Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Repent and Belive in the Gospel

Here’s my homily for this evening and tomorrow. This is my first weekend at the parish I’ve been assigned to as a deacon: St. John the Baptist in Winfield. I’m excited about beginning there, and I hope I have a word or two here that will speak to their hearts.

The call to repentance runs all through today’s readings. When we think about what repentance means, we usually think about turning away from sin. Well that’s about half right. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus’ call to repentance means a turning away from sin, or at least from a way of life that is not ultimately satisfying, and toward the way of life that God wants us to live.

Jonah’s repentance was all about turning away from his idea of who could receive salvation and toward God’s call that he be the messenger of repentance to the Ninevites. You might know that we don’t have all of Jonah’s story in today’s first reading. Based on today’s first reading, we might think Jonah heard God’s call and went forth and did it, and all worked out well. But that’s not quite true; Jonah’s first response to God’s call that he go preach to the Ninevites was that he didn’t want to do it and there was no way God could make him. You see, the Ninevites were an extremely evil people who were incredibly cruel to the Israelites, so Jonah quite rightly feared for his life. And Jonah felt justified in letting God destroy the city and rid that evil people from the face of the earth. To get away from God’s call, Jonah boarded a ship headed to Tarshish, but that wasn’t far enough to get away from God – when we try to flee from God we’re never going to be successful. The story goes that God whipped up a storm that threatened the ship and everyone on it. Jonah knew the reason for the storm, so he convinced the crew to throw him overboard. And maybe you know the story here: when he hit the water, he was swallowed up by a big fish and lived in the belly of the fish for three days before he was coughed up on land. Today’s first reading, then, is Jonah’s second response to God’s call, and it was all about him turning away from his fears, away from his prejudices, and toward the mission that God called him to do.

The Ninevites, then, had some repentance of their own to do. Jonah’s mission to them was incredibly successful. He was only about a third of the way through this massive city, when they heard his announcement and determined to reform their lives. They put on sackcloth and proclaimed a fast, and we get the idea that they truly reformed their lives because God did not, in fact, destroy their city.

St. Paul’s message in today’s second reading is another call to repentance. Paul thought that the return of Christ would happen in his lifetime, so he did not want people to get too attached to life in this world. Even though he was wrong about Christ’s return, he was still quite right, I think, about not being too attached to this world. Because we have been created for life with God, and ultimately that means life in heaven. But if we’re too attached to the limited life that this world allows us, we’ll never get there. We need to turn away from getting too attached to life in this world, and instead to turn our attention toward life with God in heaven.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to turn away from fishing and to turn instead toward a life following him. Fishing was the only way of life these men had ever known. Their families had probably been fishermen for generations, and James and John even left their father on the boat, along with the nets and the hired hands. They gave it all up at once to become fishers of men, something they had no idea how to do.

This is Respect Life weekend, and respecting life involves repentance for all of us. It’s easy enough, I think, for us to be proud of our efforts to respect life when we haven’t murdered anyone and don’t support abortion. But the Church teaches that respecting life involves far more than that. Respecting life also means that we must have a preference against capital punishment, against war and terrorism, against euthanasia and assisted suicide, against racism and prejudice in all of its forms, against gossip and scandal – in short, against anything that de-values human life. The principle of respecting life is grounded in the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and that each person needs to be for us a reflection of God in our world. Therefore, we are called to treat each person accordingly. Today, I think, it would be good for all of us to reflect on the ways in which we need to repent of our life-destroying attitudes and behaviors, and turn instead toward God, the giver of all life.

We are still more or less at the beginning of Ordinary Time today, and I think the Church begins Ordinary Time with a call to repentance because Christ began his ministry that way. For us who would be followers of Christ, repentance needs to be a way of life. It’s not something that happens once and for all, and then we’re done with it. Every day, we are confronted by attitudes that are not life-giving, and tempted toward behaviors that turn us away from the God who made us. If we would believe that we are called in the same way Peter, Andrew, James and John were called, then we must remember that we are also called in the same way the Ninevites and the Corinthians were. We have to give up our sinful attitudes and behaviors, and our attachments to the world which is passing away, and turn instead toward God’s will and our true calling in Christ.

Again, this is a decision that we must make every day. And maybe a good way to do that is to begin every day with the prayer of today’s responsorial psalm: “Teach me your ways, O God.”