In order to believe something you need to stop believing in something else. This is a rather philosophical statement, but in the context of Jesus’ proclamation recorded in the gospel reading this morning, “The time is fulfilled, and thekingdomofGodhas come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk1:15; NRSV), it is a theological one. In order to believe we must repent.
Repentance is a concept we usually associate with our confession of sins. However, repentance is not limited to our sinfulness. Repentance, in relation to sin, is the need to stop believing in the thing, the attitude, the point of view, the unknown factor, the misplaced belief that causes us to sin. Repentance in its broadest understanding relates to giving up any belief that corrupts how we understand God’s image and likeness and how that causes us to think about God, others and ourselves.
To believe means to place our trust in something. There is a difference between thinking and feeling, but often I hear myself and others say, ‘I feel that such and such…’ What I and others really mean is, ‘I think that such and such…’ In my pastoral training I was taught that if you can put the word ‘that’ after what it is that you are trying to describe, then you are thinking. If you feel sad, or lonely, or whatever emotional state you are in, you wouldn’t say, ‘I feel that sad,’ unless of course you were using ‘that’ as a superlative, ‘I feel extremely sad.’
Likewise, I get on my soapbox when I hear people say, ‘I believe such and such…’ Brian Houston of Hill Song Church often says this in his televised sermons. What they really mean is, ‘I think that such and such is…’ To think leaves more freedom to re-evaluate my opinion and change my thinking. To believe, however, not only demands trust, in the bible context, belief, means to trust – to believe is to trust in what you think.
It seems to me that if we trust in what we think, then our thinking will effect the way we behave, how we operate in the world, how we function with others. I can imagine a woman who has been sexually abused, not being able to enter into a relationship with a man. She has come to believe that men will not treat her well. I can imagine someone whose house has been broken into and robbed may not feel safe in his or her home. Having once felt safe in their home, this break-in has caused them to no longer feel safe. Perhaps they can no longer stay in the house on their own because of the power of the trust in this new thinking.
Jesus’ proclamation calls those who are to become his disciples to believe. For Mark, it appears that we are to believe in the good news. We would be making a mistake if we understood this good news, in this context, to be the gospels of the Bible. For when Jesus came on the world stage at this point, there were no written records of Jesus’ interaction within the world. Certainly Jesus is speaking about a message and, in this case, Mark tells us, it is the message concerning God’s kingdom.
It is important, however, to recognise something unique in Mark’s gospel. As Jesus walks onto the world stage, so does the concept of God’s kingdom. The earliness of Mark’s writing, and the lack of inclusion of an infancy narrative, unlike Matthew and Luke, may mean that Mark, along with the rest of the Church, has not yet formalised the concept of the incarnation of God in Jesus. For Mark, in this early stage, it seems, Jesus is the incarnation of the kingdom of God. Jesus is now available and in him the kingdom of God is now available. The invitation of where to place our trust, our belief, is in the person of Jesus, the holder, the incarnation of the kingdom of God.
As I have already said, in order for us to place our trust in something, we need to stop trusting in something else. Ultimately, this is what it means to repent. The word we get from the bible literally means to change our nerve – to change our heart and mind. Those who are to be Jesus’ disciples are to stop trusting in those things that are contrary to the things of the kingdom of God.
If Jesus is, as Mark suggests, the personification, the incarnation of the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God is present where Jesus is, then in order to get to know the kingdom of God we need to get to know Jesus. ThekingdomofGodis, therefore, a relational concept. We will find that we will grow in our knowledge of the kingdom through a relationship with Christ.
It is logical, then, for those who are to be disciples of Jesus, that we need to repent of all our beliefs that tell us we will find the kingdom of God by any other means. Knowing and applying the Bible literally does not bring us into the kingdom of God, but reading the bible helps us to grow in our relationship with Jesus. Going to church does not bring us into the kingdom of God, unless attending church is intended to strengthen and expresses our relationship with Jesus. It is not even enough to consider that God exists, as many people would say, ‘I believe in God.’ To believe in something demands that we place our trust in it.
If this process of believing in Jesus as the personification of the kingdom of God is a relational one, then we ought to understand that as we grow in that relationship we will discover in Jesus those things to place our trust in. As we journey on in our faith, as we undertake our various ministries, as we read scripture and have conversations with God, as we spend time with others and share our discoveries about God, we will, from time to time, realise that something we have believed about God does not stand true in our experience.
It saddens me when I hear people say that they once believed in God, but because of some illness, accident, or human betrayal, they no longer believe. Rather than ask questions about whether their belief in God was valid, they choose to reject God. When our belief in God fails to live up to our expectations, perhaps we are believing in something that is not true. At the times when our faith is challenged we are either being invited to test our own faith, that is, do we really trust what we think, or we are being invited believe in how God is revealing himself to really be. If God is revealing himself in a way different to that which we believed until now, then we are being called to repent, to change our mind and heart, and to believe in God’s revelation of himself.
The life of a disciple is, therefore, not a straight road, but a continuous cycle of repenting and believing. If I was to define what the life of a disciple of Jesus is, I would describe it as a cycle of trusting in how I understand God to be, acting upon that belief, and when that belief failed to stand the test of experience, repenting, placing my trust in the revelation that God has made known. It is only in relationship with God through Jesus, that I can become aware of those other trusts that cause me to sin. So I say, ‘Lord, I believe, help me be aware of my misplaced beliefs, so I believe in your kingdom and not my own.’