When I was growing up, it was still pretty common for families to eat dinner together at pretty much the same time everyday. But even though it was usually at the same time, in my family at least, rounding up the children for dinner was probably a bit of a headache for my parents. Some would come running eagerly when they were called, ready to eat, while others (usually the older ones), would show up shall we say at a more leisurely pace.
This is in contrast to the response of the disciples in today’s Gospel reading. As Mark recounts it, it sounds like these first disciples of Jesus respond pretty much right away to his call to follow him. The other Gospels flesh out this story a little more, and perhaps in reality it was not quite so abrupt, but clearly their response to Jesus was swift.
This Sunday, the third Sunday in Ordinary Time, has been designated by Pope Francis as the “Sunday of the Word of God.” When he made this announcement back in September 2019, he wrote about “the great importance of the Word of God for everyday living.” He chose this Sunday of Ordinary Time for this annual recognition of God’s Word because it is the first Sunday of the year in which we begin to hear the “semi-continuous reading of the Gospel of the year” (in the words of John Bergsma). This year we hear primarily from the Gospel of Mark on Sundays in Ordinary Time. And in this Gospel reading, we hear of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, immediately following the imprisonment of John the Baptist, as well as Jesus’ first words in this Gospel: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Every one of Jesus’ words in the Gospels are important, but as his first words in this Gospel, they are especially important. They are in essence a summary of Jesus’ teaching. “This is the time of fulfillment”: the plan God has had for the salvation of humanity is now coming to fulfillment; God is breaking into human history to set right his creation which had been distorted and damaged by sin. “The kingdom of God is at hand”: Jesus himself is the embodiment of this kingdom – at one and the same time the kingdom is now present in the world and yet still not completely fulfilled. Later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus will share several parables explaining what the Kingdom of God is like. And finally, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” This should be our response to what Jesus has just announced about the time of fulfillment and the Kingdom of God. Because the Kingdom of God is at hand, our response should be one of repentance or conversion.
Repentance or conversion can be understood as a turning away from something – specifically a turning away from sin, from anything that keeps us away from God, that prevents us from following Him, being in relationship with Him, and fulfilling His will for us here on earth. More than just a turning away from sin, though, it is also a turning towards – turning towards God Himself.
We hear in the first reading how the Lord sent the prophet Jonah to announce to the Ninevites – the great enemies of Israel at that time – a message of doom and destruction. The Ninevites were themselves not Jews, and yet as the reading tells us, the whole city responded to Jonah’s prophecy by repenting of the evil they had done. They are held up as an example to the Jews.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ first disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – respond to Jesus’ call by leaving their nets – the symbol of their livelihoods. James and John leave their hired hands – which indicates that they must have been fairly prosperous – and even their father. What this teaches us is that nothing, no matter how important it is to us, should get in the way of following Jesus. This doesn’t necessarily mean that to follow Jesus we have to leave our jobs and our families, although some men and women are called to do that, because God has called them to a more radical way of life. For most people though, more likely the call from God involves following Him primarily by better loving and serving their families, and giving up those things that get in the way of that. Either way though, the call from God is a radical one, and nothing should serve as an obstacle to our relationship with Him.
Some people have had at various points in their lives very profound experiences of God’s love for them. This could be something that may have happened just once or twice, or for some few people like some of the great mystics of the Church, it could be an experience they have frequently throughout their lives. But even if they experienced it just once, many people have changed their lives completely, having once tasted of the immensity of God’s love for them. Just the memory of that experience can keep them on the path towards the Lord for the rest of their lives. If you have never experienced God’s love in this way, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, because these kind of experiences are free gifts from God, given when and how He chooses, not something that we earn or achieve through our own effort. Nor does it mean that God is not calling you to follow Him and receive His love for you: He loves each one of us and desires each one to receive this love.
Regardless of whether or not you personally have or haven’t had an intense experience of God’s love for you, the love of God is what Jesus is calling you to turn towards. Again, repentance is not just turning away from sin; it logically must also be a turning towards something – towards the love of God. A love that can make people give up everything for Him: giving up a job, material possessions, sometimes human relationships, sometimes even one’s very life. It is this love of God that has made Christians throughout the centuries endure persecution, exile, financial ruin, suffering, and even death. This is what Jesus calls us to: not just a taste of God’s infinite love for us, but a constant, eternal, unfading experience of it. Nothing else in the world can even compare to it.
St. Paul urges the Corinthians in our second reading to live as though this world were passing away – which it is. We are all just passing through. As he tells them, “The time is running out.” So let’s not delay in responding to Jesus’ call. What is stopping you? What is keeping you from following Jesus wholeheartedly? Don’t wait any longer; don’t put it off anymore: begin today. Commit yourself to Jesus Christ today. Turn towards Him to receive the love He desires to give you. It is what each one of us needs, what our nation needs, what our world needs.