The story of Jesus’ call of the fisherman is so familiar we may not think about how weird it would be, for 4 guys with jobs, families, homes, obligations, and connections to their community, to literally drop everything. To let the fishing nets fall at their feet, step over and around them, and start following Jesus. That happened when Jesus called to Simon and Andrew, and again a little further down the beach, Jesus called to James and John, and they followed.
Can you imagine a situation in which you would walk away from the life you have been living, to start over, with only the clothes on your back, and whatever is in your pockets? The only person I can think of who has done that is my friend Marvin, who left his home in Liberia as a refugee during a horrible bloody civil war.
It probably reflects my comfortable middle class Canadian bias that I kind of assume if these fishermen were willing to drop everything and follow Jesus, they did not have much to give up. They were probably just barely surviving and Jesus offered them something better. Maybe following a freelance, itinerant rabbi would pay better than being a fisherman. But James and John were working in a family business with their father. They had hired hands, which suggests they were at least doing well enough to pay other people.
What could Jesus have said to inspire these four to walk away from their old lives, and follow him? The New Testament offers these quick stories that are like scenes in a movie trailer- they give us clues to the big picture, but leave a lot out. I think Jesus already knew these four men.
Two Sundays ago we heard the story of Jesus being baptized. Tradition says John the Baptizer was Jesus’ cousin, and his role was to be like a herald, who went ahead to announce that someone important was coming, and people needed to pay attention. In The Message it says:
“John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.
As he preached John said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”
If Simon and Andrew, and James and John were amongst those interested in what John the Baptist preached, they may have already been thinking about changing their lives. They may have met Jesus through John’s group. When the time came for Jesus to recruit his team, they would have had time to mull over what he represented.
For most people the experience of a calling, responding to a deep spiritual prompting from God is usually not an instant lightning bolt kind of thing. That happens too, but for most people it is gradual. A nagging thought, an idea that won’t go away, or keeps coming up in different ways and does not let you ignore it. It may take years of decades, even most of a lifetime before we finally get to the point when we act on the calling, sometimes because we can no longer do anything else but change our life.
There can be a sense of being called toward something new- like the early disciples who dropped their nets to follow Jesus. There can also be a sense of being called away from something- the realization that there is something, or perhaps more than one thing about our life that we need to change. We may not need to change our job, or our address, but we may need to change the focus of our lives.
I counselled a person this week who has moved from one bad relationship to another. She is not an alcoholic, but has spent her life taking care of, being abused by, and cleaning up after drunks and addicts. This has cost her a lot, and she is beginning to say she wants a different life, before it is too late.
Life is short. We only have so much time. To what do we want to give that time? As Jesus said in the Gospel, “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”
Because life is short, and we only have so much time, it is important to live it well. By living well, I don’t mean a self-oriented, consumer-oriented version of life, in which we keep score by having the best stuff, the most toys, the newest and shiniest of everything. By living well I mean more basic things like: having a clear conscience; making a positive difference in the world; being at peace with God, others, ourselves; being able to sleep at night; not living in constant fear or dread; knowing our life matters, to God, to other people, to the world; knowing we are loved, and able to share love with others; not taking ourselves too seriously; being open to new challenges, continuing to grow and learn; having fun.
If we don’t have this kind of spiritual nurture, no amount of material wealth, or power, or prestige will fill the emptiness inside. We may need to change our lives. We may need to stop feeding our egos, and start feeding our souls.
A lot of the problems in our world, and in our own lives are rooted in our addiction, or attachment, or devotion to the wrong things. We are too easily hooked on the “junk food” that seems to feed our hungry ego, when what we really need is soul food. According to the Franciscan priest and spiritual writer Richard Rohr, the three most common varieties of ego-feeding junk food are these core compulsions: to be successful; to be right; to be in control.
The call from God is to repent, to turn our lives around, to focus on what is really important, rather than such soul-starving distractions. This call is not just for those first fishermen turned disciples, or other saints, or spiritual heroes. God wants each of us to have whole, and holy lives. Following God means letting go of things that hold us back from the life meant for us.
A couple of weeks ago when we repeated the vows of baptism and confirmation, I talked about how the instructions on shampoo bottles used to say “wash, rinse repeat”. This is how it is with the call to follow God in full and holy living. We need to wash, rinse, and repeat, over and over again, because we keep complicating and confusing our lives, and getting distracted, and falling for the temptation to follow the wrong things.
The good news is that we can change our lives, and get back to soul food, and wean ourselves off the junk food. There is a spiritual basis for a new and better life. Over the millennia, Christians have realized that it can be very helpful to have a daily plan, that includes the practices we do everyday, to keep ourselves on track. Just as an athlete or a musician needs to practice to keep in shape, to nurture their gifts, and maintain their skill, we need daily practice to stay spiritually healthy.
This past summer my daughter and I made a pilgrimage to the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. The original Ebenezer Baptist Church still resounds with his sermons, played over the audio system in the sanctuary. In the museum just down the street I saw, amongst other ordinary things, a pair of his shoes, his razor, and one of his suits, the trousers of which he put on one leg at a time, like any other person. Even a modern saint like Dr. King, who rose to world fame, and influenced so many, lived a human life, in which he recognized the need for daily spiritual practices, to keep on track.
In a book called “Rules for Prayer”, the author William Paulsell gathered a list of seven things Dr. King strove to do every day, for his spiritual fitness and well-being, and helped him be the person, God was calling forth.
- Meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus
- Live in the manner of love
- Pray daily to be used by God
- Sacrifice personal wishes
- Perform regular service for others
- Stay in good bodily and spiritual health
- Pray for the oppressor
We could do a lot worse, and hardly do any better, than to follow a daily rule like this one. Amen