Introduction: A tale of two brothers
In 1989, two brothers from Boston started a T-shirt business. For five years Bert and John traveled the East Coast, hawking their shirts in the streets and selling door-to-door in college dorms. They lived on peanut butter and jelly, slept in their van, and showered when they could. As they tell it, they didn't make much money, and chicks were not impressed. In the summer of '94 they arrived home from a road trip with $78 in their pockets and were about ready to give up.
That's when they created a smiling stick figure named Jake and a simple phrase that captured their imagination: "Life is good." Inspired by their new friend and his contagious grin, they emptied their bank account and printed up 48 Jake shirts for a street fair in Cambridge. By noon they were sold out, and a business was born. Not just a business, but a movement. Bert and John were no longer just selling clothes; they were on a mission to spread good vibes wherever they could. Today, Life is good, Inc., is not only a $150 million company with thousands of outlets. It's a movement that's raised millions of dollars for charity, drawn people together, and shaped contemporary culture with its message of optimism, simplicity, and goodness. And my guess is, many of us have one of Jake's shirts in our drawers at home.
There's something we love about that story, isn't there? Maybe because it's the story of a couple of local boys who made good. Maybe it's that there's still a market for simplicity and quality. Or maybe it's because it speaks to a longing we all have to work at something we love, something that makes a positive impact on the world around us. We all want to believe that life can be good, that work can be meaningful, and that we can make a difference in the world.
I've got Good News for you, news that can put a smile on your face as big as Jake's. What happened to Bert and John can happen to you, no matter what line of work you're in, no matter how successful or disappointed you've been with life to this point. Today I'd like to introduce you to another set of brothers who were also interrupted by an intriguing character whose message captured their imagination. We'll meet them in the Gospel ofMark, chapter 1. Let's begin with verses 14-18 and set the stage for their encounter:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!" (TNIV)
A kingdom life
Remember, these are Jesus' first public words. We've got to believe he chose them carefully. So before we get to the two brothers, let's take a minute and be sure we understand what Jesus is saying here. "The time has come." In other words, something's about to happen; something new, something different. And that something is the kingdom of God. Now when first century Jews heard the phrase kingdom of God, they thought of a political kingdom centered in Jerusalem. When we hear the phrase kingdom of God, we tend to think of heaven. We're both wrong. The kingdom of God isn't a time or a place. The kingdom of God is a life—a life lived under the rule of God. When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God had come near, he was announcing that this new and better life was available—not in some distant place or future time, but here and now. That, of course, was Good News.
But to experience that kingdom life, you have to do two things: repent and believe. That word repent means, literally, to turn around; to turn away from one thing and turn toward another thing. But turn from what? We typically understand it to mean repent from sin, from the things we do wrong. But notice that Jesus doesn't say, "Repent of your sins." He just says, "Repent." While it's certainly appropriate to repent of your sins, there's more to repent from than just sin. One commentator puts it this way: to repent is to turn away from what you're doing and embrace wholeheartedly what God is doing. In other words, it means to trade in your old way of life for God's new way of life. Make a note of that, because we'll come back to it a little later.
Then he says, "Believe." To experience this kingdom life, you have to believe that such a life is possible, and that it's available to you. That word believe is an interesting word, too. It means more than just intellectual assent. Believing isn't just understanding and agreeing; it means to act upon something, to enter into it. It's such an important word I'd like to take a minute to illustrate it with an idea I borrowed from Todd Hunter from his book Christianity Beyond Belief.
Let's say you're afraid of flying. You're not sure why, but you have never been able to get on an airplane. But you're intrigued with the idea of flying, so you decide to do some investigation. You talk to some of your friends who fly and ask them to describe their experience. You do some reading and learn that flying is one of the safest ways to travel. You join a fear-of-flying group, where you can discuss your fears and ask your questions. And eventually you come to the place where you believe that flying is a safe and efficient way to travel.
