Sermons That Work

Last Sunday’s Readings…, Epiphany 2 (A) – 2005

January 16, 2005

Last Sunday’s readings talked about baptism and identity, and included that wonderful sentence from Isaiah, where God says to Israel, to Israel’s servant, and to us, three things: God says, “I have called you in righteous-ness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people.” It talked about being held in God’s hand, and about being given as a gift to people. These are helpful ways of understanding the Christian life, both for individuals and for a parish.

Today, let us look at the first of these things God says to us. God says, “I have called you.…” That fits right in with this section of John’s Gospel, where we hear that evangelist’s account of the call of the first few disciples. John the Baptist points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of the Baptist’s disciples hear this, stop following John, and are called by Jesus to follow him. They hear that Jesus is the promised one, and they are called by him to follow. So off they go.

Now this business of “being called” is a tricky and important thing. It is easy to get confused about it, especially the way we use it these days. We tend to equate being called with doing some specific thing—usually a pretty major thing. We talk of being called to be ordained, or being called to a special—usually full-time and professional—form of service.

And that is all we do with being called. So, on the one hand, most of us can listen to the call of these disciples and neatly separate what happened to them from what is going on with us. “After all, they were called—we’re just ordinary people.” So we are safe from that.

People who come before the Commission on Ministry for interviews for Ordination really struggle with this idea of call. Sometimes they have had very powerful experiences of the presence of God, and think that means they have to do something new and different; and for Episcopalians that usually means get ordained. Others think it might be a good idea to get ordained, but aren’t sure if they are called, whatever that might mean. So they all just dread talking to the Commission on Ministry because they know folks are going to ask them about it all and they all think they ought to have a better answer than they do.

But the fact is, both of these ways of looking at and for a call from God miss the point. Now, there is such a thing as a special call to a specific ministry or type of service. But that is not the way the word is usually used in the Bible; that is not really what is going on in what we just heard; and that is not what is usually going on with us when God calls us.

These two to whom Jesus said, “come and see,” were called exactly as we are called. They were called to be disciples—as we are called to be disciples. Whether we are supposed to be ordained or not, when we are called by God, as we are each called in our Baptism, we are, like those first two, called to be disciples. In them, and in their call, we can see, with some real clarity, the call of Christ to each of us, and to all of us. Remember that from the very beginning, Jesus called, not individuals, but a community, and the idea of a call makes no sense, from a Christian perspective, outside of the larger community. This is the first thing to remember.

Second of all, and here is another place where can easily get off the track, Jesus does not first, or primarily, call us to do a particular job, or to fill a particular role. Our call as Christians is not initially for us, as it was not, initially, for Andrew and the other disciple, a call to work.

It is, instead, a call to relationship. Jesus does not say, “do this,” he says, “come and see,” or “follow me.” There is a big difference.

To respond to such a call for relationship, for intimacy, is very different from signing up to do a piece of work. (Just like falling in love is very different from serving together on a committee). To set out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved, it is negotiable, it has its limits, you know what it looks like when the job is over, and so on. To be called into relationship—to be called to follow—that is to enter a mystery; it is to move out, full speed ahead, into uncharted darkness. |Jesus simply says, “follow me.” He calls us first to himself—to a personal intimacy and shared life. That is what matters, and that is to be central. Everything else is left behind.

If we look at Jesus’ call from the perspective of what is left behind, it is a call to repent. If we see it from the perspective of what comes next, it is a call to seek him first, to know him, and to make that relationship the central focus of our lives.

But when we are called, it is primarily to be held for a while, not to go anywhere. By and by it will lead us somewhere. But we won’t know where for a while, maybe for a long while. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about that with these words:

If we answer the call to discipleship, where will it
lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand?
To answer the question we shall have to go to him,
for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who
bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we
do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy.

Those first disciples were not called to go somewhere in particular—they were called to go anywhere Jesus might lead. They were not called to renounce this thing or that thing, but to be able to walk away from anything and everything, for only then would they be free—only then would their lives fully belong to Jesus.

This is often why a sense of call can be both frightening and frustrating. We might know something very powerful is going on, something that has to do with all of our life and much more. Then, because we live in a society that insists that for something to be valuable, it has to produce, we start looking for what we are called to do. Well, we are, especially at first, supposed to get to know God and Jesus a little better. We need that before we can hear much else. It is time to listen, and to wait.

So with the disciples—they stayed close to Jesus for a while. They learned what they would and came to know him a little. Then, long before they thought they were ready, Jesus gave them jobs to do. For some, these jobs were dramatic, for others they were quiet and invisible. But the call to Jesus will always, in one form or another, find expression in ministry. But the call comes first. There can be no real, abiding, and sustaining ministry without relationship with Christ, without obedience to him as he calls us to himself.

We are called to be disciples. That call came with our baptism; and that call to relationship and ministry will haunt us, and track us down; it will trouble our sleep and whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It will grow stronger and weaker and stronger again, it may seem to go away, but it always comes back. For, finally, it is the call to life, to joy, and to true peace.

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Christopher Sikkema


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