How we are called. 3 before Lent (Isaiah 6, 1-8; Luke 5, 1-11 )

February 4, 2007

As the Christian year moves on from the celebration of Candlemas last week, so the lectionary directs our minds from the events of Jesus’s birth, and the beginning of his ministry, to consideration of his 3 year ministry, and on from that to his passion and death. However, Jesus did not work alone. So today we hear Luke’s version of the calling of the first disciples, the inner circle of Simon Peter, James and John. It is a much more elaborate account than we get in Matthew or Mark, and has many similarities to the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee in John 21.

In the lectionary, the account of the call of the first disciples is linked with the call of the prophet Isaiah in about 740 BC. These are two very different happenings – but they are linked by the fact that the recipients of the call recognise God in the one who is calling them, and in the sense of personal inadequacy this brings.

Isaiah’s call is the more traditional theophany (appearance of God). It occurs in a holy place, the Jerusalem Temple. The God who reveals himself is wholly other – gigantic, exalted, surrounded by creatures of fire with six wings, who worship him. We recognize in this a visionary experience.

Isaiah’s reaction to this vision is terror. He bewails his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people.
In the Jewish tradition of the time, no-one could approach the Holy of Holies without elaborate ritual cleansing, To do otherwise was to risk death.

The divine reaction is to perform a cleansing ritual, using fire – to touch the lips of the prophet with a live coal from the altar of sacrifice. Only then is Isaiah able to respond to God’s call: “I will go! Send me!” Only then is he worthy to give voice to the words of prophecy and warning that God entrusts to him in the remainder of this chapter.

Jesus’ call to his disciples is very different. It takes place in a very ordinary scene, while everyone concerned is going about their everyday business. The fishermen are washing their nets; Jesus is teaching. He borrows one of Simon’s boats to speak from. Then Jesus does something rather strange for a carpenter. He tells experienced fishermen to push their boats out into deep water again, and let down their nets for another catch. Peter, in character, protests, but then does as he is told – and the catch is so large as to endanger the safety of everyone in the boat. It is at this point that the experience becomes a theophany, when Peter recognizes the divine in the human person of Jesus, and like Isaiah, is struck with a sense of his own sinfulness.

But, unlike the call in Isaiah, there is no cleansing ritual before this call. There is not even a baptism as a sign that all sins have been forgiven. Jesus simply tells the disciples not to be afraid, and instructs them what their future life is to be about. The absolution is implicit in that. The call is also implicit, but the fishermen respond immediately, leaving their fishing gear behind to follow him.

Isaiah’s call is to mission to his own people, the Jews. It was only centuries later that a follower of his, whom we know as Second Isaiah, realised that God was calling his people to a greater mission, to reveal God to the whole world, and conveyed it in words which were echoed by Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis which you heard last week: “It is too light a thing that you should raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations”. (Is. 49)

Luke, however was quite sure that the Christian calling was to take the good news to the whole world, to Gentiles as well as Jews. His is the only Gospel that has a ‘Part 2’, continuing the story after the resurrection to give details of how the Gospel was carried to the limits of the known world.

I don’t know whether you feel that you are have been called by God to faith or ministry. Or if you do, whether you can pinpoint a moment or a process when that call came. If so, was it like Isaiah’s call – a vision – or like the call of the first disciples, something that came from your everyday work or life?

There was a tendency in the church to value the visionary type of call over the everyday sort. But, I don’t think one sort of call is superior – I think how we are called depends to a great extent on the sort of people we are. Some people ( and I’m not one of them ) are prone to visionary experiences, so they are more likely to hear God’s call in the context of worship, or intense emotion.

Others are of a more practical disposition, and so their call is likely to come ( perhaps in a gradual way ) during the course of their everyday work. That’s certainly how my call to Reader ministry came about. In my previous parish, I spent some time as the Parish Secretary. My Vicar knew I had been trained as a teacher, so often asked me to help him prepare material for use in the church school and youth organisations. As time went on, we also worked together on other sermons, including a series on the Eucharist, which we presented one Lent. When he was ill, and unable to give one of the sermons, I had to do it instead at a Parish Eucharist. Though I had given addresses at Family Services before then, this was the first time I had ‘preached’ at a Eucharist, and that was the point at which I felt I ought to be properly authorised. So, my call was not a dramatic or particularly religious experience. But my experience as a Reader since then has confirmed to me that it was, nevertheless, a genuine call.

God calls us, I think, in the manner in which we are most likely to hear him. What we have to do is to be alert, in all circumstances, to hear God’s voice, and to respond. It will not always be a call to a major change in life-style – it may just be a challenge to continue doing what we are doing, but with a greater consciousness of the way we can serve the Kingdom as we do it. Or it may be a call to explore our faith further, and to deepen our relationship with God.

But it may be a call to do something completely different – and if so, our first reaction, like Isaiah’s, like Peter’s – may be a sense of our own inadequacy. If this is our reaction, then the Luke’s story of the call of the first disciples should be of comfort to us. The disciples left behind their nets and their boats; but Jesus’ words indicated that the skills and the experience they already had would be adapted and used in the service of the Kingdom; and so it may be with us. Our sense of our own unworthiness is a necessary prerequisite of responding to God’s call, but it is not a barrier to serving God and working with Christ.

Through the Spirit, God will equip us for whatever
he calls us to do. This is not to say that doing what God calls us to do won’t sometimes leave us feeling worn out, frustrated and failures. That’s what Peter and the other disciples felt before Jesus called them. “We’ve worked hard all night long and caught nothing”. How often do we feel like saying that to God when our new mission strategy or stewardship campaign hasn’t produced the results we hoped for? Perhaps the churches for whom Luke was writing his Gospel were going through an experience like that, and that is why his account of the calling of the disciples included this encouraging story of the miraculous catch of fishes by those who were called by Jesus to ‘fish for people’.

That catch only came because Peter responded in the way Jesus asked him to do so. In the same way, if our response to our vocation, to God’s call to us, is a willing “Nevertheless, if you say so, I will do it” then ultimately we will succeed in what God has called us to do.


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