Discerning the Call of Christ

The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew by James Tissot (1886-1894)

Epiphany 3B 2021
Rev. Doug Floyd
Jeremiah 3:19–4:4, Psalm 130, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Mark 1:14-20

In our Epiphany readings this year, we’re hearing how Jesus called the disciples. In today’s reading, Jesus is passing along the Sea of Galilee. He sees Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea. Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately, they got up and followed him. Then when he comes to James and John, a similar thing happens. 

There’s a little clue here in the text that James and John are wealthy. They’re from a different social status than Simon and Andrew, because it says, “And going a little farther he saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John, his brother who were in their boats, mending their nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee, and their hired servants and followed him,” so most likely their father had a fishing business. They were probably the people who lived, and were of the priestly class, so you have two sets of disciples getting up and following Jesus.

We hear a text like this and are provoked to follow Jesus. What does it mean to “Follow me?” What does it mean to follow Jesus? It was pretty clear for them. They got up and left their nets and followed him. It’s the story of one of the early saints, St. Anthony. He was a wealthy man. He’s passing by a church, he hears the sermon, and they’re preaching on the rich young ruler where Jesus says, “Sell everything you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” Anthony proceeds to do that. He makes provisions for his sister, and liquidates his assets, and then goes into the desert, and essentially becomes the first desert monk.

That’s a wonderful story in one sense, and he inspired a whole movement in the church. When we hear texts like this, we may wonder what does it mean for us to follow Jesus? Does that mean we have to liquidate everything we own, and live some kind of itinerant lifestyle, wandering the land? For some people that has been their sense of calling. Some people have been very certain that Jesus called them to do some very unusual things, even, if you’re familiar with some folk, religious people feel called to actually be crucified again. Hung up on the cross, somehow to identify with Jesus. Our own personal attempt to interpret these texts, sometimes people have taken them in usual ways.

How do we hear the call of Christ to “Follow me?” How do we obey it? How do we discern what that call means in our own lives? This is part of the challenge, actually, of the church. Dallas Willard once said, “If you throw a retreat on knowing the will of God, it’s always going to be a sellout crowd.” Everybody always wants to know, what is the will of God? How do I know it? What’s the secret. How do I tap into the mystery of knowing the will of God. I thought I might reflect on this notion of following Christ, just briefly.

One part of our Gospel text is repeated throughout our lives. Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” The way of the Christian, and the way of faith is a way of repentance. It’s a way of turning. Sometimes the word repentance gets associated with guilt, like you should feel guilty about what you’ve done. Certainly, when I’ve done something wrong, I might feel convicted, but repentance is not specifically attached to feeling. It’s specifically attached to turning, to responding to Christ as he calls me. It is a life of turning, a life of repentance, a life of tenderness, so a life of confession. We have regular confession of sin each week and each morning.

This is part of the pattern of repentance. It’s just a gentle, ongoing process of turning. It doesn’t always mean people falling down at the altar crying. It could mean that, but it doesn’t always mean that. A. W. Tozer, famously said, “That self thrives the most at the altar, when he’s down on his knees in tears, and when he’s behind the pulpit.” Two places self loves to glory in his own self, as opposed to glorying the Lord. I could do all those acts and have no heart turned toward the Lord, so repentance is not associated, necessarily, with feeling an emotional response, or feeling somehow guilty about things. It is more about trying to turn to Christ and discern what he is stirring in my heart. It is turning to Christ and confessing my own desperate need for his mercy and grace.

It is turning to Christ in his Word. He is addressing me in the text, and so whenever I read it, the word, the Lord of the Word, or the actual Word of God is addressing me in the Scriptures. I am encountering Christ. It’s a personal encounter. This is the second aspect of trying to discern the call of Christ, and this is part of, I think, our lectionary readings. Sometimes the readings don’t even seem to connect. You have three lectionary readings each week. Then if you do a daily office, you also have three lectionary readings, or sometimes you might have two in the morning, one at night. We are being immersed in the text.

There are multiple ways people read the Bible. One way people read the Bible is called proof texting. Trying to prove a point through the text and collecting a series of references. Sometimes you see a little guide on Scripture references. Here’s five scriptures on praying, which is fine on one level, but on another level it’s teaching me not to read the text. It’s just teaching me to pull out highlights. What happens is, you can begin to prove some pretty odd ideas when you treat the Bible that way. I try to just gather up a bunch of texts and try to prove a point. Proof texting is not actually how I’m supposed to read the scripture, not how the Church Fathers read the scripture. It is encountering the whole counsel of God in the text, which is difficult.

