‘Come, follow me’
Mark Twain once said, ‘It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand’.
In other words, it’s when we recognise and see plainly what’s going on in a passage of the Bible that we can feel more bothered and uncomfortable than when we don’t really get it.
This morning’s gospel passage describing Jesus’ abrupt call to the disciples - and their instant response - is a case in point: Jesus calls; the disciples respond. We can understand that.
And that’s what’s bothering: it’s instant. Didn’t they sit down and think it through? Is it a bit unlikely, or even a bit weird or strange? Didn’t they calculate their loss of earnings from fishing against what the finances being an itinerant disciple would be? What about their families; what about their friends?
‘Come, follow me’. Clear, understandable and bothering.
It gets more bothering: if he calls them, what about me? And if he calls me, what is he calling me to leave behind? What’s he calling me to take up? And if he calls and I resist, what happens then?
This is the stuff of what we call vocation, from the Latin root vocare meaning ‘to call or to name’.
Often the language of vocation in the church gets narrowed down to tasks and roles within the church which, important though they are, are an expression of a deeper call that is laid upon each one of us.
Calling into existence, into being, is God’s pattern. In the beginning God names and calls the creation into being; calling light and darkness, day and night; waters and skies; vegetation and plants; sun and moon; birds and creeping creatures into being; and then humankind, male and female he created them.
That is the deep calling of God. What we might label Calling, with a capital ‘C’. That Call is the call to life in its all abundance; it’s a call to reconciliation with God, and one another, a call to healing, to forgiveness and to being restored, as God call and made us to be.
This call is richly brought to bear on us all in baptism. The waters of baptism are the waters of new creation, where the light of God the Father shines, and where the Spirit moves over the face of the waters afresh.
Remember vocare means ‘to name and to call’. This is what is drawn on when someone is confirmed: ‘God has called you by name and made you his own: receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.
That’s the first call of a Christian. ‘N, come, follow me’
Being a priest, a monk, a nun, a Reader, a Pastoral Auxiliary, a Verger, a Children’s worker, a cantor, an intercessor, being a husband, being a wife: they are all callings with a small ‘c’ that flow out of who we are called to be deep down.
Come, follow me. Baptism grafts us into God’s call to all creation to be alive to God and responding to God’s majesty, mystery and awe. And we will all do that in different and particular ways, which taken together make up the beautiful, rich, diversity of the church.
The call today then is to go deeper, to listen - patiently and attentively – to God’s call and claim on your life. That may be a most immediate, perceptible call, or it might run far more slowly and unfold over time.
Remember: those disciples already had a job and task in life as fishermen: they knew where they were, they were secure; life was set. Now they were asked to put down their nets and follow Jesus: come, follow me.
Actually, it is clear in the gospels that the disciple-fishermen carried on the trade and craft of fishing, but they took on a new character by being disciples of Jesus. They were going deeper. As Jesus says to them elsewhere - which shows they continued their skills as fishermen after their call – ‘put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch’ (Luke 5.4)
From casting their nets into the deep waters of the sea to catch fish, they would now cast another sort of net, deep into the life of God in Christ, finding their deep and true identity in him and drawing others into that love.
One of the phenomena of our times, magnified, but not created, by social media is the role of ‘influencers’. They’re the glammed up stars of Instagram, YouTube and such like, who influence others by what they wear, how they think and how they carry themselves: a form of ‘follow me’. Influencers need us to be customers; nothing more. They have no interest beyond the superficial and selling products and labels. The people they seek to influence are mere objects of income, not persons to be cherished.
Our true self is not to be found in the brands we wear, not in the consumer choices we make, not in our postcode.
The call of Jesus Christ for us today is to go deeper: go deeper into the mystery of God in prayer, contemplation and worship; go deeper into the mystery of how you relate to other people being patient, forgiving and kind; go deeper into the mystery of yourself as someone precious and, yes, complex, but a loved child of God.
This is the call to holiness, which is the gentle crafting of a response to God which takes a lifetime and leads to abundant life; this is the way of Jesus Christ.
Mark Twain found the bits of scripture he understood bothered him. Scripture should bother and unsettle us to keep us open and fresh.
‘Come, follow me’ is plain in its meaning. ‘Unpacking’ it is not bothersome, but inspiring, liberating, life-giving: Jesus says, come, be part of me in relation to God; go with me deeper into places you’ve never been before, see things you’ve never seen before; be the person you are most deeply called to be.
No wonder the fishermen put down their nets and listened, and then went and followed him.
Postscript – not preached
The fascinating thing is that elsewhere in scripture, in the Old and New Testaments there is much more hesitation. The call of Jeremiah is marked by him questioning God and trying to wriggle out by saying that he’s only a boy, far too young to do God’s will. Er, no, is the response back. Likewise Isaiah, whose call comes in an incense-filled Temple, says it really couldn’t be him because he is far too unworthy to be God’s prophet. Zechariah the priest is struck dumb, literally, by the thought that he is called by God to be the father of John the Baptist, the prophet of the Most High. Even the Blessed Virgin Mary says, ‘but how can this be?’ to the Archangel Gabriel, before saying, ‘let it be according to thy will’.
With the call of these fishermen disciples, by the shore of Galilee, we don’t get any dialogue, just the action. We can speculate why this was. Dietrich Bonhoeffer - who was someone who followed Jesus’ call even to death in a concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis – explores this in his book The Cost of Discipleship. He notes how we desperately want to explain why Jesus’ call evokes an immediate response.
Bonhoeffer is quite blunt with us:
The story of the call of the first disciples is a stumbling-block to our natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate [the call of Jesus from the ready obedience of the disciples]. By hook or by crook a bridge must be found between them, some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the stupid question: surely the disciples must have known Jesus before, and that previous acquaintance explains their readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent on this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a person’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, the disciples follow at once.