Today’s 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, and these fit right in with today’s section of John’s gospel, in which we hear his account of what is usually called “The Calling of the First Disciples.”
In the days after the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, John points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of the future disciples of Jesus hear this and decide to check him out a bit more, before ending up making a choice to follow him. It’s this call, the call of these first two disciples, that we one we need to pay special attention to, if we want to understand what it’s like to be called by God into a special relationship with him.
We often talk of being called to be a specific role in ministry, or some form of service, usually within the church. But, by looking at things in this way, most of us would listen to the story of the call of these disciples and neatly separate what happened to them - from what’s going on with us. We’d say: “they were called especially by God, but we’re just ordinary folk, so we’re safe from all that ‘call’ business, which must be about other people, not us.” But ordinary people, who think that they might be called to ordained ministry, spend time with other Christians in their congregation and Presbytery and examine their thoughts around this concept of “calling”. Over a time of discernment (often up to a year), they will discuss the reasons behind the feeling and look ahead to what it means to accept this call.
The fact is that this type of “call”, whilst important, actually misses the main point that we find in the scriptures. A call from God is not just being asked to perform a specific job, or a task – it can be much wider than that. There certainly are special calls on people to a specific ministry, or type of service, but it’s not the norm. It’s not exactly that type of call that the Bible’s talking about when it refers to being called; it’s not what’s really what’s going on in the gospel reading we just read; and it’s not what’s usually going on for us when God calls us.
Being ordained, being a missionary, or something like that, is secondary to the central call we all have from God. Those two followers of John, who Jesus asked to “come and see”, were called in exactly the way we are called. They were called to enter into a relationship with Jesus – to be his disciples – just as we’re 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 doesn’t initially, or primarily, call them to do a particular task, or to fill a particular role - indeed, he doesn’t ask them to do anything, other than “Come and see.”
So, today, our call as Christians is not initially a request for us to perform a task or a fill a role. It is, instead, an invitation into a relationship. Only later, does Jesus give specific content and direction to where that invitation 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 very different from signing up to do a piece of work – in the same way that falling in love is very different from getting hired to a new job. To set out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved, it’s negotiable, it has its limits. You generally know what it’ll look like when the job is over, and so on. But to be called into relationship – to be called into love – this is an invitation to enter a mystery; it’s to move out, blindly, into uncharted waters.
When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he’s calling us primarily 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 actually a call to repent. It’s the same thing that John was doing - calling the people of his time to repent – to turn their lives around. 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 our relationship with him the central focus of our lives.
When we’re called – and make no mistake - we are called by God - each and every one of us – 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 and how 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 sense that something, perhaps something very important, is going on; something that affects our whole life. Then, grabbing on to the wrong notion of a call from God, we start looking for what it is that we’re 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, simply asked to get to know God and Jesus a little better. It’s a call to listen, observe, and wait. It’s a time to imitate the psalmist, a time to “listen to what the Lord God is saying.” We need to do that first, we need to do that most of all.
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 tasks to do. For some, these 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’re not all called to be ordained ministers, but we are all called to be disciples. Each one of us - you, me and the person next to you.
That call to relationship and ministry will haunt us and track us down. It’ll trouble our sleep and whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It’ll grow stronger and weaker and stronger again. It may seem to go away, but it always comes back, because, in the end, it’s our Lord calling us to himself. It’s his call to life, to joy and to true peace - a call to all of us.
It may seem scary at first and we know that change can be a bit daunting. But change is inevitable, and, like the tomorrow we worried about all of yesterday, today can actually be quite a nice place to live and be of service to God.
So now it’s over to us. Is God calling us to do, or be, something that’s different from where we currently are and how will we know?
My recommendation is that you ask him, in your prayers, and listen carefully to his answers. You may feel that you have nothing to offer God, but I assure you – he didn’t make you who you are (i.e. in his image) for you to just live out your years without making an impact on this world.
I encourage you, maybe when you get home, to talk to God and listen to just what it is that he wants you to do. It may be just a time to pray for others, lobby politicians to treat refugees better, volunteer your time to a charity, accept the inevitable changes in your life, or something else that only God knows.
I can’t tell you what it’s going to be, but I can pray that you’ll hear and accept God’s call on your life and then live it to the fullest. Pastor Rick