Epiphany 2 series A 1-15-23
This doesn’t happen very often with our readings, but today there’s one theme that can be found in all of our readings from scripture. It’s the notion of being called, not called like being called to supper, but being called to do the Lord’s work.
The readings from Isaiah and from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians both begin with words about being called, about being set apart by God much like the word holy which does not mean sinless, but being set apart for the work of the Lord. This fits right in with today’s section of Matthew’s gospel, in which we hear his account of what is usually called “The Call of the First Disciples.” John the Baptist points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of the Baptist’s disciples hear this, decide to check out this Jesus guy, and end up abandoning John and going off with Jesus instead. It’s this call, the call of these first two disciples, that is the one we need to pay special attention to if we want to understand what it’s usually like to be called by God.
After all, this business of being called is a tricky and important thing. It’s easy to get confused about being called. We tend to equate being called in terms of the language and context in 1 Corinthians and Isaiah. We talk of being called to be ordained or called to a special – usually a full-time and professional – form of service, almost always in the church.
And that’s about all we do with being called, and it’s convenient. By looking at things this way, most of us can listen to the story of the call of these disciples and neatly separate what happened to them from our own lives. “After all, they were called the man himself, Jesus. So we’re safe from all that call business. It’s about someone else.
An interesting perspective on this can be gained by sitting in on the first interview of a person who wants to become a pastor, or a deacon or deaconnes, or a teacher. One of the things you will quickly notice is how folks really struggle with this idea of call.
A few of the people interviewed will have had powerful experiences of the presence of God, and they think that this means they have to do something new and different. This usually means to run off and get ordained.
But the vast majority of people interviewed have come to where they are through pretty ambiguous, complicated, and circuitous paths – paths that have led them to suspect that it might be a good idea to get ordained. At the same time, they aren’t sure if they are “called,” whatever that might mean. So they all just dread talking to the interview committee because they know they will be asked about it, and they all think they ought to have a better answer than they do.
But the fact is, this whole way of looking at and looking for a call from God as a call to a specific job or a task really misses the main point. Sure, there may well be such a special call to a specific ministry or type of service, although that is both rare and very easily misunderstood. But that’s not usually what the Bible is talking about when it talks about being called; it’s not what’s going on in the gospel we just heard, and it’s not what is usually going on with us as God calls us.
For you see, being ordained, or being a missionary or something like that, is quite secondary to the real, the call we all have from God. Those two followers of John the Baptist, who Jesus asked to “come and see,” were called exactly as we are called. They were called to be disciples – just as we are called to be disciples. They were called to be disciples in their place and in their time for the sake of their generation.
One of the things this means is that we don’t have to imitate Andrew’s, John’s, or Peter’s actions to see, with some clarity, how their call is like the call of Christ to each of us us.
The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not first or primarily call them to do a particular task or to fill a particular role. Indeed, he didn’t ask them to do anything. Our call as Christians is not initially for us – as it was not, initially, for his first disciples – a call to tasks.
It is, instead, the call is an invitation to a relationship. Jesus does not say, “Do this”; he says, “Come and see.” He only gives specific content and direction to where that might lead later. There’s a big difference between a call to a task and an invitation to a relationship.
To respond to a call for a relationship, for intimacy, is a very different from signing up to do a piece of work – in the same way, falling in love is very different from getting hired. To set out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved, it’s negotiable, it has its limits, you know what it looks like when the job is over, and so on. To be called into a relationship – to be called in love – this is an invitation to enter a mystery; it’s to move out in faith into uncharted waters.
When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is first calling us to himself – to personal intimacy and shared life. That’s what matters. That’s what is primary. Everything else is left behind; everything else becomes secondary.
If we look at Jesus’ call from the perspective of what’s left behind, it’s a call to repent. But if we see that same call from the perspective of what comes next, it’s a call to seek him first, to know him better, and to move toward making that relationship the central focus of our lives.
When we are called, and we are called, each and every one of us – just look again at our Baptismal Covenant – this is primarily a call to be held by Jesus for a while, and not to go anywhere, not to do anything. It’s a call to find out where Jesus lives, and to spend some time living there. By and by, this will lead us somewhere. But we won’t know where for a while, maybe not for a long while.
This is why a sense of call – something that wanders through our lives from time to time – can often be both frightening and frustrating. We might know something, perhaps something very important is going on, something that has to do with all of our life and much more. Then, grabbing onto the wrong notion of a call from God, we start looking for what we are called to do. After all, we live in a society that insists that for something to be important, it has to produce results.
Instead of that, we are, especially at the beginning, asked to get to know God and Jesus a little better. It’s a call to listen and to wait. It’s a time to imitate the psalmist and “listen to what the Lord God is saying.” We need that first. We need that most.
This happened to those first disciples – they stayed close to Jesus for a while. They learned what they could and came to know him a little. Then, admittedly long before they thought they were ready, Jesus gave them things to do. For some, these tasks were dramatic; for others, they were quiet and invisible. The call to Jesus will always, in one form or another, find expression in ministry. But the call comes first. There can be no real, abiding, and sustaining ministry without a relationship with Christ, without obedience to him as he calls us to himself.
You see, first of all, each of us is called to be a disciple. That call comes with our baptism, and that call to relationship and ministry will haunt us, and track us down; it will trouble our sleep and whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It will grow stronger and weaker and stronger again. It may seem to go away, but it always comes back. Because finally, it’s our Lord calling us to himself. It’s his call to life, to joy and to true peace. It’s a call to all of us.