Reading the Old Testament is difficult for our contemporary culture, but it could be difficult in any age. Many people don’t like to read the Old Testament. I’ve talked to people over the years who love reading the New Testament, or even maybe Paul’s letters, because they’re very clear. On the other hand, they feel that spending an extended time with the Book of Judges could be depressing. It’s a dark book. Humans are at their very worst. The people of God are doing awful things, and awful things are happening. When you read it, you’re like, “I can’t even believe this is in the Bible, some of these stories. They’re so horrible.” Why would I read the Old Testament when it has such peculiar stories that we don’t always understand? Because I’m learning the way the Lord communicates even in a broken world, even to his chosen. He communicates primarily through these ancient stories and songs and wisdom writings and more. We need the whole counsel.

The text is reshaping my imagination. If I get in the habit of reading through the whole Bible, over time, I’ve become sensitive to rhythms in Scripture. Now, when we talk about the call of God and the call to follow him, we can begin to meditate on how it’s actually happening throughout Scripture and how different people are following him. Different people struggle to follow him and struggling to understand what it means to follow him. Abraham is constantly struggling with it, and he’s the icon of following the voice of God, and yet he’s struggling on what it means, and why God hasn’t moved. I can find inspiration by reading these stories and they begin to reshape my imagination, which is actually what Scripture’s doing.

Some people have talked about if we wrote the Bible, we might shorten it and we might write some kind of instruction manual, but that’s not what we’re given. This is not an instruction manual. It doesn’t work like that. We’re not given something that has, “Here’s five points that you need to know for healing. Five points you need to know for prosperous life.” That’s not the kind of Bible we’re given. We’re given a book full of stories, ancient stories, ancient characters, that are sometimes obscure. The story of Job was so odd and strange. I may have mentioned it here before, but years ago I did a kind of Bible study on Job. We started out with 25 people. Six months later, there were about three of us. I say it was the Bible study that drove people away from the Bible.

Job deals with some really difficult questions, and in fact, it’s one of the most contemporary books in Scripture. It’s probably the oldest book in the Bible, but it deals with questions that are very real today, existential struggles. We need books like Job, we need that kind of wisdom. We need to hear the whole story, and the lectionary can give us a good overall picture. The daily lectionary, now, I think we have this two-year lectionary, or a one-year lectionary. We have two options in 2019 prayer book, but the two-year lectionary’s supposed to give me a pretty good reading of the whole Scripture. It may not hit every single text, but it gives me a pretty good reading. Or I might simply have a reading plan where I read through the Bible in a year.

Actually, the most dramatic form of Bible study that I could do is simply to read it. Not necessarily with a guide, just to read it. I found, with my nephew and his friend, we had met for several years, and all we do is just read it out loud. We read the text out loud and hear it. Reading it out and hearing it. Last year, our Anglican Reading Group discussed, Robert Louis Wilkin’s book, The Spirit of the Early Christian Church. One of the points that Wilkin makes is that these men were immersed in scripture.

They don’t cite verse and text whenever they write their theology, but you can hear it everywhere. Everywhere you turn, you can hear them quoting the text. They’re alluding to it constantly, because they have so immersed themselves. They are immersed in the text, and it is shaping their imagination. It is shaping their memories, and in that sense it’s a pattern that ancient Israel follows. 

The festivals of ancient Israel are rehearsing stories of God’s redemption, but these festivals are agricultural festivals. They’ve taken agricultural, every one of them were agricultural festivals that other cultures would have also been following. 

Israel connects each agricultural festival to a historical event. From the early harvest to the later harvest, the end harvest of the year, they’re rehearsing God’s redemptive act. They’re rehearsing the story of God redeeming them from slavery in Egypt. These festivals, even as they’re giving thanks to God for providing food from the ground, they’re also giving thanks to God for rescuing them, so that you can go three, four, or five generations away from Exodus, and they will say, “I was a slave in Egypt.” They have so identified with the stories, and they are taught to be this way, that they will identify, “I was a slave.” The memory is that real to them.

