Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Call

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 

Mark 1.14-20  
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."  16  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.  17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people."  18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The concept of ‘calling’ is a strange one isn’t it,
                        when you stop and think about it?
            I mean, we take the word ‘call’
                        and use it in so many different contexts:

At a basic level, it’s to do with naming something
·        What are you called?
·        What are your children called?
·        Renault 5 - What’s yours called?
(that’s one for those of us with a few years,
            or should I say miles, on the clock)

But then ‘calling’ is also an action
·        I called after her, but she didn’t hear me!
·        I called round for a cup of tea
·        I just called to say I love you
(another one for those of us with longer memories!)[1]

And then there’s the idea of us receiving a Call
            and here we’re getting a bit closer
to the way we often use language of calling in Christian circles.
So, we might speak of:
·        The Call of the wild
·        The Call of nature
·        Call of Duty
·        Call of Duty V
(that reference might be for those of us who are a bit younger, I suspect)

And so we come to the specifically Christian use of the word Call;
            the idea that some of us, at least, might receive a call from God.

In some Christian circles,
            the language of being called by God to do something is de rigueur;
                        and it becomes necessary to speak the language of calling if we are to fit in,
                        we have to be able to say we are ‘called’
                                    if we are to be acceptable to those
                                    who look for God’s calling behind every action.

Both Ruth and I have spent a lot of time over the years,
            involved in interviews of those
            who believe that they are being ‘called’ into Christian ministry.

And ministerial selection panels often have, as one of their key criteria,
            a requirement that the prospective minister
            be able to clearly articulate their sense of call to the role.

And, I have to say, as the years have gone by,
            and as the candidates and interviews have ticked round,
I’ve become far more cynical about the idea of call,
            and far less sure about what actually is meant by it in the first place.

I mean, if a prospective minister comes to be interviewed,
            and the panel asks them to tell the story of their call to ministry,
what is likely to get the person through without any awkward questions
            is a kind of ‘humble-but-bewildered-growing-conviction’,
                        where the candidate speaks of a deepening inner persuasion,
                        matched by the affirmation and encouragement of those around them.

A person who comes into their ministerial selection interview,
            and says that they know they are called to be a minister,
            because they have just heard God’s voice, clear as a bell,
                        speaking to them in the night,
                        telling them exactly what he wanted to do with their life,
            is, I’m afraid, unlikely to make it to the next round.

And I am coming to the conclusion
            that any such language of having been ‘called’ by God to anything,
from being a Baptist Minister, to being a parent, to being a teacher,
            is, frankly, incredible.
The idea that each of us can, in some way, expect to receive a call from God
            that tells us exactly what we should do with our lives,
            is something I find less and less convincing.

And so we come to our Gospel reading for this morning.

In this oh-so-familiar story from Mark’s Gospel
            we meet the story often known as
            ‘The calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John’.

It’s a story many of us have known since childhood,
            and we may have heard sermon after sermon,
            and Sunday-school lesson after Sunday-school lesson,
inviting and exhorting us to also leave our nets
            and become fishers of people.

As I speak I have that old, exclusively languaged, Sunday-school chorus
running round in my head:
            I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men
            I will make you fishers of men, if you fol-low me

The point seems clear: we should give up everything and follow Jesus
            leaving the equivalent of our own nets and boats
            in order to answer the call of God on our lives

Except, the awkward part of my brain wonders,
where does this leave the person called to the fishing industry?
            or, if I may be a bit less than literal in my application
            the person called to the classroom, or the hospital,
or the building site, or the home?

Does the call of Jesus on our lives
            really mean that we should walk away from our careers
                        and our livelihoods?

Well, for those who believe they are following a call to full time ministry
            it is likely to mean just that…

There are those of us in Baptist ministry today
            who have given up or passed by lucrative and fulfilling careers
to answer their so-called ‘call to ministry’

But that kind of extreme ‘call’ is only ever going to be a minority sport, so to speak.
            The call of Jesus cannot mean, for everyone,
            that they should leave it all behind, whatever ‘it’ is,
            to follow wherever the wind of the Spirit blows them.

This kind of call is not, surely, what it means for us to follow Jesus?
This story isn’t really a simple lesson
            about the necessity of turning our backs on the things of this world
            if we want to follow Jesus.

