Whenever there is a biblical account of a prophet or a disciple being “called” (RCL Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and John 1:29-42) I get excited and a little apprehensive. For lots of reasons. Excited because the idea of being called – in particular and to something particular – is part of the heroic journey (or the faith equivalent). I am also often a little envious and apprehensive partly because the call always seems so clear for them. Which is not how many of us experience things. Indeed it is often only when looking back that we have some certainty about it all.
But as I have grown older and been on the faith journey longer I have some questions about portraying the call as a once only event to a singular course of action. I have come to understand the call as the essential calling of us into life that is about our most essential nature yearning for and seeking what is essential in life and the world around us and recognising that as responding to the call of God to be our God given selves.
The call of brothers Andrew and Peter in the account by St John is interesting in that it does seem to be described more as a process than a single moment of decision making. They seem to have already been seekers, they were out in the wilderness to see and hear John the Baptiser, not Jesus. They seem to have stumbled across Jesus and mainly because John the Baptiser points him out. And I do like that they get to come look and check out Jesus first. Which seems utterly reasonable to me. In some ways their pattern of discerning a call and then responding does seem to be a little bit closer to the meandering paths some of us have followed.
It is also of course a story of the call of God upon our lives. It can be understood conventionally as the call to discipleship and it is this but it is also good to hear the call in the broadest deepest terms possible. God’s call is always, I believe, in the first instance and at the deepest level, to be creatures who know their loving Creator. The call of God at it’s simplest is to be in loving communion. The call of God is therefore universal in this respect – all living creatures are called. The call of God throbs through all creation and is inbuilt into the nature of all things. As the mystics tell us we are restless for God until we rest in God.
God’s call is also personal. You and I are called personally, individually, specifically. In the language of Isaiah and the psalmist we have been called since before our birth, we have been named and formed in the womb by God. Being called is integral to what we are and to who we are. God knows our true name and our true nature and calls us by this.
In some spiritual traditions naming a child, or choosing a new name at a significant time, takes on much more significance than it tends to for us where we choose a favourite relative or movie stars name for our baby. We know that in some traditions a child is not named until the natural world has revealed the infant’s totem. Or when people take religious vows they sometimes give up their birth name and take a new name.
And part of the personal nature of the call of God is that we are called to a specific task or role or way of being. Isaiah was called to be a prophet, to have a mouth like a sharp sword. Andrew and Simon Peter were called to be disciples of Jesus. Someone else is called to be a midwife, a doctor, a farmer. Another is called to be a mother of such mothering love that not only her own children but the whole neighbourhood are nurtured by her cooking, advise giving, listening and encouraging. We are called to be who we most truly are.
Now all this might sound like the call of God is an easy thing. Well, being human we manage to make sure that we don’t experience it as an easy thing, not most of us anyway. Which is one of the reasons I suspect that we are given travelling companions. Because the call is to us personally and in relationship with others. Note how it is John the Baptiser who alerts his disciples and audience to Jesus. And how Andrew tells his brother. We must each respond to the call or not but we are also bound up in this together and deeply connected in our common struggle to know God. If we think back upon our own journey there will those who have been pivotal in our life of faith.
And thirdly in the story of John the Baptiser we have a rather confusing and difficult truth about the spiritual life. That is, that one can only take the spiritual journey one step at a time as we see and hear the call and it can seem to change direction on us. In this account the disciples who follow Jesus, including the greatest of them all, were initially followers of John the Baptist! Did they wonder if they had got it wrong? They had seen and heard John the Baptist and decided that this is where God wanted them to be. And then along comes Jesus and they leave John and follow Jesus. What was that like for the disciples? And what was that like for John? Does their later decision make their first decision invalid? Not necessarily.
As I have been reflecting on all this I remembered my initial surprise to be called to the priesthood because I had always felt that social work was my vocation. I had assumed it would last a life time and I was very surprised when God called me to something else. And yet looking back it is a perfectly logical path. There is nothing I learnt in social work that I don’t use as a priest.
Like John’s two disciples that later become followers of Jesus I have followed other spiritual paths and been deeply informed by the wisdom of other traditions only to see Jesus walk by, or to hear him speak, and to pick up and follow where I would not have expected to go. As individuals we should trust God’s call as it unfolds in our lives. And as church we should be more trusting of those who have had different paths to this place than ourselves.
The claim of God among us, Jesus the Christ, the Lamb of God, is to celebrated, engaged with and shared with others. Sometimes the call is quiet, sometimes thunderous. Always insistent. Always calling us home.