That is, in a way, how we’re told to read Scripture. As I read these ancient stories, I’m trying to learn how to realize this is telling my story. Moses is our ancestor, Abraham and his words. Children of faith, children of Abraham by faith. These are our stories and somehow I’m bound up in these stories, and so it begins to reshape the way I think about God’s action in the world. What this begins to do is teach me a way of wisdom to discern the voice of God. Otherwise, we can be confused. 

For example,  if we take Mark’s text this morning, Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they immediately leave what they’re doing and go start something else. We compare that to Paul’s text this morning, where he says, “I want you to stay in the same place you were when you were called. If you were a slave, I want you to stay a slave. If you have a chance to get free, go ahead and get free, but I want you to say there. If you were uncircumcised, stay uncircumcised. If you’re circumcised, stay that way. I want you to stay in the same condition you were, when you were called.” Well, it sounds like the two texts are almost conflicting with each other. They’re not, but that’s what it would sound like if I’m just comparing texts.

Part of what I need to do is have the wisdom of God to understand how these texts communicate with each other. How God might working, when he calls us. For instance, one of the things Paul will say earlier in the passage, from what we’ve read today is, if you’re married to an unbeliever, you’ve come to faith, but if the person you’re married to someone who hasn’t come to faith, don’t leave them. You might be their means of redemption.

That’s part of this idea of staying where you are. Learning to understand what is it God’s doing. Maybe in a place, maybe you’re working a job and you hate that job. It is possible that the job is very place where the gift of the spirit are going to be revealed in your lives. That’s one way of beginning to think about Paul’s idea. We must learn to discern, what is the place where God has called me. This struggle, this uncomfortable situation.

Following Christ, in that sense, is learning to discern whether he’s calling me to stay or go, not everybody is actually going to follow St. Anthony. In fact, most people are not going to do the same as St. Anthony, and go into the desert and live. Some people, if they did that, it wouldn’t be a good idea, but St. Anthony, if you read the story, he’s in the desert for two weeks, he’s fighting with demons. He almost goes crazy. Then, of course, he leads a whole movement of people that go into the desert. If we continue to read the story of the Desert Fathers, or the great hermits of faith, eventually all of them have to participate in the church community. They never live in the community.

They need the counsel and the accountability of the saints, so this is one other aspect of following Christ, is when Christ calls me, he calls me into a community of faith, into a people, which is one of the greatest struggles, I think, in the contemporary world, is a tendency to believe my faith operates independent of the church community. 

This actually is something Luther was concerned about, if you read Alister McGrath’s book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. Luther was afraid that people might misunderstand what he was teaching, and it would cause them to disassociate themselves from the church and assume that their salvation worked independent of other Christians, which is never the way the church understood that, but Luther was afraid that’s what his idea would lead to. Actually that is exactly, if we look at 20th century America, 21st century America, many people, their notion of faith is independent of the church.

In the ’80s, there was a sociological study by a guy named Robert Bellah, and they interviewed people all across America, north, south, east, west, and asked them about their faith, what they believe. He wrote a book called Habits of the Heart, and in the book, he said that, In America, religion is not getting weaker, it’s getting stronger. Americans are more religious than ever. He says that the primary religion in America is the religion of self-worship.” Everyone worships themselves, regardless of what church they go to, or whether they go to a… If they’re involved in an Eastern thing, some Eastern mysticism or Christian churches, he said, “The consistent idea we got from interviewing them was that they most interested in self satisfaction. One girl said, “I’m Jane, and Jane-ism is my religion.” He said that her statement was the best definition they heard of American religion was that the tendency to think of their own faith independent of anyone else.

Part of the wisdom of following Christ is the challenge of living in community with other people, and the struggle of being in a community conflicts, but also the gift of being able to share in conversation and learn from counsel of one another. These are all ways of wisdom. They’re all ways we can begin to discern the voice of God, which often can be difficult to us. 

We can grow in wisdom and discerning the voice of God by reading and meditating upon Scripture, by developing a tender heart through a life of confession and repentance, by calling upon Him in prayer, through communion with other believers, and finally by obeying what He calls us to do. In these ways, we begin to cultivate an ear to hear the call of God.

It helps bring clarity as we listen together. Then you begin to have a sense of what it means to follow Christ wherever he may lead. He may lead people in all sorts of ways. Some people may actually have a sense of being called to the other side of the world, and other people, many other people, may have a realization of how their present circumstances actually is a vital mission field to reveal Christ and his gospel.

In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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