Well, at this point, I find myself tempted to pull that old favourite preachers’ trick,
of suggesting that it’s all a metaphor.
It’s tempting to say that it’s not actually about everyone actually leaving
their nets and boats,
            or indeed giving up their jobs and careers;
but rather it’s about not holding these things too closely,
            and being prepared to give them up if Jesus asks us
            (whilst secretly hoping that he won’t).

So it’s OK to be a GP, as long as you’re ready to resign your practice
            if Jesus asks you to…

It’s OK to be a rich young ruler, as long as you’re ready to give it all away
            if Jesus asks you to…

Is this what this passage means?
Is this the message we should take from it this morning?

I’m not so sure…
            Perhaps we’ll come back to this one in a few minutes…

I wonder if, for now, maybe we will have a bit more joy
            if we turn our attention away from the conundrum
            of what it is that we’re called from,
and towards the question of what it is that we’re called to

Perhaps this will be a bit more straightforward?

After all, Jesus is quite clear on this one, isn’t he?
            He calls the disciples to become ‘fishers of people’.

In a neat little pun on their artisan fisherman lifestyle
            Simon and Andrew, and James and John,
                        are called to leave their earthly nets
                        and become instead fishers of people.

Which sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it…?
            at least, it does until we start to ask
            just what it means to fish for people…

What does it mean to fish for people?

Is this about saving souls?

Is there really a metaphorical ocean of souls out there?
Is our task to randomly let down our spiritual nets
in the hope of catching a big shoal of them?
Is this a mandate for large-scale evangelistic rallies,
            or appeals broadcast round-the-clock on the God-channel,
                        imploring people to ‘turn to Jesus’?

Or is a bit more subtle?
            Is this about fishing with a lure,
                        where we make our churches so attractive
that people are enticed in through the doors,
            and it’s only once they’re in that we spring the trap and never let them leave?

            Is this a mandate for back to church Sunday?
                        for seeker services?
                        for Alpha courses?

Is this what it means to fish for people?
            Is this what Jesus is getting at?

Again, I’m not so sure…

On the face of it, the call of Jesus to his first disciples, the call to ‘fish for people’
            is not the most gripping of calls…

There’s nothing here about the keys of the kingdom,
nothing here about binding and loosing
nothing here about planting churches,
receiving the gifts of the spirit
or living for eternity in paradise.

Just this strange call to fish for people…

You can almost hear the disciples’ excitement:
            What’s that you say, Jesus?
            You’re calling us away from a life of back-breaking labour
                        where often the rewards don’t come close to the effort expended?
            You’re calling us away from a life of fishing…
            And what are we called to?
            Oh, more fishing!... Great… Thanks…

But I wonder if, when pay attention to the Old Testament background
                        to this image of fishing
            it might start to get a bit more interesting?

Ched Myers points out that in the Hebrew Bible,
the metaphor of ‘fishing for people’ carries a very specific meaning:
Which is that of overturning the structures
            of power and privilege in the world.

The image Jesus that uses here
            comes from the book of Jeremiah,
Where Jeremiah declares that the Lord will send for many fishermen
who will catch the unfaithful people of Israel
and bring them back to him (Jer. 16.16).

In other words, this image of fishing for people, the way Jeremiah uses it,
            is about restoring those who have drifted away
                        back to their rightful place among God’s people.
            It’s about releasing those who have become ensnared in the trappings of the world,
                        and drawing them back to right relationship with God.
            It’s about challenging the oppressive powers that be,
                        by breaking the hold that these worldly structures have
                        over the lives and spirits of human beings.

And also elsewhere in the Old Testament,
            the image of ‘hooking people like fish’
            appears as a euphemism for judgment on the rich and powerful

So we find Amos proclaiming the judgment of God
on the apostate nation of Israel,
which had been oppressing the poor and crushing the needy.
To this end Amos declared:
‘The time is surely coming upon you,
            when they shall take you away with hooks,
            even the last of you with fishhooks.’ (Amos 4.2)

And in a similar manner, Ezekiel announced the judgment of God
against the might of the Pharaoh of Egypt:
‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…
I will put hooks in your jaws,
and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales’. (Ezek. 29.3-4)

So when Jesus approaches the four fishermen by the sea of Galilee
            and says that they should leave their nets and come fish for people
this isn’t some trite call to missionary service;
            neither is it the instant conferring of evangelist status
            on a group of young fishermen.