So you buy yourself a ticket, head to the airport, walk through the gate and down the jet way, but just as you're about to step into the plane, standing in that little alcove, you notice the nuts and bolts that hold the plane together. You see a mechanic down below fixing something. You look at that little gap between the jet way and the plane, and you realize that once you step over that gap you enter a new reality. And at the last minute, you refuse to go. "I can't do it," you say. "I won't do it." Do you really believe that it's safe to fly? You may understand that it's safe to fly. You may agree that your life would be happier if you could fly. But until you're prepared to enter the airplane, you really don't believe in flying.
In the same way, you haven't really believed the Good News of God until you've entered into that reality, until you have actually invited him to rule your life. So before we go any further, ask yourself if you believe the Good News. I'm not asking if you understand the Good News, or if you agree with the Good News, or that you'd like to experience the Good News of the kingdom. I'm asking if you have entered into that experience and surrendered to his rule in your life. If you're not there yet, that's okay. It takes time before you're ready to make a step like that.
So the first words out of Jesus' mouth are, "The time has come. The kingdom has come near. Repent and believe the good news!" In other words, something new is happening. God is establishing his rule in the hearts of people. Turn away from your old way of living, and enter into this new way, the way of the kingdom.
But what does that way look like? What does it mean to trade my old life for a kingdom life? Let's get to our other two brothers, because Mark has placed this story of the call of Simon and Andrew right here to illustrate what it means to repent and believe the Good News.
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will send you out to fish for people." At once they left their nets and followed him.
Mark doesn't tell us much about these two brothers. In John's gospel we learn they were disciples of John the Baptist, so they had heard about Jesus and probably had heard Jesus teach. But Mark doesn't tell us that. He wants us to feel the drama of their surprising encounter with Jesus and the sudden impact it had on their lives. So the only thing he tells us about them is that they were fishermen.
Fishing was a respectable and generally profitable business in first century Galilee. There were plenty of mouths to feed in Galilee, and there were plenty of fish in the lake. So understand that these guys weren't paupers or losers. Chances are they were making a decent living. They had families and homes. They belonged to a tight-knit fishing community in Galilee. They went bowling on Saturday nights, or whatever they did for fun in Capernaum. The point is that if you had asked them how they were doing, they probably would have said with a smile, "Life is good."
But then Jesus comes along and interrupts their lives and work with a surprising invitation. "Come, follow me," he says, "and I will send you out to fish for people." It was surprising on several counts. First of all, it was highly unusual for a rabbi to call disciples. Usually it was the other way around. Students would approach a respected teacher and ask if they could be disciples. But here comes Jesus looking for them. Apparently he really wanted these two fishermen.
The second surprising thing is that he says, "Come, follow me." He doesn't say, "Come, study the Torah with me." He says, "Come, follow me." Rabbis were tutors in the ways of God. Each rabbi had a distinctive approach to interpreting and applying the Scripture, and students, or disciples, would become apprentices of that approach. But Jesus makes it personal: "Follow me." Not just my way of understanding the Scripture, but my way of living. Apprentice yourselves to me.
So the first thing Jesus does is to invite these two brothers into a personal relationship with him. He invites them to be with him, to learn from him, and to become like him. Now, there must have been something awfully compelling about Jesus, something about his way of living that captured the brothers' imaginations, because we're told that they left their nets and followed him.
For many of us here today, that's how our Christian experience began. There we were, minding our own business, living a good life, or maybe a hard life, when Jesus came along and interrupted us. Maybe we heard about him in church, or a friend told us about him, or we picked up the Bible for ourselves and read about him. And we were so struck by him—by his life and his teaching—that we said, "I have to find out more about him." And eventually we said, "I have to follow him."
For me, that moment came when I was five years old. I was living a good life by five-year-old standards. I had a happy family, lots of toys, a little brother to beat up. But at a closing program for Vacation Bible School, when a traveling evangelist asked if any of us wanted to accept Jesus as our Savior and live forever with him in heaven, I shot my hand in the air. I'd been hearing stories about Jesus my whole life. He was kind and good and could do cool stuff like walk on water! Who wouldn't want Jesus to be their friend? Who wouldn't want to go to heaven with him, especially if heaven was like a VBS that never ends?
