January 19, 2014
This doesn’t happen very often with our new lectionary, but today there’s one theme that can be found in all four of our readings from scripture. It’s the notion of being called.
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. This fits right in with today’s section of John’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 an important thing. It’s easy to get confused about it, especially the way we use it these days. We tend to equate being called in terms of the language and context in 1 Corinthians and Isaiah. That is, with being told by God to do some specific thing, usually a pretty major thing. We talk of being called to be ordained, or being 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 really handy. You see, 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 what’s going on with us. “After all, they were called – we’re just ordinary folks.” So we’re safe from all that call business. It’s about someone else.
An interesting perspective on this can be gained by serving on one of the diocesan Commissions on Ministry. One of the things a Commission on Ministry does is interview people who want to be ordained; and those 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 – for Episcopalians, alas, that 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 commission because they know they’re going to 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 at 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 thing as 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 really going on in the gospel we just heard; and it’s not what is usually going on with us as God calls us.
Being ordained, or being a missionary or a monk or something like that, is quite secondary to the real, the central 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, or John’s, or Peter’s actions in order to see, with some clarity, how their call is like the call of Christ to each of us, and to all of 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, an invitation to relationship. Jesus does not say, “Do this”; he says, “Come and see.” Only later does he give specific content and direction to where that might lead. There’s a big difference between a call to a task and an invitation to relationship.
To respond to a call for relationship, for intimacy, is a very different thing from signing up to do a piece of work – in the same way that 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 relationship – to be called in love – this is an invitation to enter a mystery; it’s to move out, blindly, into uncharted waters.
When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is calling us first to himself – to a personal intimacy and a shared life. That’s what matters, that’s what is primary. Everything else is left behind; everything else becomes secondary.
Now, 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, then 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 on to 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.
Instead of that, we are, especially at the beginning, simply 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, a time to “listen to what the Lord God is saying.” We need that first. We need that most.
This is what 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 relationship with Christ, without obedience to him as he calls us to himself.
We are called to be disciples. Each of us. 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.
— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.