1 Kings 19:19-21
That story of Jesus calling the disciples, as it appears in the Gospels, seems totally unreal and unbelievable. Walking beside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sees two brothers casting a net into the sea. Jesus calls them, ‘Follow Me’ and, says Scripture, they leave their nets and follow Him. The same is repeated with the sons of Zebedee, James and John. Who in their right mind would leave their boat, nets, their livelihood and their father, their family to follow an itinerant preacher whom they’d never seen before? The story does not work.
Behind this New Testament story of the calling of the first disciples lies a story in the Hebrew Bible, in the First Book of Kings, of the calling of Elisha by the prophet Elijah. Elisha is working in the fields with the oxen as Elijah passes him. It is the disciple, Elisha, who says, ‘Please let me kiss my father and mother, and then I will follow you.’ Elisha does what he promises, and follows Elijah. Like the later story, it seems totally unbelievable.
Once John the Baptist is imprisoned, Jesus begins his ministry, and he used the same word John does: repentance. That’s a word not heard all that often in many churches these days, or least, not this one. Repent: what does it mean? Repentance is more than just being sorry for something erroneous or harmful which we have done or not done. It is more than feeling sorry for our sins, for the wrongs or injuries we have caused others or ourselves. It is more even than the acceptance of forgiveness. Repentance is our translation of the Greek word metanoia, which means a change, a turn around, and a conscious choice of a different and wiser way of living. Some scholars suggest that translating metanoia into the English word ‘repent’, meaning ‘sorry’, is the worst mistranslation in the New Testament. Properly understood, the Greek word, metanoia, calls for a radical life change; it means a re-orientation of one’s self away from one’s self towards God.
Jesus also used the phrase, ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ He travelled around Galilee, in the synagogues and out in the open air, proclaiming the Good News that God is near, that God’s realm, God’s reign, God’s dominion, is here, now, in this place and in this moment. In the marketplace, in the courts of the temple, and on the shoreline, Jesus taught that the Spirit of God is around us and within us. The Transcendent God, ‘the Beyond’ as the mystics like to say, is in our midst.
So, ‘repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’ is not so much about saying sorry for our misdemeanours, but opening up our heart to an entire, all-embracing, reorientation of our living. Don’t misunderstand me: there is a place for acknowledging our wrongs. It need not be a public acknowledgment, but an inner acknowledgement, part of our spiritual growth and maturing.
Bishop Richard Holloway described being human like this, ‘we are messed up creatures. Scandal is the norm. People getting it wrong is the norm.’ There will always be financial or sex scandals, racism, sexism, or violence. Another word not much in use in churches these days is ‘fallen’. In the language of the Bible, human beings are fallen creatures. It may not be language we use, but the concept is pretty accurate. Holloway also said that the greatest contribution the gospel has made to the history of the world is forgiveness. Speaking of his own life, Holloway said that for him the most important part of the service each week is Confession and Absolution.
Jesus also said, ‘Follow Me.’ The command ‘Follow Me’ is like being an apprentice, a stone mason, or a trainee accountant or doctor or a minister. It meant the disciples were to follow him around, but it also meant that, by listening, watching, learning, and by osmosis, they were to become like him, to see the world and people the way he saw them, to engage with the elderly, the child, the young man or young woman, the way he did. An apprenticeship or traineeship is more than learning how to hold tools, more than acquiring a basic set of skills; it is learning how to think, how to see things, how to analyse, interpret, and how to apply what is learned to new situations. Jesus wanted the disciples to experience or encounter God, God’s nearness, in the way he did and to see the Divine in other people the way he did, not just people of their group, but all people.
If religion were to be reduced to a set of morals or doctrines, that would not be true religion. We have to go deeper. In calling people to repent, in calling the disciples to follow him, Jesus understood that most of the major problems which human beings face originate in the human heart. The cause of so much violence and hurt originates in the human heart. For Jesus, the heart is the heart of the matter. In those days, the heart was the seat of personality, the locus of thought, emotion, and will. In calling people to repent, Jesus was and is calling for an inner transformation, not merely advocating a new set of morals or philosophical ideas. Racism originates in the heart, so too sexism. Irrational fears and illogical assumptions draw us into dark and dangerous places.
Evangelical Christianity is too often associated with a harsh morality, while Liberal Christianity, albeit with a more compassionate morality, too often deconstructs the faith, the Bible, and tradition, to the point there is little left. In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, said that if Western Christianity does not rediscover its mystical foundations and roots, we might as well close the doors of the churches. Churches ought to be – need to be – places where we encounter the Sacred, where we follow Jesus and learn to think the way he thought. They are communities which build us up, giving us strength and courage to re-orientate ourselves to God, to God’s Presence, God’s values, and God’s way of living.
Inner experience, inner sight, is the call of Jesus to deeper discipleship. It is through changing ourselves, changing our hearts, that we learn to live and act with the sensitivity of God and, in turn, we inspire others and change the world around us. Growth in discipleship helps us overcome our first instinct in life, which is to defend or attack, but takes us rather to a spiritual instinct which is to see the divine in the other, in the other who is different, the other who attacks us.
How do we learn forgiveness of enemies, nonviolence, or the humble use of power? Through reading and studying the Bible, meditation, prayer, talking with other Christians about our faith: in other words, by following Jesus around, so to speak, we are changed. No other being in the universe can change itself by conscious will, apart from us: it is our privilege alone.
We follow Christ. Through the practice of stillness, let our souls be filled by God’s silence. Through inner sight, we begin to see the world as God sees it. The call of Jesus to follow him, taken at face value in the Gospels, makes little sense. But, once we understand that it is a call to change the human heart, it becomes the most important message the world needs to hear.