Many of you came to a moment like that as well—at five or fifteen or fifty—when you said yes to following Jesus. It may have happened suddenly or gradually, you may have been living a pretty good life or a pretty bad life, but ever since that time, your life has been about knowing Jesus better and becoming more like him. And that's great. It's a good start. But it's only the start.
But wait—there's more.
The third surprise about this invitation was that Jesus didn't stop with "follow me." He went on to say, "and I will send you out to fish for people." I know most of us are used to hearing "fishers of men," but I like the TNIV version for a couple of reasons. First of all, Jesus was certainly using the word "men" generically to mean "people." And secondly, the phrase "send you out" captures more accurately what Jesus was saying. He wasn't just calling them; he was sending them. He wasn't just asking them to follow him; he was asking them to join him in his work, to go out into the world and serve people in his name.
This wasn't just a clever bit of wordplay when Jesus talked about fishing for people. Jesus was making a point. He was making a direct connection between the life they'd been living and the life he was calling them to. "I'm going to take this business of yours—fishing—and turn it into a mission. I'm going to take this life of yours—this pretty good life—and turn it into a purposeful life. I want you to follow me, not just for your own sake, but for the sake of others."
Now with that in mind, let me take you back to that word repent we talked about earlier. What was Jesus asking these two brothers to repent of? They weren't criminals or slackers or party animals. They weren't even unbelievers. As far as we can tell, they were hard-working, church-going, family men. Maybe their language got a bit salty out there in the boat, but as far as we can tell they were living decent lives. So why did they need to repent?
Remember, to repent is to turn away from what we're doing and embrace wholeheartedly what God is doing. It wasn't that what they were doing was so wrong; it was just that it was too small. They were running a business. Jesus was offering them a mission. They were making a living. Jesus wanted them to make a difference. Jesus had something much bigger in mind for these two brothers than a pretty good life on the shores of Galilee. He wanted them to go out and change the world in his name.
Your life is too small.
Let's try to personalize this. If Jesus were to come walking into your life today, if he were to interrupt you at work tomorrow, or on your way to school, or as you work around the house, and tell you to repent, what might he be asking you to repent of?
Maybe there is some besetting sin in your life, some tendency or attitude or behavior that's wrong and keeps getting in the way of the life you were meant to live. If that's the case, then repentance begins with turning away from that. But it could be that you're living a pretty good life. It could be that you're following Jesus. But you're following him for your own sake, to serve your own interests rather than the interests of others. You haven't joined him in his work in the world. If that's the case, then what Jesus wants you to repent from is not a life that's so wrong, but a life that's too small. You've settled for making a living when you could be making a difference.
Listen to what a commentator named David Garland writes about this passage:
The call and response of these fishermen … should shatter our comfortable world of middle-class discipleship. Disciples are not simply those who fill pews at worship, attend an occasional Bible study, and offer to help out in the work of the church now and then …. When one is hooked by Jesus, one's whole life and purpose are transformed.
That's what it means to "repent and believe the good news." It means to follow Jesus into a new way of life, to radically re-orient your life around Jesus and his work in the world. Until you've done that, you haven't fully experienced the life of the kingdom.
A hole in our gospel?
Here's the point I'm trying to get to: Where did we get the idea that you could follow Jesus and not be on mission? When did we separate the gospel of going to heaven from the gospel of going into the world?
When I raised my hand at five years old, it was all about me and Jesus. Jesus would forgive me of my sins. Jesus would be my friend through all of life. And Jesus would take me to heaven when I die.
Chances are, when you came to Christ it was also about you and Jesus. Jesus would forgive your sins. Jesus would heal your wounded heart. Jesus would set you free from addiction. Jesus would answer your deep questions about the meaning of life. And yes, Jesus would take you to heaven when this life is over. The gospel is certainly about you and Jesus. But that's not the whole gospel. In fact, in the words of Richard Stearns, it's a gospel with a hole in it.