Rather, by issuing this invitation to the fishing brothers,
            Jesus is inviting some ordinary, everyday people
                        to join him in his struggle
                        of overturning the existing order of power and privilege

This call to become ‘fishers for people’
            is actually a call to rescue people
                        from their slavery to the satanic forces
                        which oppress and suppress humanity.

It’s about joining Jesus on the journey to the cross,
            and it’s about partnering with him
in seeing the kingdom of heaven
come into being on the earth.
            It’s about proclaiming the good news
                        that the kingdom of heaven is at hand
                        as the kingdoms of the earth are shaken to their very foundations

This call of Jesus, when it comes,
is a call which subverts all our expectations…

Whatever it is we think we’re called to,
Jesus subverts it when he calls us to be fishers for people

Maybe we think we’re called to the church?
            …maybe we think we’re called to this church?
But if so, what are we called to?
… to build a bigger congregation?
… to fill once again
this great Victorian preaching barn?
… to see a church that is purposefully driven,
contagiously Christian, and healthily growing?…

Not quite, says Jesus…
who calls us instead to a life of service,
            to a life dedicated to sharing with him
                        in the raising up of those
who are vulnerable, downtrodden, and bruised
by their experience of life.

Do we think we’re called to proclaim the gospel?
…to see people come to a point of decision
where they choose to follow Jesus themselves?

Not quite, says Jesus…
who calls us instead to lives of faithful proclamation through steadfast service,
            where we echo in our deeds and our words
                        the messiah who recognises the image of God in all those he meets,
and who nurtures the spark of faith wherever it is encountered.

Do we think the call to be fishers of people
            is a call to glorious mission,
            to revival in our time
                        to church growth par excellance?

Not quite, says Jesus…
            who calls us instead to a life of suffering, struggle and stubborn persistence,
                        as we join him in his battle
                        against the principalities and powers
                                    of power and privilege

But let us never be mistaken!
This is a high calling!
             – it is a call to participate in the in-breaking kingdom of heaven
                        which sees release for the captives,
                                    recovery of sight for the blind,
                                                and good news to the poor.

And it is a calling which involves a cost,
which those who hear the call and answer it will have to bear.

And this is where we return to the issue
            of what it is we are called from…

The fishermen in Mark’s gospel were called to abandon their trade,
            they were called to abandon their boats,
                        to abandon their livelihoods.

These fishermen weren’t people who lived in poverty,
            rather, they owned their boats, they could afford to hire day labourers.
They were young men who came from established fishing families,
            where son took over from father,
            and so on down the generations.

And the call from Jesus to break with their past,
            carried for them both economic and social-security implications,
because it was a call which required a fundamental reordering
            of way they lived in the world.

If they were serious about fishing for people,
            if they were serious about joining Jesus
                        in overturning the oppressive structures
of power and privilege,
then the first step in this dismantling of the dominant social order
            must be the overturning of their own ‘world’.

And so what about us?

Are we up for joining Jesus is fishing for people?
            Are we ‘hearing the call’?

Because, if so, there will be a cost to be paid…
            This is a call which will turn our world upside down!

The call to follow Jesus is one which turns on its head
            our attitude towards our possessions
            and our own security.

This isn’t a call ‘out’ of the world,
            but a call to an alternative way of living ‘in’ the world.

It is a call to radically re-orientate ourselves,
            it is an urgent, uncompromising invitation
            to break with ‘business as usual’.
It is a call to take a long hard look at our lives,
            and especially our attitude towards our money, our possessions,
                        our power, and our privilege,
            and to consider whether our behaviour in this regard
                        represents the good news of the kingdom of God
                        that a call to follow Jesus entails.

This call to fish for people, the call to become prophetic fishermen,
            is a call on us all to break with our dependency on material possessions,
                        and to turn our backs on our shared obsession with material gain.

The world of oppression, satanic seduction, and materialism
            is challenged to its core by the call of Jesus.
The kingdom has dawned, and it is at hand,
            and those of us who join with Jesus in the adventure of discipleship,
                        those of us who hear his call,
            become those who live as citizens of this coming kingdom.

And so we learn to fish for people,
            we learn to challenge the powers that be,
            to see kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.

And it begins with us,
            with our attitudes, and our actions,
as we leave our nets and boats,
            and turn to follow the one who calls us.

[1] Stevie Wonder!