The Metropolitan Congregation

- serving and celebrating the LGBT communities of Manchester and the North West

Sermon - 22nd January 2012

 The Call of Discipleship

Scripture - Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

Rev Andy Braunston


Both our readings today are about discipleship.  Jonah heard God’s call and ran as far as he could in the other direction, whilst the disciples who heard Jesus’ call left their nets and followed him.  I find it easier to identify with Jonah than the disciples!  He behaved in a much more typical way. 

I always feel that there’s a bit missing in the account of the call of the disciples – there must have been some prior knowledge of Jesus and his teaching, or a bit more to the dialogue that the compiler of Mark’s Gospel didn’t know about.  But in both Jonah and Mark we see radical discipleship – people literally turning their lives around in order to respond to God’s call.  It’s this radical discipleship that we shall be reflecting on today.


The story of Jonah – or at least parts of it – are quite well known in our wider culture.  The song It Ain’t Necessarily So from George and Ira Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess in 1935 made the story of Jonah famous; my generation was re-introduced to the song by the 1980s band Bronski Beat who did a cover version of it. 

It ain’t necessarily so,
It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
the things that your liable to read in the Bible
It ain't necessarily so

Oh Jonah he lived in the whale
Oh Jonah he lived in the whale
For he made his home in that fish's abdomen
Oh Jonah he lived in the whale

In Porgy and Bess the song was used to tease an evangelist, Bronski Beat were singing in an age of resistance to various civil rights; resistance often based on the Bible so the song became a bit of an anthem.

The song assumes that, particularly in the verse about Jonah, that the Bible is literally true.  It wouldn’t be as much fun to sing about different literally styles in the Bible nor to try and explain the idea of parable – such things are always left to sermons! 

The book of Jonah is a parable – it’s a story, like those that Jesus used to tell, which contained truth but wasn’t meant to be taken literally.  There are lots of clues within the book which give the game away. 

It was written after the return of the Jewish people from Exile in Babylon when the leaders of the people were very concerned with re-establishing their national life.  They were concerned with who was in and who was out.  The Jews who hadn’t been led off into Exile had stayed behind and had, over the years, married out.  In other words they had taken non-Jewish partners and how there were gentile, wives, mothers, and grandmothers.  One is Jewish by race and that race is defined by who one’s mother is.  So there were many people who were living as part of the People but who weren’t in fact Jewish.  The leaders of the national restoration, Ezra and Nehemiah issued a terrible decree to “put away” these gentile relatives – this would have meant certain death for them. 

To stand up and argue with this edict would have been difficult and may have resulted in ridicule, danger and even death, so Jonah was written, and set a few hundred years in the past.  Instead of being sent to the Babylonian – who were the most recent foe – Jonah was sent to an older enemy  the Assyrians and into their capital of Ninevah.  He was told to call them to repentance.  The Assyrians were seen as being cruel and not notably interested in Jewish spirituality so Jonah is rather disconcerted by God’s command and runs off in the other direction!  Jonah is eventually delivered to Ninevah by a large fish – or whale as Gershwin has it – and he preaches to the people of Ninevah who prove remarkably receptive to his message and repent.  Jonah is not happy that they have repented and sulks with God. 

Jonah is an interesting book for a range of reasons.  The history of when, and why, it was written, and the fact that everyone responds to the message makes Jonah unique – all the other prophets are ignored, vilified and chased out of town!  It’s a book which isn’t about Jonah’s message but about the messenger.  But under the tale of Johnah’s struggle, disobedience, journey and spite there is the surprising (for the time) idea that God is concerned about pagans and that these nasty, dreadful and cruel pagans could turn to God.  In the context of an era where pagan wives and children were being expelled from the people of Israel it was powerful, dangerous and subversive stuff.  Jonah finds God’s mercy infuriating as, presumably, would the conservative leaders of the people who are busy expelling gentiles. 

St Mark

The passage from St Mark’s gospel is clearer – it’s a straightforward account of Jesus’ going about his business of proclaiming the Kingdom and calling people to follow him.  Unlike Jonah, these would-be disciples follow the first time they are called.  So, I suppose the compilers of the Lectionary who decided which readings would be put together thought preachers should do a “compare and contrast” between disobedient, and grumpy, Jonah and the obedient disciples who left their nets.  But I think there is another link – it’s the link about the Kingdom of God.