Stearns is the president of World Vision, a prominent international relief organization. He tells the story of being called from his comfortable and lucrative position as CEO of a prestigious company to take the helm of a struggling non-profit that was focused on serving the neediest people in the world. It wasn't an easy or quick decision, and he tells the story quite honestly in his book. Listen to what he writes in the introduction:
Being a Christian requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God. It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world. If your personal faith in Christ has no outward expression, then your faith has a hole in it.
Jesus didn't say, "Follow me, and I'll take you to heaven." He said, "Follow me, and I will send you out into the world." The gospel isn't just about Jesus and me; it's about Jesus and mission. It's about Jesus and others. It's about following Jesus for the sake of others.
That's why we have declared this "The Year of Doing Good: Becoming the Hands and Feet of Jesus." It's the next logical step in a journey we've been on for a few years as a congregation. Two years ago we focused on "Transformation: Becoming More Like Christ." And that's the right place to begin the journey. Jesus said, "Follow me; apprentice yourselves to me." But transformation isn't an end in itself. We become like Christ for the sake of others, to do what he was doing.
Then last year we focused on "One Another," because following Christ isn't a solitary journey. We can only become like Christ in community with other believers. So we learned what it means to be the body of Christ. But again, "one-anothering" isn't an end in itself. We become the body of Christ for the sake of others, to be Christ in the world.
So this year we want to take seriously Jesus' call to go into the world and join him in his work, to do what he would do if he were still walking this earth, to literally be his hands and feet, touching people, helping people, caring for people, and telling people the Good News. In the weeks to come we'll be learning what "doing good" looks like in the world today and offering simple and practical ideas for doing good. And as we do that, it will not only change the lives of the people we serve, but it will change our lives as well.
In fact, that's my prayer for the congregation this year, a prayer I'll be praying every week from now until June: that we might discover the life-changing power of doing good in Jesus' name, with no strings attached, wherever we are.
The reasons for doing good
If you're wondering why doing good is so important, let me offer three reasons.
First, it's what we were made for. Ephesians 2:8-10 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." These verses make clear that we aren't saved by good works, but we are saved for good works. We were formed to do good from the beginning of creation, and we were transformed to do good when Christ forgave us and made us new.
Secondly, it's the work of the kingdom. Jesus didn't just announce that the kingdom had come. He went out and demonstrated it. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He ministered to the lonely. He blessed the children. When we do these things, we are being the hands and feet of Jesus.
Thirdly, it's what the world is looking for. Todd Hunter says people today aren't asking if Christianity is true; they're asking if Christianity is good. People are tired of hearing us talk about Good News. They want us to be Good News to our communities and the world.
And here's the best part: when we do good, life is good.
Dave Workman is the pastor of a church in Cincinnati that has taken on this challenge of doing good in all kinds of simple and creative ways. Listen to an email he got from a young man in his church who had recently come to faith:
Today was fun. It was a normal workday in most senses, but I decided to do things a little differently. It was time to start serving people in the name of the Lord. I went to the soda machine and began purchasing some cans of pop. I rubber-banded a Connect card from our church to each soda and placed them back in the dispenser slot …. After I secretly placed the cans in the dispenser, I went on my daily routines. I couldn't help but spy a little and check back …. I saw a woman who looked like she was having a bad day. She grabbed one of the free sodas from the machine and began reading the card: "This is to let you know that God loves you." She looked as if she had just been thrown a life preserver. I felt a lump in my throat and had to turn away.
I noticed today that this is more addictive than crack cocaine. I couldn't wait to do more and more of it. I ran up to the grocery store and set a Connect card and a quarter on every gumball machine. By the time I was leaving the store, there was only one card left. I feel like I'm on fire! I can't wait for the outreach on Saturday. This is the life Jesus promises.
This is the life of the kingdom. It's the life Jesus is calling us to live. It's the life I want all of us to experience. The brothers from Boston discovered that life is good. The brothers from Galilee discovered that life is doing good. That's the discovery I want all of us to make as we follow Jesus for the sake of others.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.