‘Come,’ is an important word in our family, we have been using it now for a number of years. When we hear the fridge door opening, and we deduce that Nahum (who is 3), quickly followed by his older brothers Joshua, Malachi and Isaac, are on the next stage of their never-ending search for chocolate they hear that word from the next room, “come.” When I am still sitting in my study five minutes after dinner has been put on the table, I hear it (or sometimes a less polite version of it) echoing from the kitchen above me. Most of all in our household, it is used when we are talking to Emily and Gregory. And we have been using that word with very little effect for a long time now.
Almost six years ago, when she was still a little puppy, Emily our black Labrador showed us that she had selective deafness when we asked her to ‘come’ and there has not been much improvement since then. I remember clearly, right back at the start of it all, when she joined our family, and when she and I signed up for puppy school together that that was one of words which she found hard to comprehend. There are some occasions which become scarred into our memory tissue, and the day that we first practiced the command to ‘come’ at puppy school is forever imprinted within mine. I can remember it vividly as if it had happened just a few hours ago.
There were about fifteen dogs at that class, of all shapes and sizes, but there was only one dog who when she was let off her lead to practice the command to ‘come’ managed to jump up at one of the other owners, knocking her box of dog treats flying across the floor, and beginning what became a near stampede as all of the puppies scrambled from their owners to share in the feast which was before them.
Even now, Emily’s adopted brother Gregory, our three year old brown labrador, happily lulls me into a false sense of security in the park, obediently returning to me when I call, until he senses a sudden urge for freedom, or at least something more interesting than what I have to offer, and bounds off into the distance, leaving me to take chase.
‘Come!’ That is at the heart of what Jesus says to those who will become disciples in the reading that we have just heard from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘come, and follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’
The Bible is full of stories about people (often very ordinary people) being called to be part of God’s divine mission of love. 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.
There was 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. 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. 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 there are no boats or fish, or water when Andrew and his brother Simon are called to follow Christ. (We heard that account last weekend). In Luke’s Gospel the scene of Peter’s calling is a place of fishing, 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; and after experiencing this foretaste of what the growth of the Early Church will look like, Peter follows Christ. 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, we might suppose that the writers of Matthew’s Gospel almost certainly borrowed the story of Mark’s text.
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. 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 responsibilities which go with that. Jesus calls us to him, and he calls us to be together in his community, in his Church.
For some of us, our calling by God may have been dramatic, like it was for Saul on the Road to Damascus, who not only had his life changed completely in an instant, but changed his name to Paul as sign that his very identity had been transformed (just as Simon will have his name changed to Peter as well). There are movements in our Church which particularly value that kind of sudden and energising sense of call.
For many of us, our calling will have been, and may continue to be, rather more like the experience of watching a plant of the window sill during summer, which slowly bends towards the sun light. We might turn the pot around (so that the plant is facing into the darkness of the room), but it will not take long for the plant to begin to move again in the direction of the light. Some of us will be able to talk about Christ’s calling to us to follow, and we will be able to pin point a key moment, or time or event when something extraordinary took place, that propelled us forwards into faith. For others of us there will be no tangible moment, just a sense that God has been with us, as we have continued to be faithful in our journey.
Psychologists tell us that even when a sudden or dramatic significant event takes place (like a conversion, or a new and urgent sense of calling or purpose) it is more likely that the experiences of life have been working towards that event for that person for some time. The experience may seem to be sudden and may feel new and unexpected, and indeed the change is sudden, but in many people it is the result of inner change which may have been going on – consciously or sub-consciously – for some time.
It is what we might call a ‘paradigm shift’ where gradually one world view seems to be less and less plausible, until a trigger event utterly destroys the old world view and replaces it with a new one – whether that be faith in God in the life of someone who previously had had no faith, or a sense of calling in someone who had not sensed that call before.
Whilst a number of different explanations have been offered, some 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.
In our contemporary culture we can expect people to join us here in this Church, and come to a sense of belonging here, long before they make a decision or come to an experience which leads them to believe. In fact, one English Bishop has suggested that it can take up to seven years for a person who is attending Church to come to that point where the world-view of Christianity is convincing. As it is for newcomers, who are on a journey to believing through the experience of belonging, so it may also be true for us as we journey on as Christians and seek to know God’s call for us.
As I travel around the Diocese of Newcastle in my work, I hear the experiences of people who have attended a Cursillo weekend, or who have been involved in our Bishop’s Certificate and Diploma programmes, or who have spent time away on a retreat or pilgrimage. According to their stories it is often at these special times that decisive moves forward in life and in faith are made. These times can act as a catalyst to hearing God’s call, a call which may have been quietly welling up within them over a long period of time. Let’s not forget too, that those paradigm shifts (those monumental changes in our life for the better) may be triggered by an experience of worship as we gather together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
God calls each one of us who have been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus through our baptism in him, just as Jesus called the first disciples. That is why our faith needs to be resourced through ongoing discipleship and learning, and prayer – so that we too may be open to hear God’s call to us. That is why it is so important to be immersed in a committed and vital congregation such as this one: a community in which we will grow and be nurtured in faith, as we have been in the past, but also a community in which we will expect to see others begin to belong and ultimately to believe amongst us.
Emily and Gregory, my labradors, may never really work out what it means to obey the call to ‘come’ – following is not one of their priorities, but what about us?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed under the Nazi regime put it like this, “salvation is free, but discipleship will cost you your life.”
Jesus says not once, but over and over again throughout our lives, “come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” If we hear that renewing voice again this morning, how will we respond?