A Different Kind of Call
Year B, Epiphany 3
I served on the Commission on Ministry for the diocese for six years. One of our jobs was to interview people who felt that they were called by God to ordained ministry. One of the things that we typically asked people to share with us was their call story. How did they know that they were called by God to ordained ministry? I think most people, when they imagine a call, think of something really clear like a burning bush or a voice from heaven which would leave someone with no doubt about their call. Yet in my personal experience, and hearing many many call stories, this is rarely the case. Usually people perceive a call over a period of time. It’s more like a debate with God as opposed to a call. Yet what I learned while serving on the Commission on Ministry was that even the people who were experiencing this call seemed to think that this extended call process was unique to them. They were all expecting something like a lightning bolt…that moment when they would drop the proverbial net and follow Jesus.
There is a good reason why people expect this kind of call. That is how it worked in the Bible. There was no period of discernment in the Bible. People did not take time to get to know Jesus before joining the disciples. There was no extended time in thought and prayer. No disciple responded to the call by saying, “Let me take some time to prayerfully consider this.” Consider the Gospel reading for today. Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee and he saw Simon and Andrew casting nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. He said, ‘“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’
He walked on and saw James and John mending their nets with their father. He summoned them and we don’t even know what he said. They too immediately left their father with the nets and followed Jesus. Preachers often use this story to depict the faith of the disciples. They did not need to be convinced. They did not need to weigh the pros and cons. They heard the call and they left their old lives behind to follow Jesus. I have always thought that they were able to do this because there was just something about Jesus. They knew from seeing him and hearing a few words that this man was worth dropping everything and starting a new life.
And you know what, that’s really not very helpful for most of us. We cannot imagine doing something that drastic, that irresponsible. They were giving up their livelihood. They were leaving their families behind just because they sensed there was something special about this person. What if that was not really how it happened? What if these men already knew Jesus? I mean, this was not a big city they were in. They were in a small town where most people knew one another. At this point, Jesus was 30 years old. He hadn’t just moved into the area. This was his hometown. Also, at least some people had probably heard about his baptism and the heavens splitting open. John the Baptist had been arrested and one would imagine that people were on the lookout for this person that John the Baptist had prophesized about.
It does not say anywhere that this was the first time that they had seen or encountered Jesus. We have just assumed that. So let’s consider for the sake of this conversation, an alternative. What if these potential disciples already knew Jesus? Perhaps they had already spoken with him. He had planted the seed and they were thinking as they went about their day fishing and mending nets that maybe, just maybe there was something more to this Jesus of Nazareth. It could have been days, weeks, years, who knows how long they had been watching Jesus and wondering if he would call on them one day.
It would seem that Jesus too had been waiting for a specific moment. In all of the Gospels, there is only one mention of Jesus’ life between infancy and the beginning of his ministry at age 30. Surely, things had happened during that time that built up to this moment when he would call his disciples and begin his public ministry. The first line from the Gospel reading is: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” It would appear that even for Jesus, there was a moment where things changed and that moment was now.
I still remember the exact moment when I realized I had to leave the Catholic Church and seek ordination. I usually don’t even include it in my call story because it is so very unremarkable. It was after my 2nd year in seminary. I was swimming laps at the gym and I realized that I was writing a letter in my head to the Episcopal priest whose church I had interned at. I was writing about how I had made my decision and how excited I was to finally know. And that was it. I knew I had decided. There had been dramatic things that led to that moment. There was prayer, conversation, arguments, tears, endless hours of studying. Yet it was there in the monotony of counting laps that I knew.
I wonder if something similar happened with Simon, Andrew, James and John. I believe that they had known Jesus for some time. They saw him around town with his mother. They were friendly but not close. Slowly, so slowly they did not even see it coming…they started to believe, they felt a pull towards Jesus. And it was when they were doing something monotonous like mending nets or counting fish that they heard the call clearly and dropped what they were doing to follow.
It’s easier for all of us if we read the Bible as a book full of people who lived a long time ago, a book full of people who we could not possibly identify with. But what if the Bible is more than that? The Bible is a living document. What makes it holy is not merely who it is about or the people who wrote it, but the people who read it now. We are meant to see ourselves in these pages. Perhaps you are like Jonah and when God calls, you run as far as you can and jump in a boat to avoid the call of God. Or maybe you are Paul, and you really did have a dramatic conversion experience. Perhaps you are like the disciples who knew Jesus all your life and woke up one day to realize that he was more than you ever realized.
It is not just the ordained who are called to ministry. We are all called by God to a ministry. But more importantly, we are all called to be disciples of Christ, to continually seek a deeper knowledge of God. Don’t wait for a spectacular moment when your faith will solidify and you will never doubt again. That probably won’t happen. Instead, prepare for that moment and search for that moment of clarity. You might find that the moment passed. It might have passed a dozen times because you were too preoccupied to notice. But God will always give you a second chance. God will never stop calling you.