calling of the disciples
“Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:22-23
On Thursday and part of Friday, I was facilitating a retreat for people who are preparing to be pastors and deacons, along with the committee members who accompany them through that process. This time together each year gives us all a chance to connect more deeply, to laugh and pray, and to wrestle with some hard questions about the challenges of ministry. I had persuaded my friend Anthony to do some icebreakers at the beginning of the retreat. He’s really good at those, and pretty soon we were moving around and having fun and learning more about each other.
During one activity he kept having us form groups of different sizes and then answer some questions. At first the questions were easier – What’s something that we have too much of in our homes that we’d be willing to give away a big portion of? (My family will be sorry to hear that I did not say “books”!) But as we kept going, the questions got harder, and Anthony eventually asked this question: “What would you do if you knew that you wouldn’t fail?”
I’ve heard that question before. You probably have too. But for some reason it caught me off-guard this time. It’s like I was realizing for the first time how hard it is to imagine such a thing. I crave certainty. I want to know at the outset of any endeavor that it’s all going to turn out well, and it’s going to go just as I imagine, and I’ll feel successful and satisfied.
But we all know that isn’t how it works. It doesn’t matter what age you are. We don’t head out on the playground with a guarantee that we’ll never skin our knees. We don’t take an algebra quiz with the certainty that we’ll make a 100. We don’t enter a relationship with assurances that it will never be hard – or that it will never end.
I say all this to point to something that I always find fascinating about this gospel. These four fishermen – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John – drop their nets, leave behind the only life they’ve known, wave goodbye to their families, and follow Jesus. They do this after Jesus does nothing more than call out to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus makes no elaborate sales pitch. He does not explain what the life of a disciple will be like or offer any guarantees that it will be easy or successful. There’s no fancy brochure or the promise of a 401k or any details at all. Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” And they do, apparently with no idea what they’re getting into.
You might be thinking: “Well, that’s all well and good for four fishermen. I’ve got many more responsibilities to juggle, and I can’t just drop everything to think about what Jesus wants me to do. There are bills to pay and children to raise and that laundry is not going to do itself.”
True enough. But remember that all of those things – the work we pursue to pay the bills, the caring for children, even the laundry – those are all versions of vocation, different callings – places to which Jesus summons us to use our gifts for the sake of the world. We get a little more of a job description than the first disciples did, and we receive that call in our baptisms: the call to trust God, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace. Whatever we do each day – the work for which we are paid, the relationships we form, the care we give and receive, the civic engagement we pursue, the help we bring to those in need – all of that is a response to Jesus as he says: “Follow me.”
We are reminded in today’s gospel that Jesus fulfills some ancient promises. Jesus shows up with the light that was promised by the prophet Isaiah – a light that breaks through all pain and suffering and brings hope to the most despairing of places. The disciples will see it all unfold – the teaching, the proclaiming of how God wants the world to be, the healing of the sick. They’ll eventually learn to do those things themselves, not perfectly (not by a long shot) – but even their stumbling, imperfect efforts will share the love of Jesus and will keep bringing people together in Jesus’ name.
Many years after the day that they dropped their nets and followed Jesus, when the early church was first emerging in fits and starts, the disciples could look back. When everything seemed uncertain and overwhelming, when success seemed impossible, they could remember that bleakest of nights, when Jesus hung on a cross, bleeding and dying, and they thought it was the end of the road. It had been a good run, but surely this was the ultimate failure.
Except it wasn’t. Resurrection was around the corner. New life breaking in. A new beginning. And in all the centuries since then – from the first Easter morning until this Sunday morning, resurrection keeps happening. Life keeps breaking through. Hope keeps showing up.
Today we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for Collins, and what a joyous day it is! We look at her sweet face and her family gathered here to be with her – and all of us, her extended family now, ready to pray for her and teach her about Jesus and support her as she grows in faith. We can’t help but smile. We’re trying hard not to think about all the things we can’t be certain about. There’s so much about the future that we just can’t know or control. Matt and Amy, I encourage you to talk to the folks here who have had four-year-olds in their family. Or twelve-year-olds. Or sixteen-year-olds. Or thirtysomethings. They’ll all tell you the same thing. I had no idea what would happen. There was so much that felt completely out of my hands. There were times when it seemed like everything was spinning out of control faster than I could fathom.
When that feeling comes, remember this: In these waters of baptism God claims us and holds us forever. God holds us in this unshakeable, life-giving love that not even death itself can change. In a life where so much is uncertain, that promise is the most certain thing that we can name. And some days we have to hold on to that like it’s a life raft.
