25 January 2009/Epiphany3B * Mark 1:14-20
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
Becoming A Christian
As the events of this past Inaugural Week unfolded, I found myself reflecting on my growing up in Oak Park, a western suburb of Chicago. I can remember my father standing in the back of First Congregational Church as a deacon, in his mourning suit, beside Dr. Percy Julian, the man who first synthesized cortisone and progesterone, thus improving the health of millions of lives. As a young boy I had no idea his was the only African-American family in our village, and that there were those people in town who would resort to tactics like fire-bombing his house in an attempt to drive the Julians out. Yet, there he was in church with us every Sunday. This would be years before we ever heard Dr. King’s name.
I can remember riding the Lake Street El into the Loop, passing through the city’s west side, aware of the high rise projects and tumble down tenements signaling a life-style very different from ours in Oak Park. I remember what it felt like when after Dr. King was assassinated and the west side went up in flames and fury, right up to Austin Boulevard, the imaginary but very real line of demarcation between city and suburb.
It wasn’t until 1969, however, when I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings that I got any real sense of what it was like to grow up in America as an African-American. The chapter on what pride she and others in rural Arkansas felt when Joe Louis became the heavyweight champion of the world, and that it would not be a night for a black person to be found walking down the road that night, remains seared into my memory.
Her most recent book, Letter To My Daughter, concludes with a chapter titled Keep The Faith, about how the faith of the grandmother who raised her is what has kept her able to put one foot in front of the other all these years. Most interesting, however, are the opening and closing sentences, “Many things continue to amaze me, even well into my seventh decade. I’m startled or at least taken aback when people walk up to me and without being questioned inform me that they are Christians. My first response is the question, ‘Already?’ It seems to me that becoming a Christian is a lifelong endeavor. I believe that is also true for one wanting to become a Buddhist, or a Muslim, a Jew, Jainist, or a Taoist. The persons striving to live their religious beliefs know that the idyllic condition cannot be arrived at and held on to eternally. It is in the search itself that one finds the ecstasy…Whenever I begin to question whether God exists…all I have to do is continue trying to be a Christian.” (Random House, NY:2008)pp165-167.
Becoming a Christian. When one contemplates this short passage from Mark’s gospel what we find are some folks very much like us beginning a journey of becoming a Christian. One needs to truly spend time contemplating the kind of condensed narratives that Mark offers us, for when we do we discover that nearly every single word is carefully chosen and fully charged with depths, plural, of meaning.
For instance, since we are told Jesus is in Galilee, we know he is far away from Judea and Jerusalem and all the political and religious authorities. That single word signals that he is in a region where Gentiles and Jews lived in close proximity. It is here, not the Holy City on a Hill, where he chooses to announce the Good News, the Gospel, of God. It is a call to Repent and Believe. Repent means to change one’s mind, one’s allegiance, but even more to turn away physically from all other ways of life. To believe means more than to accept some assertions or doctrines as true, but rather to allow one’s whole self be claimed by the reality of God’s rule which in Christ even now is breaking in. There is no time to wait. A relationship with God is essential to accept right now. God is already offering to embrace you, says Jesus. Are you willing to accept?
Then rather than setting about right away to challenge all other competing authorities, it is significant that his first act is to gather some disciples. In those days great teachers and leaders of movements generally waited for disciples to come to them. Jesus seeks us out. The details again are spare but telling. Peter and Andrew fish with a net from the shoreline. John and James work for their father as Zebedee and Sons Fishermen, from a boat with hired hands. That is, there is a significant difference in status between these pairs of brothers. There is work for everyone from every strata of society to do – and life in community with Jesus is central to Mark’s story and the Gospel of God.
The story suggests that Jesus sees something in us that we do not see ourselves. The One who can transform fisher of fish into fishers of people for the Kingdom will also make of us something new – something we might never imagine. So this is a story that asks if we are willing like Peter, Andrew, James and John, to allow Jesus to transform us? Are we ready to accept His call?
Then comes Mark’s favorite word – immediately. Immediately they leave the instruments and tools of their trade, and in James’ and John’s case all those hired servants as well. They will leave their boat for a new boat – the church -which is why this is called the Nave from the word from which we also get navy. From this new boat they will fish for people, have a new Father, and coworkers who will not be servants, but sisters and brothers in the Lord. Off they go immediately to embark on a journey to a future yet unclear!
This is, according to Mark, how one embarks on becoming a Christian-immediately following Jesus on a journey to a future yet unclear.
As one reads all of Mark’s gospel at least two themes emerge. 1) This business of becoming a Christian, the work of repentance and belief, is ongoing. There is to be no end point until that time when God will bring it all together. 2) There are things that must be left behind to make this journey of becoming a Christian.
As we embark on this journey of becoming Christians, we will do well to contemplate these two themes. One recalls the words of Emil Brunner, “The Revelation of God is not a book or a doctrine but a living person.” We are those people who believe this living person, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name. What will it mean to make our full commitment to Him? What will it mean to allow God in Christ to transform us according to His will, not ours? And finally, what must we leave behind to move forward with Him?
If we are to grow, individually or as a parish community, it will not be by holding on to “things as they are.” The promise, however, is that those who truly are willing to accept God’s invitation, let go and let God transform us and make us a new people, will enjoy the familial intimacy with God that is characteristic of the living person of Christ and of God’s Kingdom! Amen.