Repent and believe in the Gospel
Jonah 3:1-5-10 [They turned from their wicked way.]
Psalm 25: 4-9 [Teach me your ways, O Lord.]
I Corinthians 7:29-31 [The form of this world is passing away.]
Mark 1:14-20 [Repent and believe in the gospel.]
This week, we shall celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25th. It is a Feast that usually appears at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme for the 2018 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, is “Your Right Hand, O Lord, Glorious in Power,” taken from the book of Exodus 15:6. At the heart of every genuine Christian movement towards unity is the common faith in the Gospel marked by a life of repentance.
The Liturgy of today, begins by inviting the whole earth to sing a new song to the Lord. Conscious that we are gathered as a Sunday assembly before the Lord, we are invited to become aware of majesty and splendor, the strength and honor that His holy place, His place of worship commands. We are at prayer, a joyful prayer before a majestic and powerful God. We are full of songs. The entire universe resounds with His praise. The universal note of the celebration finds justification in the central message of today’s worship: the Kingdom of God and its proclamation by Christ the Messiah. As Messiah, He is the one whom we know came to save all. The proclamation is clear. The Kingdom is not for the righteous only. The song of rejoicing lies in the fact that access can be gained into it by those who repent. The message is clear. It is sounded by the prophet Jonah in the first reading, and it constitutes the opening words of the proclamation of the Kingdom by Christ Himself shortly before He began gathering His followers. It was important for Christ to make it clear that as Messiah, He was not coming for the righteous. He began with the reality of Repentance.“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” The Good news or the gospel is that the time is at hand, the time to redeem, to save the lost. The good news is that the Kingdom is here.
Last Sunday, Jesus is shown by John constituting his first four disciples. This Sunday, Mark goes back to the theme of gathering of the disciples, those on whom will be laid the charge to proclaim the Kingdom. The first reading presents us with one of those who received a similar charge as the apostles – now being gathered – will eventually receive. Jonah, one who at first believed that the wickedness and sinfulness of the people of Nineveh should not go unaccounted for, is now forcefully made to move to Nineveh, where he proclaims a similar message as Christ does in the Gospel. It is a message of repentant, but it was delivered with a threat and there was a time span: Forty days! We read: “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city; three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah would not have taken this charge, but Like Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Jonah is made to try something else; to embrace the sinful people of Nineveh, even when he does this in a protestant and resistant manner. Yet, ‘the sinful people of Nineveh’ are also qualified as a believing people. They are God-fearing: a quality necessary for anyone to turn away from sin. In their efforts to come back to the Lord whom they believed in, they fasted, and put on sackcloth and ashes. It would seem there was no exceptions, as the rule of fasting would have it today. From the greatest to the least, all fasted in sackcloth. This text has not been selected for our worship to challenge the law of fasting we have today, but it is meant to highlight the universal nature of the move to repentance which the people of Nineveh undertook and which is at the centre of what the Christ vocation is inviting all peoples to embrace.
The Ninevites understood, as we too should today, that repentance is a call addressed to all. No one is to be left out. Those who think they are righteous can fast on behalf of the weak and the sacrifices of those who are childlike of heart can atone for the sins of those who are hardhearted. This is a spiritual truth, for when the innocent and weeping child utters its voice, the heavens tremble and the hand of the Lord relents. It worked for the people of Nineveh; it still works for many peoples today; it will work for you and I. The reading reports: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.” Our experience of God will always bring us to this image of Him: a repentant God; a God who relents; a forgiving God who forgets our sins. If this is true of the God of Jonah, it is but most true in the incarnate God Himself, Jesus Christ.
When will it work for us and what must we do? For Nineveh it was forty days. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the appointed time has grown very short. It is no more forty days. He calls on them to show signs of preparedness. For Paul it is so near that it would seem it does not even admit of entertaining thoughts of spending time with wives, or time to mourn or time to do merrymaking or even make purchases or be preoccupied with mundane things. His reason is that we need to realize the passing nature of this world and its form.
