Turn and Trust
A sermon on Mark 1: 14-20.
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Mark Stosberg on Unsplash.]
Five and a half years ago, when I finally turned in my last paper for my last class of graduate school, I thought I was DONE with thesis statements for the rest of my life.
But, really, I should have known better.
I may not use thesis statements in my sermons, or e-mails, or any of the things that I still write on a regular basis, but I had already preached at least once on today’s gospel passage… so I had already encountered the idea that Jesus’s proclamation at the beginning of his Galilean ministry is, effectively, the thesis statement of Mark’s gospel.
If you didn’t read it that way, don’t worry.
Mark’s gospel is hardly organized like a traditional five-paragraph essay, nor does verse fifteen read like a conventional thesis statement… but it does fulfill the function of a thesis.
According to the Writing Center at one prominent University, “A thesis statement is a road map for your argument that tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.”
And, that is exactly what this statement does for the story that Mark is telling about Jesus: it tells us how Mark is interpreting the significance of Jesus’s life and ministry:
“The time is fulfilled”… God’s promised action of raising up a Savior is happening in this story.
“The kingdom of God has come near”… This plan looks like God actually being present among us.
(and then the defining center of Mark’s interpretation)
“Repent and believe in the good news”… we need to respond to what God is doing, and that response has two elements: Repent and believe.
Or, rather, μετανοέω (metanoéō) and πιστεύω (pisteúō)… because English translations really don’t communicate very effectively this most essential message of the earliest gospel.
I find this translation challenge more than a little ironic, because a thesis is supposed to clarify the focus of an argument for readers,
but more often than not I think the English translation of Mark 1:15, and all the baggage that has been layered onto the words “repent” and “believe” over two millennia, have probably actually confused us.
When we hear repent (at least in the American culture shaped by Puritanism, the Great Awakening, and Evangelical televangelists), we tend to intuit a strong undertone of moralistic judgment.
And when we hear believe (again, in this culture of in-group language, where we know whether or not people are in our tribe by the buzz-words they use), we assume it’s about allegiance to a specific set of truth statements.
That’s why I go back to the Greek – so that we can disentangle the original meaning of Jesus’s proclamation from the meanings that shift the thesis into something Mark never would have recognized.
So, what about those original meanings?
If you’ve been listening to my preaching for a while, you will probably recognize this next bit, because I think it’s really important, so I talk about it a LOT.
The word usually translated as repent actually comes from the words for change and thought… so it means less – feel penitent for what a sinner you are – and more – change your worldview, the way you think and move through the world.
And the word usually translated as believe is not about the theological or dogmatic beliefs that we hold, but rather about believing in Jesus – having a relationship of trust where we look to Jesus as our guide.
So, if I were to rephrase Mark’s thesis for people in our time and place, I would phrase it this way:
“God’s promise is happening now. God is here to change the world. Turn your lives around and Trust this good news.”
Seeing as Mark did not have me to translate for him, thankfully he was not relying exclusively on his thesis statement to communicate his interpretation of the significance of what Jesus was saying and doing.
In fact, in the ancient Near-East, depending on words alone to communicate meaning would have been strange. The ancient formula for such meaning-heaving communication was Word and Deed together.
The stories that accompany the words interpret them, and demonstrate what they look like in action. And that’s what the rest of today’s gospel story does.
It might look like a fairly bland, factual account of the calling of the first disciples…
No aspersion cast on Jesus’s hometown or prophecies about sitting under fig trees like we got in last week’s call story from the gospel of John…
But make no mistake: Mark was very deliberate about how he told this story.
First came the Word: “God is here. Turn and trust the good news.”
Then came the Deed: two scenes in rapid succession where people encounter Jesus, and then turn from the lives they have been living and trust Jesus enough to follow him without even know where he is leading.
Word and Deed.
Turn and Trust.
That is the story Mark is telling. That is his interpretation of what matters most in the story of Jesus.
Which raises the question: does Mark’s thesis still apply to the story of Jesus for us?
As we hear the account of Jesus’s ministry 2,000 years later… does it still translate? Is our response to Jesus still supposed to be turn and trust?
To answer that question, I think it helps to take a tip from the ancients and consider this teaching less like a thesis and more through the model of word and deed.
What might our deeds to illustrate this word look like? What might it actually look like in practice to recognize God in our lives right now, and turn and trust?
Well, in order to turn, we need to know what direction we are already facing, right?
And I think that answer is always – at least a little bit – that we are turned in on ourselves.
That’s how Martin Luther defined sin.
Not as a list of “dos” and “don’ts,” but as the inclination to turn in on ourselves – putting our own desires, or perspectives, or even fears, ahead of the call to turn outward in love, as Jesus commands.
And the call to turn from this orientation, to reject the individualism of our culture that assumes each person is going to look out for themselves and their loved ones first, would – indeed - be a radical μετανοέω (metanoéō), a change in the patterns of how we think.
And if we are going to have any chance of making that kind of fundamental change in our lives, it has to flow from trust.
We can’t get there by will power, or the moral expectations of our faith.
That kind of transformation only comes from the assurance that if Jesus is leading us away from a culture of self-first and toward a radical love of our neighbors and the world around us, then we will actually find abundant life by following him.
Without that kind of trust, fear takes over.
Fear tells us that we need to always protect ourselves, and ensure that our needs get met, before thinking about anyone else.
But deep trust… not passivity, but active-drop-your-nets-and-follow-Jesus-trust rejects fear.
It sees Jesus and says “Yes. God IS keeping all the promises of abundant, joyful life. God is here, in front of me right now. What else can I do but follow?”
Maybe you noticed that when Simon, Andrew, James, and John followed Jesus they did so without knowing where Jesus was leading them.
It’s a detail that underscores the call to not just turn, but also trust. To understand the call into faith as a relationship of following Jesus, rather than an agreement to accompany him to a particular, guaranteed destination.
But, from the perspective of Mark’s story-telling, it’s also a move that allows his Word and Deed presentation to translate – across different languages, and cultures, and moments in history…. Because it doesn’t tie the message to a particular series of events or a specific destination.
I don’t know the details of where Jesus I leading any of us, or our congregation as a whole.
I don’t think those specifics are the point, even while I know that that’s where my mind always goes, so I assume many of yours do as well.
But I do believe that the call is still the same for us as it was 2,000 years ago for those four fishermen.
The time is now. God is here. Turn and Trust.
Thanks be to God.