Parish Eucharist 23rd January 2017
Don't you feel for poor Zebedee? Just as his sons are grown up and might start to take over the family fishing business, just as he begins to dream of retirement, of spending time with his friends in one of Capernaum's cafes instead of mending nets, along comes an itinerant preacher and healer and whisks his boys off before they have even had time to say good bye to their mother. And what for? To be fishers of men- what a curious idea!
Zebedee was not to know that this strange imagery of fishing for men was not to catch on. The good shepherd looking after his flock, an image which certainly did last, is not perhaps much less strange, but at least the shepherd cares for his sheep before shearing them or sending them to be slaughtered. Fish are just caught in a writhing and expiring mass in net. It's not an appealing metaphor, for spreading the Gospel.
The brutality of being called and following Christ is emphasised elsewhere and perhaps more troublingly, as his followers are asked to abandon home and family, and to take up a cross and follow him. Both the manner of calling and the purpose seem to run counter to our deepest instincts and principles, endangering our family life and social stability. Does all vocation have to be like this?
Perhaps I should not put too much emphasis on the extreme vocations we read of in the Gospels and Acts (and in the Old Testament too); after all, only twelve disciples are called, and they are a somewhat motley crew who consistently misunderstand Jesus, and disperse as soon as trouble really starts. And yet aided by the Holy Spirit, this improbable group of fishermen and social misfits start the church to which two thousand years later we still belong. They would have had time to think just what it was they were called to do. And the idea of calling and vocation has remained central in Christianity ever since.
The word for church in the New Testament is ecclesia, which meant originally a calling out. It was the word for the assemblies of citizens in the more or less democratic Greek cities. It had come to be used for synagogues too, places where the faithful gathered. It connotes a gathering or assembly of people who belong to a community but meet separately or distinctly from it, originally for political purposes but also religious. The idea has perhaps its earliest manifestation in the Tent of Gathering, outside the Israelite Camp, but yet integral to its life.
Our churches and this particular church share some of these characteristics. Physically, as a building, this church is set in a churchyard and spiritually for some it is a sanctuary, a place away for a while from the troubles of the world, where they can feel God’s presence and open themselves to him in prayer (prayer that is so often about those worldly troubles). It's outside ordinary life but still part of it.
Church services too are a calling in of more or less like minded Christians which, without, I hope, being exclusive, are nevertheless special and distinct. We do not turn our backs on society outside, and much of our worship is, or I think should be, oriented towards the world in which we live but for an hour or so we are enclosed, for a while we do something which we feel is special and different from our everyday lives. This ambiguous communal calling, distinct from but integral to the life around us, is fundamental to Christian practice.
We become Christians by another sort of calling; for some this will be a conscious adult decision, but for most it is a gradual process. The formal ceremony on initiation, baptism, means of course absolutely nothing to those of us who we were babies at the time. In conscious terms the meaningful event is confirmation and it harks back to baptism as the Bishop, resting his or her hands our heads, reminds us that we were called by name and made God’s own. We grow into maturity as individual named men and women as we also grow into maturity as creatures of God. The “call” is to be what we really are, or are really meant to be, as the letter to the Ephesians has it: ”We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Calling in this sense is much more about recognition than striving for anything new. It is about seeing who we truly are and understanding what we should do in consequence. This isn’t always, perhaps isn’t ever, easy, as not only do we change as we grow, and decay, but the world around us changes to. But while the works which are prepared for us may change, they remain the expression in our relations with others of that same love which we experience from God. Recognising that call will be reconciling what we feel we are and what God wants us to be; reconciling our spiritual dimensions and how our physical selves can bring them to fruition.
I have suggested that calling will often be a gradual introspective and organic experience, but that rather ignores the influence of others on our development. Our families, and our church, mainly local but national and worldwide too have an influence on us; they are the ground in which we grow and the matrix which forms us. The communal calling which characterises churches which is in a sense another aspect of the same individual call; as a church our calling is to grow in Christian life as is it for us as individuals, and we do that by recognising our role, by trying to discern what we can best do, and nurturing each individual member to play his part. The individual relies as much on his or her family, friends and fellow Christians to develop, as they and the church rely on the individuals’ contribution for its growth, a contribution which may sometimes be stay at home or to mind the shop.
Some will hear a call from God directly, like Paul on the way to Damascus but for most it will be from our parents and then in our school and church communities where we shall hear the calling and with the help of whom we may follow it. I do not know how slowly or suddenly Diana and Jan, for example, were called to priesthood, but the changes it entailed to their hitherto “normal” existence must have been radical. Happily, for us, I should say that Diana’s Simon was not left behind like Zebedee. But I hope, and suspect that for them too it was a realisation of what they had to do, what, ultimately, they had been created for. It’s same, with less upheaval, I suggest, for all of us.
And that, possibly, helps to explain the strange imagery of catching fish; James and John the sons of Zebedee, were fishermen. Jesus calls them to be fishers of men. Their call is a recognition of what they should really be doing; an understanding of who they really were and what that entailed, for some the drama of being apostles, but for others like Zebedee keeping the family business going. That is the call for which we should all be listening. Amen.