The rich Gospel passage we hear on Sunday comprises four subscenes as it positions Jesus in Galilee, Nazareth, then Capernaum, and narrates the opening acts of Jesus’ public activity. Recalling and fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, Jesus is revealed as the great light that has arisen and shines on a people “sitting in darkness”. What does this light look like in a land overshadowed by darkness and death? How does Jesus effect God’s saving presence and rule? The passage identifies three representative actions: he calls people to repentance, to mission, and to spiritual and physical health.
The power of Jesus’ call becomes quickly evident. “Follow me” Jesus says to Simon, also called Peter, and to his brother Andrew. Then, down the shore, a similar invitation is issued to two other brothers, James and John. The call of these first followers is profoundly inspiring. Jesus doesn’t have to pitch the idea to these men nor does he need to persuade them. The brothers respond willingly although they seem to have a steady job and, more importantly, have familial ties to their vocations as is noted in both call narratives.
Can you imagine the scene? Here are two sets of brothers, working hard in the family business, casting nets into the sea, hoping to catch enough fish to make a living. And here comes this man with an invitation that at first glance probably didn’t fall into the category of “something too good to pass up.” There must have been something about this stranger on the shore that gave the disciples confidence to drop their nets. Both times, Matthew describes for us the timing of their reaction – AT ONCE and IMMEDIATELY. Clearly there was something attractive about Jesus.
Perhaps it was because of where they were going. The verses that follow tell us of Jesus’s ministry of healing and teaching throughout Galilee. Then we have the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus takes the disciples on one wild ride, continuing to say “follow me,” and then teaching them, by word and example, just what that means.
But the disciples wouldn’t have known any of this while they were pulling in their nets, struggling to make a living. No, there had to have been some other hook, pardon the pun, that Jesus used to lure them in. Perhaps it is because rather than just some blind directive, he included, in the invitation, something that resonated with them. He said, “I will make you fishers of men”. Jesus peaked their interest, speaking to something that was close to their hearts and perhaps at the root of who they were—fishermen. He kindled that part in them such that they were moved to leave everything and follow him.
One author has noted, “From the beginning, God has called people; God has stepped into their lives and pointed them in new directions. God does this throughout the Bible; few pages go by without it. Is this not a strong signal that God is going to call us too; that in some moment when we are involved in a normal day’s pursuits, God will walk up to our shore and beckon us to leave our fishing boats for a future we had not planned?”
We may have felt, at times, that God’s call is reserved for a select few. Maybe we allow ourselves to consider that he calls even non-clergy, but even then, only a select few. However, in Matthew’s Gospel that idea is challenged by the very fact that these first disciples were fishermen. They were ordinary, everyday people, going about their very ordinary, everyday lives. They were people who worked with their hands, who likely lived day to day, hoping they would catch enough fish to survive. Their hands and faces were most likely
weathered by wind and sea. But just like the shepherds on the hillsides who heard the news of Jesus’s birth, God again brings in unlikely and ordinary people into the extraordinary story of our salvation. This should cause us to take note. Maybe, God calls us into the story – if we are open enough to hearing his voice, say, “Follow Me.”
Follow me – on cold mornings and evenings when the warmth of a cozy bed or sofa is more alluring —into a time of worship, prayer, and study with a community of faith.
Follow me – when you see that coworker, classmate, or neighbor who seems to not have anyone to talk to, who is longing for someone to hear his or her story and offer support.
Follow me – at a dinner party where jokes become increasingly crude and critical—to speak out for what is right.
Follow me – when you see those who are hungry, or without shelter, or who lack adequate clothing.
Follow me. God’s calls are all around us. If Scripture says anything clearly, it is this: God calls us to set many other things aside and do his bidding.
Of course, it can be difficult to hear God’s call. There are many other things and people in our lives and world that make a lot of noise, too, with the hope that we will follow them.
Follow Me – you need this list of products in order to make yourself look or feel your very best. With the right combination of them, you will be desired and successful.
Follow Me – on social media, so you can keep up with the latest news and thoughts of celebrities, politicians, friends, and be popular and part of the “in-crowd”.
Our task, it seems, is to discern which “follow me’s” are from God, and which might be from places that don’t lead us down the path of discipleship. To do this, we have to be open to hearing God’s call in the first place, making space in our lives, minds and hearts, and be open to the kind of change God’s call might require of us.
This is the process of discernment, and it helps us discover our vocation, that call that God issues to each of us as disciples. It is a unique call, based on the skills and gifts and passions we have, balanced with the needs of the world. Frederick Buechner is often quoted for his definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
The disciples were working as fisherman when they received their call. They enthusiastically responded and followed and Jesus gave them a new vocation – to fish for people. He took the skills they presumably already had – fishing – and used their abilities (learned and innate) to help them learn how to be apostles. I believe God’s call works in much the same way today. God nurtures in us the talents, gifts, and interests that we have, and helps us find ways to use them to be a part of what God is doing in the world. These can range from beautiful singing voices and compassionate hearts to the ability to organize and understand numbers. All of these are needed for the work of God’s kingdom – therefore, all of us are called. We just need to know how to discern what that means for us.
In the movie, Dead Poets’ Society, a boy’s boarding school experiences the creative and dynamic teaching of a somewhat renegade English teacher, Professor Keating, portrayed by Robin Williams. In one of the early scenes of the movie, he provides commentary on how to approach reading poetry that I believe is very much akin to how we should approach discerning our calls. After opening a poetry textbook, Professor Keating asks a student to read the Introduction, “Understanding Poetry.” The students listen to boring guidelines for interpreting the merit of a given poem – paying attention to rhyme, meter, figures of speech, etc. Professor Keating addresses the text for a moment, then calls the whole Introduction “excrement.” There’s something more to it, he says, than being able to graph a poem’s perfection and merit. It’s not about following a prescribed checklist of things. Professor Keating then instructs the boys to rip out the pages of the entire Introduction. He gathers the boys in close, then urges them to approach poetry in this manner:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business and engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life – but poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life! . . . of the questions of these recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless – of cities filled with the foolish . . . What good amid these, O me? O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’ What will your verse be?”
What will our verse be? That is the question of call, and how we will be a part of what God is doing in the world. Discerning it is less like reading an instruction manual and more like reading poetry. It requires interpretive work. Not just what the author, God, is saying, but what we are saying in response. Call and discernment is a two way street between us and God. It evokes a relationship and action. But it begins with God coming to us, in the midst of our everyday, ordinary lives, saying, “Follow Me.”
The verses that follow? They are up to us.