by Ellen Sims
text: John 1: 29-49
In all four canonical Gospels, Jesus began calling his first disciples immediately or (in Luke) not long after his baptism by John. The three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) describe Jesus approaching prospective disciples with something between a bold invitation and a command: “Follow me.”
Matthew reports that as Jesus “walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (4:18-20).
Mark describes the encounter almost identically: “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—-for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him” (1:16-18).
According to Luke, after his baptism Jesus began his ministry of healing and preaching without disciples. He then “caught” fishermen Simon and Andrew, the first of his disciples, while helping them pull in two boatloads of fish. Afterward, they left everything to follow Jesus. Not long after that Jesus met Levi the tax collector sitting at the tax booth and issued the commanding invitation, “’Follow me.’ And [Levi] got up, left everything, and followed him” (5:27-28).
The synoptics make the “follow me” command sound almost magical. Jesus speaks the phrase and people who’ve never met him drop their previous lives and follow this strange stranger.
However, John’s version of the calling of the disciples seems even more fantastical. Jesus’s first disciples, at that time unnamed disciples of John the Baptist, saw Jesus for the first time the day after John baptized Jesus. Upon seeing Jesus pass by, an awe-struck John announced to two of his own nearby followers: “There goes the Lamb of God,” and immediately John’s disciples, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, turned, left John, and “followed Jesus.”
John’s version gives us a significantly different story. As I’ve just summarized, in the synoptics Jesus directly recruits strangers, and it’s a pretty dramatic and pointed pitch he makes: leave everything behind and follow me. But in John’s version, it is John who points his own followers to Jesus, and immediately Simon Peter and Andrew leave their former guru to follow Jesus, based only on John’s obvious esteem for Jesus.
I want to tease out what the differences between these two “call stories” might suggest about how we attend to God’s call upon our lives and also how we might be used to call others to follow Jesus.
Ah, but right now some of you might be worrying that I’m starting to sound evangelical. “Is she going to have us knocking on doors to pass out tracts on the plan of salvation?” you’re wondering. “Did we wander into the wrong church this morning?” Well, it’s not just the evangelicals who feel “called” to be a follower of Jesus, you know, and we don’t have to proselytize to be invitational and welcoming. Our mission statement printed at the top of your worship bulletin each Sunday states that we aim to “follow in the Way of Jesus in Christian love, spiritual and social transformation, biblical hospitality, grace-filled inclusion, and joyful worship.” What we at Open Table probably don’t emphasize enough is how we can, like John the Baptist, point others to the Jesus Way through our own actions and words. Reflecting on spiritual stories and seeing our own lives as holy narratives are means of discerning and following God’s call upon our lives or supporting someone else seeking a path of healing and hope.
Anthropologist Laurens Van Der Post said about the Kalahari bush people: “the supreme expression of their spirit (their spiritual lives) is in their stories. . . . Their story is their most precious possession. These people know what we do not, that without a story, you are not a people, or a nation, or a culture. Without a story you haven’t got a life of your own.”
So yesterday the church council members at our annual retreat told stories to one another and heard stories from one another about our individual lives and about Open Table.
I’m grateful our sacred scriptures are mainly interpretable stories rather than, for instance, a list of rules. I’m grateful that there are always new stories to tell and to write and to live out. And to rework and revise as the Gospel writers felt free to do. We are storytelling creatures. That’s why our 9:30 class is now reading The Short Stories of Jesus that opens up fresh interpretations of the parables. That’s how we make sense of the world and determine how to engage this world.
Today’s Gospel story from John might be labeled a travel story or an adventure story because first Jesus and then the disciples set out on a new adventure together. Or we might classify today’s Gospel story as a naming story to explain how characters received their names because Jesus renames Simon as Cephas/Peter. But this story should certainly be considered a “call story,” a genre about recognizing one’s vocation or calling in life.
