January 22, 2012—Epiphany 3
It’s a story best left in the past—the story of the call of the disciples, I mean—a story best read as a quaint little tale of events that could have happened only in a world drastically different from our own, and in that tiny window of time that was the public life of Jesus. (What was it? Two or three years, two millennia ago? A tiny window of time.) The challenge that Jesus issues to Simon and Andrew, James and John, there by the Sea of Galilee, to put down their nets, the symbols of all that entangled them in the deadly drudgery of their world, and go with him—to become his disciples, his apprentices, learning the ways of the kingdom of God—is best left frozen in history, an isolated event specific to the personalities involved—or we might start thinking it has something to do with us—something to do with our lives. We might start thinking of ourselves as some kind of current-day disciples, apprenticing in the ways of the realm of God, making Jesus’ vision of that realm central to our lives, constantly paying attention to the places where it might be seeping into our world, allowing it to distract us and take our focus away from the things that matter, like interest rates and mutual funds and pension plans and—my personal favourite—the dream of having a vehicle with heated seats some day very soon. Worse, it might get us going into places that aren’t safe or comfortable for us to be in, hanging around with people we wouldn’t be caught dead with now. It might render us downright unrecognizable to our friends and families, turn us into social pariahs. Bring that one ancient story into the present time, and imagine Jesus’ call coming to us, and, goodness knows, we might have to read further, to find out more about this way of life to which we were convincing ourselves that Jesus was calling us. We might start immersing ourselves in those stories, reading them over and over again, seeing the kingdom he proclaimed shining through each story of a healing or a feeding or the freeing of a person from the terrible captivity of a demon. We might start drawing parallels to our own world, in our own time. We might start picturing our world with such healing and feeding and liberating going on, and with the same kingdom shining through. And that’s a hard picture to get out of the mind’s eye, once it’s been glimpsed. We might start pondering the parables, beginning to think they made a strangely beautiful kind of sense, beginning to hear in their mysterious words a divine logic, beginning to long for the world those parables described, for the realm they promised, beginning to see how that realm was like a mustard seed, tiny and of no account, but then, when it starting growing, able to take over a whole field, not only above the soil, but underground, silent, and tenacious, and pesky, and impossible to uproot; or how it was like a pearl of great price, for which a merchant searched for many years, and which he finally found, and for which he then sold everything he had in order to buy it. And that point—the point at which the cost no longer mattered—the cost of going with Jesus and immersing ourselves in his promised kingdom and learning its ways of goodness and compassion and healing—that would be the point from which there would be no turning back. Even talk of looming crosses would fail to deter us. We would go with him joyfully, pick up our crosses courageously. Like the pearl of great price, the realm of God would be worth any cost to us. Any cost.
You can see why this story of the call of the disciples cannot be allowed to have access to our hearts and minds in any kind of way that would make us believe that it might somehow apply to us, in our world, in these days. Confined to the past, and allowed only to be about those people, in that world, it can’t inconvenience us, much less change us, much less consume our very lives, much less become our reason for being. And we can continue to have our cake and eat it, too. Be Christians without any real cost. But brought into the present, and freed up to issue a call to us, this story can wreak all kinds of havoc in our lives. So good. It’s decided. That was then and this is now. We won’t let the story touch us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
. . . But then again, to live our lives as Christians without so much as a glimpse into the realm of God that Jesus came proclaiming seems like a rather deprived way of being, spiritually speaking, heated seats or no heated seats. To live our lives as Christians without a vision of the world transformed by the passion and compassion of our God seems like rather a stark existence, devoid of real hope—an existence lived either on the surface of things or in despair. To live our live as Christians thinking that there’s no connection between the living of our own lives and the ultimate purposes of our God—between the dreams that we dream for ourselves and the dreams that God dreams for the world—well, that seems rather a cynical approach to faith, and, for that matter, to life. So maybe we should let the story of Jesus’ call of the first disciples get at us, just a little bit, after all, and have a chance to make its case that that call is for us, after all, as surely as it was for Simon, and Andrew, and James, and John, as surely as it was for the first readers of the Gospel in which it appears. Maybe we should allow ourselves, even for the briefest of moments, to anticipate the utter relief, the sheer wonder and joy of setting down on this lakeshore here the things that entangle us in the deadly drudgery of our world, and, freed of their burden, of walking in the ways that promise and proclaim the coming of an alternative world, a world transformed. Maybe we should allow ourselves, even for the briefest of moments, to contemplate following Jesus into his version of our world, and apprenticing with him in the compassionate, healing ways of the realm of God. As one contemporary theologian says in reflecting on answering that call, “ . . . as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means how to live within the range of God’s effective will, [God’s] life flowing through mine.” By choice and by grace we allow the story to have access to our hearts and minds, allow the call to get to us, and put down the nets that weigh us down and ensnare us in the deadly daily grind of our world, and follow Jesus through the Gospels as he shows us what that world will look like when it has been transformed. By choice and by grace, we allow the story to come into the present, and get at us, and make disciples of us. By choice. And by grace. Thanks be to God. Amen. (And this time I mean it.)