Follow me, Jesus says. And so we do, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Luke 5:1-11
I’d like for you to think about a time when you took a big risk. Jumped off a diving board for the first time. Tried out for a team. Asked someone out. Moved to an unfamiliar place. Started a new job. Trusted someone with a secret you’d been holding close.
I can think of many risks that I’ve taken in my own life, and every single time I was scared. It’s not that I didn’t trust God. It’s just that I would have preferred to know the outcome ahead of time. I’d like to assess at the outset whether something will work out successfully. I’ve often longed for some version of a crystal ball so that I could know how things would unfold after the big leap.
But that’s not how it works. We can’t know where those leaps will land us. Maybe that’s for the best – because knowing what the future will bring might keep us from doing the very things through which God helps us grow. In reality, if we never took risks, our lives would be much smaller. We’d never make friends. We’d never travel or move to a different place or change jobs. We’d never fall in love or have children. We’d never try anything new.
One of the riskiest things we can do is to listen for God’s voice in our lives and try to follow where it leads. In church we often talk about that in terms of vocation – or calling. What does God call us to do? That might sound like a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo, but what it really means is that we believe God can work through the roles we inhabit in daily life to make the world a more peaceful, just, and loving place. Our commitments as parents, as siblings, as children, as friends, as colleagues, as supervisors, as citizens, as volunteers – all of those roles can be lived out in a way that embodies our commitments as people of faith.
But it’s risky. Relationships of any kind can be messy. They take work. It would be more comfortable to hold back, to play it safe.
In today’s readings we have several examples of people responding to God’s call in their lives. Isaiah’s call story in the First Reading has all the elements of a dramatic movie scene. There are angels with six wings and a smoke-filled room and a voice out of nowhere. Notice that Isaiah initially responds by claiming he is unworthy: “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says. But when he realizes that God has removed his guilt, Isaiah has a different response. When God asks, “Whom shall I send?” the answer is there: “Here am I. Send me.”
Here am I. Send me. Isaiah has no idea how the rest of his life will unfold if he says yes, but he says yes anyway. And believe me, his life turns out to be a bit crazy at times. Being a prophet is not easy work.
And then there’s Simon Peter in today’s gospel. After a long and weary night of fishing without success, Jesus tells Peter to go out to the deep water and try again. Peter’s first response sounds like what any of us would say when are tired down to our bones: “Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing.” Why do you want me to do this thing that sounds foolish and unproductive, Jesus? I am exhausted. I not doing the job I already have very well, and you want me to do something more?
But Peter gives it a try. Without knowing what will happen – and probably feeling a little grumpy, maybe even a tad resentful about it – Peter goes out to the deeper waters. He and his comrades haul in so many fish that their nets start falling apart.
The risk pays off. But still Peter tries another excuse to keep Jesus at arm’s length: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” I’m not really worthy of doing this thing you want me to do. There’s probably someone with a better track record to do whatever it is you have in mind. Pick somebody else, Jesus. By now Peter is starting to see what Jesus makes possible, and it must have been both thrilling and terrifying.
This strange fishing expedition is just the beginning. Jesus asks Simon Peter, James, and John to come with him, to follow him into the deep waters of a life of discipleship. To leave behind the familiar and try something unimaginable.
They do it. They leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Just like that.
I don’t know what the deep waters are for you right now. Maybe there’s something your family is trying to figure out. Maybe you’re contemplating a change of some kind. Maybe there’s a difficult conversation that you’ve been avoiding. Maybe you or someone dear to you is facing some scary medical decisions. You know what those deep waters are in your life, even if you don’t know what will happen when you venture there. You can’t know. None of us can. We know only that God is with us.
In the midst of our uncertainty, it can feel risky to live and speak and act as followers of Jesus. We worry about getting labeled as a “Jesus freak.” We worry about how people will look at us if they know we are one of those churchgoing Christians. So we can be full of excuses to keep our spiritual life undercover. I’m not worthy, we whisper. Choose someone else. I’m just too tired.
A writer named Debie Thomas has this to say about following Jesus:
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our backgrounds, our educations, and our skills, and that [God] will bless and multiply the daily stuff of our lives for [God’s] purposes.[i]
I know that God prizes the gifts and talents and backgrounds and heart and experiences that each of you brings to the needs of the world. I have seen it again and again. What I hope and pray is that you will trust those gifts that you have – trust them so much that you’re willing to climb back into the boat and head out for deeper waters – even when it feels risky.
One of my favorite prayers is sometimes called the Prayer of Good Courage. It’s in our cranberry-colored hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship as part of a service called Evening Prayer. I invite you in this moment to breathe deeply and pray with me:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.[ii] Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