At first glance, I found today’s first and second readings to be very different in tone from the Gospel. The first reading from Jonah points to an urgent and somber need for conversion in Nineveh. God’s mercy is offered to all. St Paul, too, reminds us that time is of the essence. As he says, “For the world in its present form is passing away.”
In contrast, St. Mark’s Gospel reading seems very hopeful to me, as Jesus points to the fulfillment of the scriptures. Jesus approaches Peter and his brother, Andrew, who are casting their nets. Jesus’ beautiful invitation follows: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” He then calls James and his brother, John, who are fishing with their father and his hired men. As a result of their encounters with Jesus, these four men abandon everything – their livelihood and family ties to follow Jesus.
What strikes me is how these men surrendered completely and immediately. Today, we would say they were “all in.” How could Jesus impact them in such a profound way? I imagine that they felt personally called. They were chosen. These selected men were not responding to a philosophy or political ideology. They were following Christ himself. The future was unknown, yet their trust in Jesus compelled them to act in a radical and sacrificial way. Now these men were certainly not perfect. They, like us, had human frailties. Yet that personal encounter with Jesus transformed them.
After looking back at the earlier readings, I saw the link to the Gospel. Jonah’s plea is for repentance and conversion for Nineveh. St. Paul calls for the same; “This world is passing.” Jesus’ call is similar. He asks for full commitment. The Kingdom of God is here!
While we may read the Gospel and place the Apostles in a special category as the first chosen followers of Christ, I think that Jesus calls each of us. How? Through prayer. Through suffering. Through sacrificial love and service to others.
Let us start with prayer. Now before I continue, I first want to affirm my belief in the sacraments, which are tangible signs of grace and encounter with God. I love the Mass, which I view as the highest form of prayer and worship. The rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet are two devotions that I regularly pray, as I see them as powerful channels of grace.
In addition to formal prayer, personal prayer is essential. God knows and loves us better than we ever could know or love ourselves or others. How can one know and love another without direct and regular interaction? Personal prayer is truly an encounter. We express our deepest thoughts and concerns of the heart, but then we must have silence to hear God’s response. As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to his voice in the depth of our hearts.” We cannot just know about God. We must know Him.
I think the second way of truly encountering God is through suffering. No one can pass through this life without it. It may be direct suffering, or it may be walking the path with a loved one who is in pain. I thank God that much of my life has been filled with joy and peace, but there have been some sorrows. Some people carry especially hard burdens that could almost break their will to carry on. A famous quote of Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. “ I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Uncertainty of outcome or duration of a trial can add to our pain. What I have found is that periods of suffering have an amazing way of putting life in perspective. The day- to- day cares that may distract us just melt away and priorities become clear. I have found that this is when we can grow in humility and self-knowledge. The loving presence of God, who is all knowing, all powerful, and all merciful, can be felt if we seek it. We can find the courage, perseverance, and peace to carry on.
I have experienced profound gratitude to God after passing through times of difficulty. I know, without a doubt, that He personally sustained me and carried me through.
The third way of encountering God is through sacrificial love and service. We see this displayed every day. Our priests and deacons sacrifice regularly to provide the faithful access to the sacraments and worship services. Parents selflessly work to provide for their children. Workers and volunteers at food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters address the needs of others in crisis. Front-line responders in hospitals, particularly during the COVID pandemic, have made numerous sacrifices to care for others. Outreach to the vulnerable in our own lives can very well strengthen our relationship with God.
I recently heard a teacher call a Catholic radio show and ask for prayers. She identified herself as a special needs teacher for children with severe physical disabilities. One of her students with an underlying lung condition had contracted COVID-19, and she tearfully expressed her deep concern for this young man. She then said that she felt privileged to teach in her setting because she encountered Jesus every day in her students. How beautiful! After listening to her, I felt convinced that her students would say that they met Jesus daily through this dedicated teacher. If we have eyes of faith, we can see the face of Christ all around us – in our families and communities, in the eyes of the needy, the lonely, the grieving, and those searching for meaning in their lives.
The Apostles were chosen to be in direct relationship with Jesus. They came to know Jesus as their Savior, but they also knew him as their teacher, friend, and confidant. They suffered and gave their lives for love of God. Their authentic witness led to the Gospel message spreading throughout the world. Through prayer, suffering, and sacrificial love and service, we, like the Apostles, can have a personal encounter with the living God. We, too, are called to be witnesses and evangelists. Yes, the Kingdom of God is here.
How do you encounter Jesus? Have you felt called to evangelize?