The readings for this were from Jonah and from the first chapter of Mark.
I want to talk about discipleship and following God today. We get three views of what it means to respond to God’s call in these lessons. We’ll start with the easiest one first. In the Gospel, Jesus calls Andrew and Simon (later Peter), and he calls James and John. The men leave their careers and families and towns willingly, even joyfully, and quite literally follow Jesus up and down Judea for the next three years. This may be the most common view of discipleship, that of giving up everything to follow God. And it’s a powerful message and takes an awful lot of nerve. But thankfully for us, that’s not the end of discipleship. You can still follow God even if you aren’t a fisherman.
In our first reading, Jonah tells the people of Ninevah they will be destroyed. Now you may remember the story of Jonah. God tells him to go to Ninevah and tell the Ninevites that Ninevah will be destroyed in forty days. Jonah, understandably, would rather not do that, so he runs, gets thrown into the sea and swallowed by a fish, and God, again, tells him to go to Ninevah. He delivers the message, the Ninevites repent, and God doesn’t destroy them. Jonah thinks it’s unfair, but that’s another story.
We have two examples of following God in this story. Jonah follows God’s instructions eventually, though he was kicking and screaming and only gave in once he realized he couldn’t escape. This may be what discipleship feels like for many of us. But there’s another example, that of the Ninevites. When they heard Jonah’s message, they repented, they turned towards God, and God saved them from destruction. They led their lives but prayed and repented and did fewer bad things, and God spared them.
This particular example of discipleship is a little difficult for me. As a Lutheran, we put a large emphasis on grace and faith. Our salvation comes from God, and there is nothing we can do to earn it. Works are a response to God’s love, rather than a way to earn salvation. Other denominations believe that faith and works are equal, that we must do works to receive God’s mercy. This story from Jonah, that of the Ninevites being spared because they repent, does not make me want to not be Lutheran, but it does raise an interesting question of how we are called to follow God.
God desires a closer relationship with us. He hears our prayers, he walks with us, and he desires good things for us. He wants us to repent from what keeps us distant from him. But I believe that his grace is not conditional upon this. His grace was sealed with the death of his son. And our response to that grace is to lead prayerful lives. I hope you will think of your whole life as a response to God’s grace in the coming month. Amen.