When Christ then speaks of this time, He even makes it more urgent. He takes away the time lag of forty days as well, and does not include the consequences such as the destruction of Nineveh, thanks to the merciful nature of the God of Jesus Christ now to be fully revealed; though we must add that taking away the time lag does not make it seem timeless. He instead makes it a thing of the NOW. Repentance is urgent. Now is the favourable time. Now!!! For God, we know that a thousand years are like one day and vice versa, not for reasons of procrastination, but to give room to those who might want to argue that the now is past, to realize that it is never too late to turn back to the Lord. It is never late to purchase an entry ticket into the Kingdom.
Our repentance must be accompanied by signs. The Lord will see for Himself, the signs of our repentance; He will judge the good intentions of our hearts and He will hold back. The sign is the turning away from our wicked ways. It is not the search for justification or some form of exoneration. It is the turning away from one’s wickedness. The Lord, who sees all that is done in the secret of our hearts, will forgive us. The Lord who knows how much of fasting we have undergone, keeping away from what cuts us off Him will bring us back and let His face shine on us, saving each one of us.
It is for this reason that we can read between the lines of the opening prayer of our celebration today: Almighty ever-living God direct our actions according to your good pleasure, that in the name of your beloved Son we may abound in good works. For us to truly repent, we need to surrender to the might, to the majesty, the splendour of this God who lives forever, allowing Him to direct our actions according to His good pleasure. In this prayer, we recognize that when we act the way we like, goodness is not the guiding factor, and human pleasure is the key. But when we allow the Lord to guide our actions, His purpose, and happiness is good and the actions He makes us accomplish works for our own good. To read this good pleasure of the Lord in and through the guidance of those who lead us demands a lot of discernment. Many times, those who must ensure that the good pleasure of the Divine will is present fail to reach this mark. Just as many times we fail to discern enough the good pleasure of God in and through the prophets, the apostles and leaders given to us.
The Responsorial Psalm today makes a similar cry. It is a Psalm attributed to David. He prays: Lord, make me know your way, teach me your paths. The ways of acting according to the good pleasure of God are ways that are knowable and teachable. Jesus is gathering those He will school and make them become unparalleled teachers of these ways. He will teach them and will say to them, I shall no longer call you servants… I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father. He taught them all. Then we read that their span extends through all the earth.
We are truly in need of knowing the path God wants us to tread, because it is the path of truth and leads us to salvation. The Psalmist, in asking this, also asks the Lord to bear in mind His mercy and His steadfast love, which He has had from of old. At this point, we need to sink ourselves to our own history as Israel did, to read how God has continuously been merciful to us. In praising the Lord’s goodness, we understand that it is because of the way He instructs sinners to turn back and walk along His path, the path of His good pleasure; the way the Lord leads and teaches those who are humble in what is right.
Then we realize that Mark is presenting the first four disciples as the humble people of Galilee, a group drawn from fishermen. The entire Gospel text is worth re-reading: “And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him.” These are the humble people, whose spirit of commitment, whose immediacy in responding to the Divine call is not tainted with complications. The following was prompt. There were no excuses. There was no first thought, like, What would become of our father? Or Why would you choose us, two brothers from the same home? To them, He will teach the ways of the Lord, and will make them become fishers of men.
As we grow and become more conscious of these ways, we are reminded by the communion antiphon to look towards the Lord and be radiant. All the things we have reflected on and have celebrated during the Liturgy of today are designed to take away shame from our faces. Ps 34:6. Arise, therefore, Niniveh! Arise, people of the earth! Arise, sinful people that we are, and receive the grace by which the Lord, in His mercy and goodness, brings us to new life, to repentance, makes us His followers, His disciples, so that we may produce while on this earth, the fruits of good works, always glorying in his gifts and then arrive the Kingdom of God where we shall behold the Father face to face. When we move along this path we shall all attain the unity for which Christ prays and we shall upon trying out the water from Jacob’s well from a Samaritan, from a non-Christian, from a Moslem, from a Hindu, Buddhist, we shall also offer the call to repentance and produce the kind of conversion that made the people brought to Christ by the Samaritan woman to declare: “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4)