22 Jan 2012
“‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.’” (Mark 1:15) (+)
There weren’t very many of us here last Sunday after that late ending of the Patriots game and during a three-day-weekend, but for those of us who were, I have a pop quiz about last weekend’s Gospel story. (*) Let me give you a memory aid: “‘Behold the Lamb of God!’” I hope that brings back to mind the story of John the Baptist and his two disciples. Jesus passes by. Their encounter is unplanned and John’s remark is spontaneous, but it was enough to intrigue John’s two followers. They start following Jesus because of what John said, maybe hoping to see what Jesus would do, maybe hear what Jesus would say. After all, what exactly did it mean when John said, “‘Behold the Lamb of God’”? But Jesus takes the initiative away from them. Unexpectedly, Jesus turns around and confronts them with the question, “‘What are you looking for?’” We’re never told the name of one of these men, but the other is Andrew. We didn’t get a chance to read further along last Sunday, but then Andrew draws Simon Peter into this little group around Jesus. The very next day, according to John’s Gospel, the very first person that Jesus actually calls to follow Him is Philip, and then Philip goes and brings his friend Nathanael into the growing group of Jesus’ followers. So we have Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael, and the unnamed disciple who we will come to discover is the Beloved Disciple who is a symbol for all of us in the community of faith.
Now remembering the Gospel story from a week ago may be a bit hard, but it shouldn’t be at all that difficult to remember the Gospel story I just read a few moments ago. John the Baptist doesn’t have the privilege of leading Jesus’ first two disciples to Him in this story. There is no chance encounter between the two; there is no “‘Behold the Lamb of God!’”. As a matter of fact, John is in prison down in Jerusalem and Jesus is up in Galilee. The first two disciples are Simon Peter and Andrew, according to this morning’s Gospel story, and they are called with Jesus’ memorable words, “‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” The next pair of disciples is James and John. Once again, two fishermen called directly by Jesus.
When we place these two accounts side by side, like the church has done for us these two Sundays, it’s plain to see that these are different stories about the same event. It is simply impossible to fit these two accounts together into one coherent story. Now the question is, what does this reveal to us? One unfortunate conclusion is that maybe the Gospels can’t be trusted. That if a story as concrete as the call of Jesus’ first disciples can be fabricated, because we have to admit that either one or the other of these stories can’t be right or that both are incorrect, then why should we trust any part of the Gospel-message? Last year our Parish Book Club read Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman. He was a dedicated and convinced Christian, a man devoted to the Bible, a fundamentalist, a man who wanted to give his life to the study of the Holy Scripture. The numerous biblical contradictions turned him into a non-believer. He was raised to think of the Bible as inerrant, without possibility of mistake or contradiction, and when he studied the Bible, he found contradictions like today’s, and he ended up abandoning his faith.
This possibility of falling away from the faith is why very often the church shies away from a serious discussion of these contradictions, and why church people tolerate mental aerobics to get them to somehow fit together in one, though unconvincing, narrative. But that method shows just as little faith in the Bible as does abandoning it all as unbelievable. We don’t think that the Bible can stand on its own, so we prop it up with our silence and avoidance. We’re not allowed to be confronted by the complete text, difficulties and all, and then the Bible becomes less real, less meaningful to a world filled with contradictions and confusions. When we admit to the Bible’s contradictions, it doesn’t become less authentic; to me at least, it becomes more authentic. It’s a book not meant for the perfection of heaven; it’s a book inspired by heaven for us down here where it’s more often than not messy and complicated, where the way of God is not always one clear, unquestioned path. In other words, the Bible begins to speak when we begin to think. We’re part of the biblical revelation!
Take today’s Lesson for example. Jonah is a powerful biblical image about the forgiveness of God and simultaneously about the vengefulness of the people of God. Read the whole story. It takes 5 or 10 minutes. Jonah is grateful for God’s patience with him when he fails, but he resents God’s forgiveness when it applies to the people of Nineveh. God wants to forgive. Jonah wants God to destroy. And the Book of Jonah puts these two stunningly opposite characteristics side by side so that for the reader it’s like looking in a mirror and seeing if we are just as contradicted. But instead of this essential religious lesson, what do we most often remember about Jonah? It has to be “swallowed by a whale.” A man cannot live in the belly of a whale for three days, so then the fundamentalists create some special “great fish” created by God only for this singular occasion and purpose. Kind of like Steven Spielberg did for the movie Jaws. But either way, this is to completely miss the point of the Book of Jonah, which is a message still relevant for today, that we can be blind to the fact that we are a forgiven people who do not often like to forgive.
Being faithful and true to the biblical word requires something more than only repeating what is printed on the page. It requires us to be engaged and involved with it. When Jesus first preaches “This is the time,” that doesn’t mean only 2,000 years ago. It means now. However or whenever we come to meet Christ, the details aren’t important. What is important is now. That’s why the stories behind “Behold the Lamb” or “Become fishers of men” can stand side by side. The important message is the invitation. This is the time for our generations. This is our moment of invitation. We belong to a living faith. The Bible is the living word of God. The church is the living body of Christ. Now is where we encounter Jesus. What defined that relationship in generations past doesn’t have to in our present, our now. God changed His mind in the book of Jonah and the world didn’t tilt off its axis. Change is not the opposite of faithfulness, not listening to the ever-present now of God is. That we may see faithfulness as an openness before God’s continuous and changing invitation, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo