3rd Sunday before Advent

08 November 2018

Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.5-end; Hebrews 9.24-end; Mark 1.14-20

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THE “myth of redemptive violence” — the illusion that wickedness could be expelled from the world by force — goes back at least as far as the Babylonian creation myths. Across many cultures and civilisations, the spilling of blood (either in the ritual sacrifice of a member of a community, or in the scapegoating of those beyond its walls) has repeatedly been conceived as the means of its cleansing and purification.

While the mainstream of Christian thought acknowledges the possibility of “just wars”, their purpose is to contain evil rather than to eliminate its root cause. This Sunday, we remember the terrible cost of warfare, and honour those who have borne it. Tragically, however, there will never be “a war to end all wars”. Like the ritual sacrifices discussed in our epistle, the sacrifices of warfare are made “year after year”.

As Hebrews makes clear, the only sacrifice that can “once and for all . . . remove sin” is Jesus’s sinless self-offering. This is anticipated in the offerings made “again and again” by the high priest “with a blood that is not his own” — but this ritual is “a mere copy” of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

Christ’s sacrifice is an expression of divine mercy, not of vengeance; for God — the only one who is entitled to a truly righteous indignation at sin — has chosen to take its weight on himself. In doing so, he has broken the cycle of retribution and revenge, and has borne the penalty of sin that was rightly ours. And, as we feed on this self-offering, we become members of his body, in which his sacrificial love becomes flesh in every generation.

Our Gospel reading shows Jesus building that community of sacrifice. Mark tells us that, “after John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God.” As Mary Healy notes, the Greek word for “to arrest” (paradidomi) literally means “to hand over”’ It is the same word that Mark applies to Jesus in the Passion narrative. “The shadow of the cross looms over the beginning of Jesus’ mission, since John’s own sufferings in accord with God’s plan prefigure his” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark).

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While Jesus alone “removes sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9.26), those who follow him will share his destiny of being “handed over”. The four disciples whom Jesus calls in this Sunday’s Gospel will be among those closest to him in his earthly ministry. As we have seen in recent weeks, Mark is unsparing in his description of their weaknesses, but he also describes their prompt and radical obedience to Jesus’s summons. The word “immediately” — which Mark uses so often in these early chapters to describe Jesus’s actions — is also used to describe their response, as they abandon their nets to become “fishers for people”.

Formed and nourished by the self-offering of Christ, these frail and fallible disciples become the first members of the sacrificial body of which he is the head. In Mark 13, Jesus warns them that their persecutors “will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them”. James becomes one of the earliest Christian martyrs (Acts 12.2), while tradition has it that Peter and Andrew are later crucified (Peter’s death is, indeed, foretold in John 21.18).

The story of Jonah forms a striking counterpoint to the disciples’ obedience. It is precisely because Jonah knows that God is “a gracious God, and merciful” and “ready to relent from punishing” (4.2) that he is unwilling to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Far from immediately becoming a fisher of people, Jonah will preach God’s mercy only after being swallowed by a whale. Our reading begins immediately after Jonah has been vomited on to dry land again. He is now willing to obey God’s command — and, as he anticipates, it leads to repentance.

As Irene Nowell observes, the story has a satirical, parodic quality. Its memorable narrative reminds each reader that the tender mercy of God is not the possession of any single group, but is offered to all (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Jonah, Tobit and Judith). As our collect reminds us, it is the “just and gentle” rule of God in Christ which offers hope to a world “divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin”. By his merciful sacrifice, we are bound together and healed.

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