There is a grace present in all of Scripture, a grace that we too often narrowly associate only with scriptural figures. The God of today’s Jonah story is the same God we see Jesus reveal to us in the Gospel. Both readings today are tales of mercy, freely given, unlimited and unearned. God, it seems, is free to bestow mercy on whomever God chooses. And that same grace is eternally present and given, just as freely, to each of us.
We call this liturgical year, "the year of Mark," because, for the most part, his is the Gospel we will be hearing these Sundays. And Mark begins his Gospel with the first preaching of Jesus: "This is the time of fulfillment; the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news." The time is ripe; it is a gifted and graced opportunity; what people have waited a long time for, is coming to fruition - God is acting decisively on our behalf.
Like Jonah and the prophets, Jesus preached repentance, "metanoia." He invited people to have a change of heart and return to God. He is not only calling for a change in people's attitudes and actions but inviting them to believe that God's presence is actually at hand in all that he says and does. What Jesus is doing and saying is what God is doing and saying. All that follows these first words of Jesus in Mark's gospel will only be an elaboration of this concise proclamation about the presence of the reign of God in Jesus' presence.
But it's important to remember that the Gospels are not primarily the story of Jesus of Nazareth. They are the stories of the apostles' journeys of faith, through many stages of metanoia - learning slowly a new way of thinking, looking back, turning away, utter disbelief, intriguing wonderment, catastrophic disillusionment and despair, self-doubt and self-loathing at having been so gullible... to a final stage of conviction and commitment about something definitive and undeniable: that the hand of God is here... that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
What we have in the Gospels is the testimony of these disciples who were commissioned as witnesses to what they had seen and heard. Our faith/trust/commitment rests on their testimony. We who come eventually to accept what the apostles share of their experiences find ourselves also touched by the Holy Spirit, like a mysterious fire, or a light that burns within. And that brightness is shared around. This is how Christianity works - the sum of it all is often expressed inadequately as 'love'.
Jesus' call to metanoia sets the stage for what we see next, the call of the first disciples. Their response to his invitation is a concrete illustration of the radical change required. "Metanoia" means that a person going in one direction makes a total about face and goes in the opposite. A person responding to the call of Jesus must reorient his/her life; take on a new way of being, rededicate energies and see and judge things from a new perspective.
What the Gospels intend to pass on to us is what the apostles heard in their various ways of hearing and understanding, and with growing understanding of how they became convinced. They're describing their own journeys which were like ours: countless re-starts, flashes of light, moments of wonderment, periods of bitterness, disillusionment and regret, amazing experiences of being born to a new life, over against the cold reality that nothing changes in this world.
And what a huge turnaround this understanding brings about. There is something about Simon, Andrew, James and John's response that touches a deep place in us. Many of us, at some moment our lives, will have to make a big decision for right or wrong; for integrity, or dissolution. When that moment comes, how we have been choosing on a daily basis, will determine how true our testimony actually is.
It can be all too easy to shirk off the change and new response Jesus may be calling us to make. God's call is a challenge to us to respond to service. Each of us has been called and is being called by name right now. "Come after me..."
The Kingdom is at hand - and this indeed is "good news."