By Elaine Ramshaw
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3, Year B
January 21, 2024
The story of the calling of the fishing brothers away from their business and to follow Jesus provides a good opportunity for the preacher to talk about what it means to be called. This is a core piece of Martin Luther’s radical theological innovation: the understanding of calling or vocation.
Medieval Christianity generally thought of calling, or vocation, as applying only to the few who led lives set apart, dedicated to God’s work: priests, nuns and monks. They have vocations; the rest of us just have jobs or societal roles to fill. Luther brought the church back to an appreciation of the radical calling we all receive in the waters of baptism. In baptism, we are all called to live fully for God and for the neighbor, just as Christ lived fully for God and for us. There is no better or higher calling than that calling we all receive in baptism. We are called to be, as Luther said, “little Christs” for others.
While we current-day Protestant Americans are not so likely to think that only priests, monks and nuns have vocations, we do still tend to restrict the meaning of “vocation” to job. In the United States, the most common introductory question is “what do you do?” This has advantages over some of the introductory questions in other cultures, which tend to slot people by their social origins: “Where did you go to school? Who are your parents and grandparents?” But the common American question, while it allows people to define themselves by what they have made of themselves, does also place an inordinate emphasis on one’s job.
Some in the younger generations who are aware of how hard it can be to find fulfilling work have tried to replace this question with another when they meet new people. The American focus on work as identity runs deep, though. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we ask of children, and we usually expect the child to name a job.
Luther’s understanding of vocation, though, includes “non-churchy” jobs along with “churchy” ones, but it does more. Our baptismal calling involves how we do our job, but it also includes how we live in all our relationships and how we live as citizens and members of communities, how we take care of all that God has given into our care: children and needy neighbors, animals and land. Stewardship in the broadest and deepest sense is at the heart of each Christian’s baptismal calling. The core measure of our calling is how and what we live for—for God, for others, for the good of all that God made and has placed in our care.
In other words, the core measure of calling, in work, in relationships, in citizenship, is love. Sometimes that looks most like tender care of a loved one; sometimes it looks most like working for justice in the workplace or in our communities; sometimes it looks most like sharing our goods to address the needs of others near or far away. All of that is the one calling, to live as Christ in the world.
In baptism Christ calls us all to follow him, not necessarily to be itinerant preachers and healers as he called the disciples, not necessarily to be clergy or monastics, but definitely to love God and neighbor, to live fully in such a way that all might live fully.
A focus on calling as living for God/others/nature creates a natural link between our baptismal calling and stewardship. Worship usually begins with a return to baptism, either in confession and absolution or in baptismal remembrance; possibly this Sunday that piece of the service might be moved to after the Gospel and sermon, in order to use the symbols from the Gospel reading. Invite people to name for themselves what they are being asked to leave behind in order to live fully for God and for the good of others and the world. Attachments to possessions (as Paul said in today’s New Testament lesson)? Addictions? Worry about how others see us? Other people’s expectations about who we should be? Fear of failure? Pray to leave our nets behind. Then sprinkle them with water from the font (you might get responsible kids to help you do this) and invite them to listen for God calling them to live freely and vitally for the good of God’s world. What do they hear God calling them to be, and give, and do?
There’s an excellent retelling of the story of the call of James and John from today’s Gospel in Adam’s New Friend and Other Stories from the Bible by David and Carol Bartlett (Judson Press, 1980). Carol Bartlett had lots of educational experience, and David Bartlett was a New Testament scholar who later was the Academic Dean of Yale Divinity School. The two-page story “Two Brothers” brings to life how long James and John had worked and dreamed towards becoming fishermen themselves: growing big and strong, learning how to fish, earning enough money to buy a boat. This makes vividly clear what all they left behind to follow Jesus. The story works well as a children’s sermon. It’s a fine story to get children thinking about what it means to be called, and whether they and the people they know are called by Jesus, and how they respond to that call. The basics of each and every calling, the calling each of us receives in baptism (by the water!) is that we are called to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Teenagers may relate especially to the fact that the sets of brothers whom Jesus calls to follow him and leave their nets had all been working in the family business, doing what their families and their communities expected them to do. How might we be called in our baptism to do and be something our family and our community never expected? Can the teens think of examples of people who lived out their calling to love God and the world by ditching familial and communal expectations and doing something radically or subtly different? Tell them about Francis, and how he literally stripped himself of his father’s riches and expectations and headed out to live a Gospel-focused life with a new community. Think of young people who refused to fight even in “popular” wars due to their Gospel convictions, or of those who reject parentally-pushed careers bearing money and status to work for nonprofits, to protect the environment, or to teach in public schools.