While I was in seminary, it seemed we students were expected to have our individual call stories and tell them from time to time, maybe in chapel services or in class or maybe just in conversations among new friends. I didn’t really have a “call story.” I began seminary at a nontraditional age trying to discern IF I was feeling “called” to ministry. Most days the whole idea of being a pastor seemed preposterous to me. So I would sometimes offer a declaration of doubt or sometimes a question but not a story, not a well-honed narrative like many other seminarians told of God saying specific words to them to convince them to register for seminary and come up with money for tuition. There was not, for me, a story with a plot that included three symbolic incidents when my attempts to answer God’s call were thwarted until finally God, like a fairy godmother in a classic fairy tale, opened up a way. There was not, for me, ever a story that concluded with a sign from God that I was on the right vocational path. My peers were sincere and honest, but cynical me wondered if their personal “call stories” were psychologically necessary to self-certify seminarians’ pursuits of ordination. Were they contrived by folks needing assurance that the outcome of all this preparation would be worth it for them, for the people they would serve? I, and I’m sure others, needed to find a way to be faithful while retaining a healthy dose of skepticism. I didn’t think God would be certifying me with a descending dove; I needed to examine myself with tough honesty and then depend on those ordaining me to test me rigorously and serve as God’s proxy for my authorization into Christian ministry.
But as you can probably see, I did have a call story of sorts . . . because I’m telling it to you now. And it wasn’t/isn’t all that different from some of the stories others told that seemed forced and formulaic to me. In fact, my call story was not so different from call stories in scripture–stories of Moses and Isaiah and Jonah–which usually depict God choosing and using less than eager or confident people.
The story of Jesus calling the disciples is actually an exception to that rule. Jesus called the twelve and not one of them demurred. (Although maybe the Gospel writers just didn’t mention the dozens Jesus tried to recruit but who refused the invitation or didn’t stay the course.) At any rate, let’s take today’s Gospel text at face value as we double back now to consider the two ways Jesus called his first disciples.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus called his disciples audibly, by name, in person, and then almost as if in a trance, they dropped everything and left occupations and family behind and began to travel about with this stranger. The synoptics narrate a literal calling. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus literally offers a pointed and persuasive invitation to those first disciples to follow him on a journey into the unknown. Out of the blue or over time, a voice may call us away to a new purpose that holds for us a new or deeper meaning for our lives. Maybe some of you are here today because you have heard through Open Table or otherwise a specific, decisive calling to follow Jesus in ways you’d not experienced previously. You might even be able to pinpoint a particular experience or scripture or statement that sounded to you like the call of Jesus. And you may have left something behind to follow Jesus in that moment. You left behind or gave less priority to your version of fishing nets as your walk with Jesus became more meaningful. You left something behind to give God priority. Maybe you now feel you have journeyed toward a deeper experience of the Divine as a result.
John’s call story is different. Today’s Gospel text offers an alternate way of thinking about how we might discern God’s call upon our lives and how we might be used to call others. Jesus in John’s version does NOT command the first disciples to follow him. He gains John the Baptist’s endorsement and the first disciple’s followship because they witness the Spirit of God in his life: as “John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove’” (John 1:32). There is something winsome about the life of Jesus. There is something compelling about seeing the Loving Spirit in someone’s life. Jesus didn’t gain disciples through persuasive argument or fiery sermon. He attracted followers because of his compelling words and ways and his love of God. Jesus never strained to look sanctimonious; he just lived a life of compassion and humility and trust and faithfulness. His world, like ours, looked like it was going to hell in a handbasket. He did not despair. He just kept enlisting more disciples, as we are trying to do, as Jesus-follower Martin Luther King, Jr. did: disciples of love and peace and justice.
If you think of evangelism as obnoxious efforts by people trying to force their belief systems onto others, find in John’s Jesus’s call story an evangelism (sharing the good news) through the example of a life lived in such a luminous way that others wanted to emulate him. John’s Jesus didn’t command people to follow him or name him as Messiah. Jesus caused people to yearn for the kind of world he envisioned. Eventually he would lay down his life for others out of his commitment to the Way. To quote a line from the famous diner scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally, we should live in ways that inspire those around us to say, “I’ll have what she’s having!”
Evangelism is “good news.” Evangelists are bearers of good news. We are all evangelists when we offer good news, an encouraging word, a fresh vision, an act of kindness. Each one of you is an evangelist, an ambassador for Open Table, a disciple of Jesus, a Child of God, a blessing for others.