Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 22, 2012 – St. John’s
All three biblical readings today focus on the theme of conversion. The snippet from the book of Jonah omits the story of his misadventures with the whale and presents the miraculous results of his preaching to the hated Ninevites when they repent in sackcloth and ashes. St. Paul, still writing in the expectation that the complete realization of the saving plan of God, initiated with Christ’s death and resurrection, was not far distant, urges the Corinthians to sit loose to their ordinary activities: marriage, business, sorrow, joy: it has all been relativized because “the form of the present world is passing away.” And, of course, we have St. Mark’s summary of the preaching of Jesus: “The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the Gospel”, and the Evangelist’s immediate illustration of that with the conversion to discipleship of Simon and Andrew, James and John.
All three of the passages place the call to conversion in the context of an imminent event: the Ninevites have forty days until the wrath of God will fall on them; Paul says that the time is short, is running out; Jesus says that the time is fulfilled: the Kingdom of God is at hand. With Jonah one has the sense of a threat: repent or else! But that is not the prominent theme either in the preaching of Jesus or in the exhortations of St. Paul. Yes, a future great act of God is expected, one that will undo the “form of the present age,” yes, but it is an announcement of a fulfilment: of a promise, of an event of grace.
Certainly that is the case in the message of Jesus. In the following pages of the Gospel, he will devote his parables to explaining how what God has begun to do is an act of redemption, of salvation, of liberation, of reconciliation, and his miracles of healing will embody the spiritual liberation he announces: sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, movement to the crippled, life to the dead. That is what it means that God is beginning to exercise his royal power. It is in the face of this kind of Kingship, this kind of Kingdom, that people have to make their choice and to determine whether or not they will be people who can be at home in that Kingdom, in tune with it, live lives appropriate to it, to a world, that is, in which God is this kind of God and acts in this kind of way. “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” It is a Gospel, Good News, that is to motivate this change of mind and of heart.
And St. Paul urges his point in the full knowledge that the Kingdom Christ had announced had burst through climactically in his death and resurrection and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and what was awaited was a blessed fulfilment of something already begun, next to which all other things, no matter how good they are, are matters of indifference.
Something crucial about Christianity is expressed in these calls to conversion. Christianity is often perceived, even by Christians, as a religion of do’s and don’ts, focused, that is, on what we are supposed to do and not do. But Christianity does not begin there, it is not based there, it is not centered there–on what we are doing or not doing. Christianity is a religion of response, and the response is to what God has done. The first word it speaks is about what God has done, is doing, is about to do. It begins as a Gospel: “Jesus came to Galilee,” St. Mark tells us today, “proclaiming the gospel of God.” God takes the initiative, and his initiative is always one of grace. Responsibilities on our part, even great responsibilities, even difficult responsibilities, arise in response to that initiative, but the point is that they are by way of responses, and of responses to grace, to love, to mercy. The Christian life is not a burdensome effort to try to make ourselves worthy of God’s love in the sense that we have to try to earn it. It is an effort to try to live up to a love already freely given, to try to live as if the Gospel Jesus proclaimed is true. “Repent and believe, believe and repent” is the response Jesus asks: to accept the Good News of the love of God for us all, and to try to live in the universe of grace that joyful announcement reveals.
In today’s Gospel, the conversion of the first disciples is presented dramatically, as a sudden, life-changing, response to the call of Jesus. Conversions still happen that way, of course, when light dawns on a person at a fateful moment. But perhaps more often, at least for those who have been Christians from their childhood, conversion is a life-long process, never accomplished once and for all, never perfect, never secure. The challenge of believing always remains, if not the challenge of saying our first Yes to the Gospel, then the challenge of our efforts to explore the world as Christian faith illumines it, to uncover its height and depth, length and breadth, to become persons who fit, who belong, in this world of grace. The challenge of repenting is always urgent, because, as the theologian Bernard Lonergan described it, Christian conversion is always a withdrawal from inauthenticity, and to have made progress on the way is to discover how much further we have to go. But the effort should be undertaken under the sign of love, of peaceful joy, in the knowledge that the first words pronounced by Jesus Christ in the Gospel is precisely that: a Gospel, good news, the glad tidings of salvation.