Opening the Word: Repent and believe

In the earliest Sundays of Ordinary Time, the Church contemplates the essential dimensions of Christian discipleship through the call of the apostles. Last week, we discovered that discipleship begins not merely with following the teachings of Christ but dwelling with our Lord. This week, we discover that dwelling with the Word made flesh involves repentance.

Repentance is central to Israel’s identity. In the Old Testament, to follow the Law is to walk in the way of the Lord. Yet Israel often fails to walk in the footsteps of God, choosing power, prestige, and fortune above the Law.

Such sin wreaks havoc upon the nation of Israel, and thus they cry out often in the Psalms, pleading before God, “In your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O Lord” (Ps 25:7). The word kindness in the Latin Vulgate is actually misericordia, the heart-felt compassion of a God in relationship with Israel.

To repent, thus, is to call on the mercy of God. It is to remember the original covenant that God has established with Israel and now the Church.

Jesus’ calling of the apostles begins with an announcement that the final moment of conversion is at hand: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). In Greek, the time of fulfillment is kairos. This refers to the definitive moment of history, the time to make a decision or else. The reign of God is at hand in the person of Jesus Christ. Turn away from sin and toward the Gospel or the “good news” that Jesus has come to accomplish.

This proclamation of our Lord is addressed to two audiences. First, it is directed to the apostles Simon, Andrew, James and John. What is remarkable is that the earliest apostles leave behind their work to follow a person they don’t even know.

They don’t know the good news of salvation yet. Only in the chapters that follow will they discover what it means to celebrate the arrival of God’s kingdom in the self-giving love of the Son.

Yet the passage from Mark is also addressed to us, the reader. Unlike the apostles, we know what the good news consists of. We know that our Lord came to conquer the darkness of sin and death. We know the power of the cross. We know the gift of the Resurrection.

Like Israel, we too can cease to walk in the way of the Lord. Thus, we need to once again hear these words of our Lord directed to us: “This is the time of fulfillment. ... Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

This means we need to develop a new sense of urgency in this new liturgical year. Like the Corinthians, we must hear Paul’s words directed to us: “I tell you ... the time is running out” (1 Cor 7:29).

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The time is running out to give our whole lives away in prayer. The time is running out to care for the orphan and the widow, to greet them as Christ.

The time is running out to give up the desire for power and prestige and instead live according to the self-emptying love of the reign of God.

To be a disciple is to repent with the awareness that the final moment of judgment is at hand. Whether this judgment comes in two weeks, 20 years, or another millennium, we must follow Andrew, James, Simon and John.

Drop our nets. And follow the living God to the foot of the cross.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.