world to proclaim with Mark “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We — those who have heard Mark’s Gospel read aloud today — are thrust like Mark into the mission of proclaiming Jesus the Christ. When we hear the Word of God, we are called to proclaim that same Word.

Repentance, Conversion, Discipleship, and Mission. These four themes outline the pattern of Christian life and faith. To be a Christian involves each and all of these. This dynamic pattern of repentance, conversion, discipleship, and mission is familiar to all Christian traditions, since it is found in our shared scriptural tradition and our common human experience. Common experience of these aspects of the life of faith should prompt us to recognize that God is present in various Christian traditions. God is the author of faith.

Each Christian tradition emphasizes different aspects of the life of faith. For Catholics, the sacraments and other means of grace shape our understanding of reconciliation with God, growth in holiness, and life in Christ. The Orthodox churches emphasize the mystery of God working in us to perfect us in the image and likeness of God. Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed churches emphasize the proclamation of God’s Word as a call to holiness and life in Christ. Pentecostals emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit in bringing each of us to that same life in Christ. Evangelicals and Mennonites emphasize conversion as a personal response of faith expressed in outward repentance and new birth. Catholics and Orthodox emphasize that it is the church community in which penance and forgiveness occur.

Through our common life together, our churches have discovered that Christian faith includes a call to ecumenical mission, a mission that is shared by all Christians personally and communally. Our churches together confess that Christian unity requires visible unity in one faith, one baptism, and one Eucharistic fellowship. This unity is discovered when we share together in Christ’s mission.

Interchurch families, like Amanda and I, understand our unity as a call to ecumenical ministry, which can be both a public witness to Christian unity, and a means for our churches to grow towards unity. Ecumenists insist that the ecumenical movement itself, is a call to conversion — a conversion of the churches. Ecumenical conversion does not mean changing which church we belong to. Instead, ecumenical conversion means that Christians together turn towards Christ. In our common search for Christ, we will find our unity.

As we seek together to grow in faith, we share together in repentance for the divisions of the past, in conversion to Christ’s will for unity, in an ecumenical discipleship, and in a common mission in Christ.