We read in the Gospel that Jesus was busy proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  Mark simply asserts that this was what Jesus was doing and assumes his readers would know what that meant.  We use the term “kingdom” a lot as Christians; every time we pray the Our Father we ask that “your kingdom come”. 

When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom he is speaking of nothing less than the reign of God breaking through and changing our world, putting it right, making things as they should be.  In a world which rebels against God’s values, justice and rule, the Kingdom is the restoration of how things should be.  When we pray for the coming of the Kingdom we’re praying for justice to be established, for the values of our world to be turned around. 

The disciples heard that proclamation and were captivated by it; it inspired them to turn away from their previous lives and follow Jesus not knowing where their journeys would take them.  This kingdom led them to radical new understandings of God’s love, his inclusion and his concerns. 

Link with Jonah

The Kingdom is the link with Jonah.  Once we remind ourselves that this Kingdom is about God’s justice it makes perfect sense for God to send a prophet to the people of Nineveh and call them away from their cruel ways.  The Assyrians were a by-word for cruelty and many suffered from their policies.  God yearned for this to stop, for the torturers to turn away from their cruel art just as He continues to yearn for justice now.  The writer of Jonah used God’s concern for justice as a key theme for his work knowing that it would have resonance with his contemporary readers and hearers in their context. 


So what do we learn from these two readings?  I think there are four things:

Following is difficult

It’s always difficult to follow Jesus as he makes demands upon us.  We were reminded of these demands in the Covenant service.  We offer all that we are to God and try to resist the temptation to take back that which we’ve offered.  As the Covenant liturgy reminds us some of the things that Jesus asks us to do may be “contrary to our natural desires and inclinations”.  It costs us to follow Jesus, just as it cost Jonah in our first reading and just as it cost the disciples leaving their nets. 

Following always happens in our own context

What it means for me to be a disciple will be different to what it means for you, as we live in different contexts.  We have to work out our Christian discipleship with reference to where we live, our work, or our unemployment, or our retirement, or our studies, or our illnesses.  We have to work it out in the context of our home and family lives, taking into account the gifts and skills that we’ve been given.  Thankfully Jesus didn’t call me to live out my discipleship as a singer or a ballet dancer – I sing and dance dreadfully!  Thankfully God didn’t call everyone to live out their calling as pastors.  We make sense of God’s calling on our lives by looking at the context we live in, the networks we exist in and the society in which we live.  Being a disciple in the North West of England is different to being a disciple in Nicaragua, or Syria, or Saudi Arabia.   

Following is always a risk

As Jonah and the disciples found, following is always about taking risks.  Tradition suggests that all the disciples ended up being martyred for their faith, Jonah found himself being thrown overboard of a ship.  In the UK we are not likely to face such extreme risks, our risks are more subtle – the risk of being ridiculed for our faith, being told we’re old fashioned or anti-intellectual, or prejudiced.  We face other risks – however – talking about the Kingdom is always political yet never about party politics which can infuriate those who are after our votes or upset those who think we’re taking pot shots at them. 

Following always involves the Kingdom

Following Jesus always involves the Kingdom of God.  This sounds obvious but there is a tendency in contemporary Christianity to make faith all about me and God.  We are urged to repent of our sins (as indeed we should), to accept the fact that we’re forgiven (as indeed we are) and to win others to Christ (which is of course good) but we’re rarely urged to see our faith in the stark political terms of the Kingdom of God. 

To follow Jesus means speaking out for justice and to resist injustice wherever we see it.  This covers from how and where we shop to what we do to support those on the edge of our society:

-      The poor who can’t make ends meet and who are driven to loan sharks

-      The asylum seeker desperate for sanctuary yet disbelieved again and again

-      The victims of horrific crime who are never given justice

-      Those who have hatred shown to them again and again.

The Kingdom is about justice, because God is about justice. 


In our daily lives we are called to follow Jesus.  Following is different for each of us as we are each different but, for all of us, this following Jesus is risky, happens in the nitty gritty of our own lives, always involves risk and is always about seeking justice.  We are given, as the Covenant service again reminds us, strength to do all that we’re called to do as we wait and work for the world to change into being the Kingdom.


(Rev Andy Braunston)

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