Long ago, when I was still a layperson, I heard The Rev. Dena Harrison speak on the theme “What does it mean to be called?”
Then the Rector of a parish, Dena would go on to be Suffragan Bishop of Texas, and to become one of the great leaders of the Episcopal Church USA (Sally Johnson can tell you more about that). As she was preparing the talk, her husband Larry asked her what her topic was. When she said “What does it mean to be called?” Larry replied. “Tell them it’s a lot of trouble!”
She quickly made it clear she wasn’t going to talk about the call to Holy Orders. Instead, she focused on the truth that every person is called to love God and serve God’s people.
At St. John’s we celebrate that call. Our weekly bulletin inserts state that the Ministers are all the members of St. John’s.
Like the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, ordinary people, we also are called in the midst of our daily lives, our daily activities.
Mark’s spare story of Jesus’ calling the first disciples is distilled to an essence. Like other great foundational myths, it has metaphorical dimensions and a universality that pull us in. As Suzanne Guthrie wrote, “This story holds all of our stories.”
Before we go more deeply into the disciples’ story, let’s look first at Jesus. What was he doing? What was he seeking? What was he offering?
This story is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He has been baptized and has spent 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness.
Called, himself, to proclaim and embody the Kingdom of God, Jesus comes to the Galilee, to the fishing village of Capernaum, which was on a major international trade route. Jesus knows that God’s Kingdom can only be manifest in community. His first act is to begin creating that community.
He calls two sets of two brothers: Simon (Peter) and Andrew, and James and John, sons of Zebedee. As fishermen, the four of them have many gifts that will serve God’s Kingdom community. They are successful entrepreneurs. They work on teams, putting in long hours, braving the elements; they have strength, endurance, courage, cooperation, adaptability, and practicality. And, as Jesus points out, they have a key translatable skill: their trade is “seeking and finding”.
What was Jesus offering to them? First a promise: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near”. Then an invitation: “repent and believe the good news.”
“Repent” as an invitation? Not the way I knew it from movies—fiercely proclaimed by the stereotypical hell-fire preacher. There, it always sounded like a threat.
Now we know that “ain’t necessarily so”; the root word in Greek means simply to change direction, to turn around. “Repent,” can be and is here an invitation: the invitation to change.
And there’s more. In a lovely blogpost about the verb in this context, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote:
“The Greek word… Μετανοείτε (metanoeite)… most literally means ‘to come to a new mind….’ to think differently…. ” Msgr Pope concluded, “So what the Lord is more fully saying is ‘Come to a new mind…by believing in the Good News’.”
Jesus was inviting the fishermen to a new way of thinking, a new way of being, a new relationship with God.
He was inviting them to a larger life, to be part of something bigger than themselves.
And, though they could not have realized it, he was inviting them into a radical new kind of community.
It’s interesting that the first disciples are called not individually (as others would be), but two by two, in companionship with people close t to them. That meant that the foundational members of this new community came with deep, trusting relationships between them. They were blood kin. In their very bodies they knew that they belonged to one another. They brought that sense of belonging with them.
The fishermen had much in common. But like each of us, they and all of the disciples had particular gifts that God would bring to the fore as they grew into their ministries. Their differences are already signaled in the calling story. As Elise Sanders noted in our gospel study on Monday, the first brothers are fishing, while the second are mending their nets. Differing gifts–symbolized in different tasks–, brought together for the same purpose, by the same Spirit.
In short order, an enormous variety of people will be drawn to the company of Jesus’ followers: women and men from different places, backgrounds and social classes; Jews and Gentiles; tax collectors, the disabled, outcasts of many kinds—each bringing his/her own gifts to the community, to the Body of Christ. Together, they would be far greater than the sum of their parts, their gifts. The sense of belonging already present in the community was probably one of the qualities that attracted new people to the group and that would help them weather the challenges of their collective life.
From the beginning to the end, Peter stands out among them. In his strengths and his foibles he is an archetype of the human condition, of the fall and redemption that are the cycle of the Christian life. When he denied Jesus at the end of their earthly time together, Peter betrayed not only his friend, but his whole community as well. Clearly they forgave him and welcomed him back among them. There—in that community of belonging–he continued to grow into the leader God had created him to be. Peter had learned a hard lesson of the journey of faith and indeed of life: we become truly strong only when descend to the depths of our own darkness, when we confront and own our greatest weakness.
God calls us as we are. And God in Christ calls us to grow in knowledge and love of self and others. We do that best in the long-term relationships that committed community offers.
The idea of “being called” can seem so grand or holy or daunting that you may think it’s for other people, special people, not you. But we all are called, at every age, to live into God’s gifts to us and use them to share God’s love in the world.
We are called as we are, with all of our imperfections and shortcomings, with the assurance that whatever we are, whatever we bring will be “enough,” and that God will bless it.
Today we welcome seven new members into this community of faith. People of different ages, different gifts, they came through our red doors at different times for different reasons. Drawn in by your welcome, having worshipped with us for a while, they now honor us with their commitment to share with us in the joys and sorrows in our common life at St. John’s.
They have been called to belong to us. Each of them will bless this community in a variety of ways as they grow into their own gifts, their particular vocations within this Body of Christ. Thanks be to God for each of them, and for each of you.