The Bible is full of stories about people (often very ordinary people) being called to be part of God’s divine plan, and responding to the calling. One of the connecting characteristics for all of them, is that they are called into a journey without knowing how that journey will end. They respond in faith, to the call to come, and to follow.
In the Old Testament there is the story of Noah, called to be the agent of a new beginning for the world. And Abraham, called to be the father of God’s people who in turn were called to be in covenant with God. Moses and Aaron (despite Moses’ pleas to the contrary) were called to lead God’s people out of slavery and into the liberation of the promised land. Then there was Samuel and Sampson, Solomon and David, and Esther and a myriad of kings and prophets who sought to respond to God’s call and to share it with others.
As we thumb through our Bibles, we find preserved for us a rich tapestry of the images of the history of our salvation; and that story of the salvation of humanity is inter-mingled with the stories of people (often ordinary, dare I say it, many times inadequate people) who are called by God to step out in faith. We often think about these stories as being one-off events, as if calling and responding take place in a split-second. But if we read the Biblical texts carefully we find that Abram, who became Abraham was called not once but a number of times: there was not one covenant between him and God, but a number; and the same is true of Moses as well, as the People of Israel followed God in faithfulness, then wandered away, and were then called back again, many many times.
Our Christian understanding is that, although the people at the time didn’t know it, their responding to God was setting the stage for all that would take place in the incarnation, in the life of Jesus amongst us. So it should be no surprise to us that right at the start of his ministry on earth, the ongoing faith story of people being called by God continues in the encounters which people have with Jesus. But for those of us who have read and heard the four Gospels over many years, there is something intriguing and complicating about the calling of the first disciples; because we find in each of the Gospels, not one, but a number of differing accounts of how the disciples were called.
In John’s Gospel, as we were reminded last weekend, there are no boats or fish, or water when Andrew and then his brother Simon are called to follow Christ. “Look,” says, John the Baptist, “here is the Lamb of God”. And in response to Jesus’ invitation Andrew and the other disciple follow Jesus, but not before Andrew has found his brother Simon Peter, our Patron Saint, and brought him along to share in the journey.
In Luke’s Gospel the scene of Peter’s calling is a place of fishing too, but in Luke’s account Jesus goes aboard Peter’s boat and causes a miracle to take place so that he catches so many fish that he has to call his friends to come and help him to bring them all to shore. After experiencing this foretaste of what the growth of the Early Church will look like, Peter follows Jesus.
In Mark’s account, in contrast, we find an almost identical story to the one which we have just heard from the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, as Father Wilf helped us to understand last weekend, we might suppose that the writers of Matthew’s Gospel – unlike the writers of Luke and John – almost certainly borrowed the story of Mark’s text in their own telling of the life of Jesus. Within those different accounts, (written at different times, and for different audiences, in different communities, even for different purposes) there is just one story that shines through: Jesus offers an invitation and people respond. Jesus calls, and without knowing where it will lead them, people follow him.
One day, say the writers of today’s Gospel, Jesus was walking along the edge of the Sea of Galilee, and he met two sets of brothers. Simon (who became known as Peter) and his brother Andrew were the first to be approached by Jesus, who called out to them as they were fishing, and invited them not to fish for fish but to fish for people, and after calling Andrew and Peter, he went on to call James and John. Immediately there is a kind of ripple effect; first Andrew and Peter, then also James and John – so already there are four: four who have responded to the invitation.
A reminder to us all that although Jesus calls us individually, he does not call us simply into a relationship with him, he calls us into a dual relationship with him, and with each other in the life of the Church. Nothing less will do, following Christ will only truly make sense when we are following as a community, with others on the journey. Jesus’ calling is never a private possession for us to keep to ourselves, it is always to be lived out with others, and to be an example to draw others towards him for his glory. In Jesus’ call, those first disciples (and we who are his disciples today) find not only a new way of personal living, we find also a new way of communal living, with all of the joys and the responsibilities that go with that. Jesus calls us to him, and he calls us to be together in his community, in his Church.
Before these calling narratives, of course, Jesus is called himself. Not as we are called, from being hopeless sinners, to being saved through the grace of God alone, but Jesus – who is sinless from the start – is called at his Baptism by John in the River Jordan in a way that confirms to all those around him, that he is the one who has been awaited for so long, and for which others have prepared the way. The voice and the dove in this Season of Epiphany are motifs not only of the anointing placed upon Jesus at his baptism, but the calling and the anointing placed upon each one of us at our baptism as well, as we are cleansed through the waters of baptism and given a job to shine as his light in the world. That is why as we celebrate this season of light, we focus on our own calling to be his disciples.
But what do we do with these different calling stories in the Gospels? We could just ignore it if we liked, but that simply won’t do. It was fashionable at one point to say, “you see, this proves that the Bible cannot be trusted. One of the Gospels thinks that the writers were called whilst they were fishing, another that they were called whilst they were standing on the roadside. They can’t all be true!” It is possible that that is the case, but it is not an explanation that I am willing to accept for myself.
Other Biblical commentators argue (very helpfully I think) that the reason that we have essentially three different and distinct accounts of Jesus’ calling of the first disciples, is that in some way each of the events which are depicted actually took place. We cannot be sure about the ordering of them, but these commentators want to argue that there was a progression in the disciples’ calling. In other words he called them on a number of occasions, into a progressively deeper relationship with him. Perhaps first on the road side, then later after they had returned to their ordinary lives, he calls them again in their fishing boats. They come to understand who he is, and indeed who they are over a period of time – progressively, rather than instantaneously, until they come to the point where they are willing to give up everything to be his disciples.
Now, I say this today, because I think that that is how it is for us. As Anglicans who are committed to infant baptism we know that at baptism every young child is joined with Christ forever. They are made members of his Church, and the call of God is placed on their lives. But do they know this at that moment of being three or four months old? Of course they don’t, but it is nevertheless real.
It takes the sustained care of their parents and wider families, bringing them up to know God’s love for them in their homes; it takes the experience of life within a living Church where the stories of Jesus are taught, and the example of other disciples can be seen; until finally it takes their own decision to follow for themselves in the way of Jesus.
So as I read these different stories of the calling of the disciples, I imagine the interior process that is going on in their lives, drawing them closer to Jesus with each experience of him, until finally they recognise that what he has been doing is calling them, willing them to give their lives to him, and waiting for them to respond.
What is true for them, is true for us – no matter what our age, no matter how long we have been in the life of the Church. God placed a call upon each of us at Baptism, and sealed that call and promise with his Spirit; and throughout our lives Jesus calls, again and again, and in his love, he waits for us to respond.