Today we hear Jesus repeat what John had proclaimed before Jesus was born: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Matthew’s Gospel repeats the prophecy from Isaiah, that the gentiles would see, wake up, and come to know Jesus; they would be enlightened and the figurative darkness, or literal lack of knowledge they had of who God is, would no longer exist. God is near: get yourselves ready to encounter him!
Repent, Jesus says, for the Kingdom of God is near. This isn’t a claim about a place coming near, or at least not a literal place. Rather Jesus is claiming that he – this one who is God – is coming for us and coming to us. He’s in fact taking on who we are, assuming everything we are, so that we are in him and he is in us. It’s kind of a weird thing to think about. But Jesus is saying that this kingdom of heaven that arrives is him and when he comes, he will reestablish relationship with God and between all created things: he will bring about a kingdom that is not of this world. Nope, it’s God’s own desire that he comes into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, to establish.
The thing this kingdom who comes near – Jesus – asks of us seems pretty simple: repent. What does it mean to repent? Why does Jesus ask us to repent? What is repentance about? (ASK) … Repenting is actually about, as we’ve been discussing, first, coming to know who God is, learning what his desire is for us; and then second, it’s about seeing where our lives – decisions, choices, ways of engaging one another, ways of thinking about situations – isn’t reflecting how God asks us to live with him and one another. So first we have coming to know God, second, we have a step of reflection: am I living in the way God desires me to when I say, interact with my friends, my enemies, when I respond to this or that situation, third, we have the step of moving toward God.
That is, of letting go of the things that keep us knowing God more deeply – maybe this has to do with how we prioritize our time and energy – and that keep us from weighing our lifestyles, our choices, our decisions with him as the focal point of our lives – maybe this has to do with fear of letting go, fear of changing, fear of being challenged, fear of other people, frustration or disagreement with others, etc.
Because the very next thing Jesus says after, ‘repent for the kingdom of God is near’ is: follow me. He goes to two sets of brothers who are fishing – Simon Peter and Andrew and then James and John – and he says to both of them: let go of what you’re doing, drop your nets, let that go, and come and follow me. If you drop what you were holding and follow me, I will recast you: I will make you into who you are supposed to be, ‘fishers of men’, fishers of people. In other words, you’ve got to let go of your stuff so that I can remake you into who I intended you to be: my disciples, witnesses, missionaries, my children who can point other people to me: fishers of people, disciples of Christ, children of God, followers of the way.
Our Gospel reading says, ‘as soon as Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘follow me’, they left their nets and their boats and immediately followed him. As I think I’ve said before, I had this sort of experience upon coming into the Church: God broke through my daily work, my busyness, my rational defenses, he entered into me – my mind and my heart – when I was opened by suffering in my case, and he said, ‘follow me and I will make you a fisher of people.’ Off to church and then to seminary I went. I was highly zealous as were the four brothers here who first followed Jesus.
In fact, I dare say that at one point or another, many who have an awakening from the slumber of this life, to the fullness of God percolating new life in them, follow God with a sudden zeal of intense desire, focus, exclusivity and love. The difficulty, as these same disciples will later reveal, is that that simple phrase Jesus utters, ‘follow me’ which we now affirm requires repentance not just once or twice but over and over, can be as challenging, frightening, confusing, frustrating, as can be a human relationship that moves from childish lust and romance, to commitment through sickness, struggle, disagreement, loss of passion or drive, etc. The gravity of following God is so often lost on us for whom complacency rather than danger is more often a barrier to learning anew, knowing, and following him.
But think, for a moment, about what it has meant for people to follow God: for Job – seeing all lost, family and friends turn on him, yet not straying in his faith, for Peter to whom Jesus will say three times, ‘do you love me, are you following me’. Feed my sheep, Jesus says to Peter. And of course this caring for Christians will lead Peter to his death and the hands of enemies of the Way Jesus had set out. Think of all the martyrs over the last two thousand years, in the last year, in the last month, who lost their lives in order to follow God.
Grace is not cheap. While we may receive it for free, to live into the grace of God, we must learn to give up our former lives every single day. This might mean you have to let go of your animosity or disagreement with others. It might mean that you need to back down from a fight or to actually engage more deeply. It might mean that you need to accept a situation or reality you don’t want to for the good of others in your household, or in your church, or your diocese, or your national church, or the whole catholic church. It might mean you have to sacrifice your comfort or the things you hold most dear, or the things that you’ve always done a certain way. It might mean that you have to give up putting yourself and your worries and concerns first. It might mean that you do not get to claim priority in choosing what you do next.
To follow God, to take up your Cross, is not about your comfort. It’s not about getting your way. Look at this passage again: to follow God is to let go of your old life – the figurative fishing nets here – and allow your life, your words and actions and ways – to be reshaped by God. This will require humility. It’s why Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter really loves him. Because while Peter says, ‘yes Lord you know I love you,’ Jesus knows that to step into his grace, into the light and new life, is to often be taken (as he will to say to Peter) “where you do not wish to go.” This isn’t punishment. It isn’t that God is unfair. It isn’t that God working through his Church has failed it or you. Rather it is that to truly be a fisher of people, well this mission will lead you through the trials, tribulations, the muck, the frustration and disagreement, that simply is human relationships.
To be a fisher of people you will get figuratively wet, messy, you’ll be blown about by the winds of uncertainty and the cold sleet of rejection, disappointment, confusion, worry, frustration and lack of fit and fulfillment. You might even get pulled down into the water, treading so you do not drown, or swimming with no shore in sight. That’s what it is to step into a relationship with God, when that relationship is fundamentally about you participating in his gathering frail and broken people like you and I to him. To follow God is not to be first, but to be open, willing, ready, humble, and ready to serve others to engage with others. So my friends whom shall you follow in the months to come?