Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and seminary professor in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. He was critical of Adolf Hitler from the beginning and opposed what he saw as the dangerous rise of Nazism in Germany. He was a leader in the Confessing Church, a movement which refused to align Christianity with Nazi ideology. He wrote about costly discipleship and called on Christians to pay attention to Hitler’s dangerous rhetoric and policy. His writings were eventually censored by the Nazis, but he did whatever he could to remain faithful to Christ. In the midst of the Second World War, Bonhoeffer was part of the German resistance and was arrested for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned and eventually executed just a month before Germany’s surrender. He is remembered as one of the most courageous Christian martyrs of modern times.
Bonhoeffer understood that the call to follow Jesus isn’t always easy. Often our calling is very difficult and a lot of people will choose the easy way and choose not to speak up or confront evil. Bonhoeffer believed silence in the face of evil is itself evil—and it is the church’s responsibility to speak out against such things. Bonhoeffer was faithful to Christ to end, and it cost him his life. Hopefully none of us are ever confronted with as difficult a calling as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But we are all called to something challenging. We are all called to what he deemed “costly discipleship” in one form or another.
In the text we just read from Mark chapter one, Jesus calls his first disciples. We’re in that part of the church year where we read Gospel texts about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Last week we heard about his baptism. This week we get the calling of the disciples. And over the next couple weeks we’ll hear some of Jesus’ first miracles described in Mark.
In today’s reading, Jesus not only calls the disciples, but we also see the very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark 1:15 he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” That one sentence is packed with meaning and is a summary of everything that follows in Jesus’ life and ministry. The phrase “kingdom of God” is perhaps the most prominent theme of Jesus’ message. And as the story Mark tells unfolds we get a better sense of what Jesus means by it.
To those who first heard Jesus, or who first read Mark’s Gospel, the words “kingdom of God” may have been a bit controversial. The Greek word “basileia” or the Aramaic word “malkut” which Jesus spoke, meant kingdom or empire. As in, Roman Empire. This word choice was risky because it seemed to have a political charge to it. And perhaps that was the point. Jesus seems to have deliberately chosen this phrase to name the central theme of his good news, because he wanted to challenge worldly empires in a spiritual way. To reframe what “kingdom” meant and resist empire at the same time.
Another Greek word is “metanoia” which is often translated “repent” but actually means something more along the lines of conversion or transformation. Meta means “beyond” and “noia” means mind, so this means to “go beyond your mind!” The word doesn’t mean to feel guilty for the bad things you’ve done. It’s a call to spiritual transformation. To see the world in a new way. To see the reality of this kingdom of God present in Jesus Christ.
The last thing to notice is that Jesus says this kingdom is near, or at hand. He’s calling people to see that it is close. Contrary to what you may have heard, I don’t believe Jesus was saying that the end of the world was coming soon—but that the kingdom of God is near. As in, it’s right here! All around you and within you and throughout everything. Jesus says this kingdom is near and that you’ll see it if you do this metanoia. This going beyond your mind.
In Christ, God became incarnate and heaven came to earth. This is what Jesus is pointing out and calling on everyone to see. To transform their minds to perceive that the kingdom is near. The Hebrew prophets had always said that God’s dream was to manifest the divine will on earth, to align earth with heaven. And in the Incarnation, this is what God did in Jesus Christ. So Jesus begins with this call to a spiritual paradigm shift. A transformation of consciousness. A call to go beyond our minds and see that the kingdom is near.
That’s how Jesus sets the tone for everything that follows. That’s Jesus’ first sentence of the Gospel. And that’s what he calls the disciples to. After saying this one sentence so full of meaning, Jesus calls on these fishermen to follow him. Maybe that’s all they heard. Or maybe they didn’t hear anything at all and simply dropped their nets and followed. Either way, Mark makes it clear that central to Christ’s message is this metanoia, this transformation of your mind to see that the kingdom is near. And these fishermen drop everything to follow Jesus and believe this good news.
The path of discipleship is about recognizing this reality. Becoming aware of God’s presence in your life and inviting the divine will to guide you. Recognizing that, like Jesus, we are the body of Christ too; we are called to be the incarnation of God in the world. (Just as we prayed in our Prayer of the Day this morning: that’s the church’s calling).
Coming to a place where we grasp this reality is hard work. It takes prayer and dedication to the way of Jesus. It involves the difficult task of learning to love. Becoming vehicles for divine love to enter the world through. Letting that divine love and light flow through us and shine out to our neighbors in need. That’s the calling of discipleship. It’s not something we need to do in order to earn God’s love or reward. We are saved as a free gift of God’s love and grace. But that’s just the beginning—after that, we get to continue growing and following Jesus to manifest the kingdom and help others know God’s goodness and love. Not because we have to in order to be blessed or accepted by God, but because that’s what people touched by the Spirit do. We get to be participants in the ministry of reconciliation. Partners with God in the healing of the world. As we continue to grow in Christian maturity, this metanoia Jesus talks about will start to happen in us. And we’ll understand what it means to become one with the divine will and live more fully into our call to be disciples.
And that call to be disciples won’t always be easy. As we grow up in our spiritual life, we will find God calling us to take risks, to stand up for what is right, to be prophetic and confront injustice. Disciples of Christ are not called to simply accept the status quo. Disciples of Christ are called to manifest the kingdom of God in our lives and in our world. And sometimes that means making sacrifices, maybe even putting our lives on the line. Peter and Andrew and James and John would find this out. Just like Bonhoeffer did.
We may not be faced with such a challenging call to costly discipleship as them. But we will be called to make sacrifices. We will be called into uncomfortable situations and to go beyond our comfort zone. Discipleship might mean we’re called to stand against injustice and confront powerful people. Discipleship might mean using our resources, our energy and creativity to help our congregation make a greater impact in our local community. Discipleship might mean advocating for policy changes to benefit the poor or promote peace. Discipleship means being prepared to take up our cross in whatever form that takes.
And so let us be prepared for what this life of following Jesus really means. Every one of us will be confronted with some kind of difficult calling in our lives. We will be called to deepen our spiritual life. We will be called to put Christ first. We will be called to stand for peace and justice, especially when that’s an uncomfortable or risky thing to do. We will be called to make sacrifices. We will be called to dedicate our time, energy, and resources to Christ’s mission in the world. A life of following Jesus means costly discipleship. And so let us continually rededicate ourselves to this call. To recognize our call to manifest the kingdom with our lives and to follow Jesus wherever the Spirit leads.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, January 21, 2024.