The theme of vocation recurs in the readings chosen for the season of Epiphany, helping us build on those of Christmastide and Theophany. We first contemplated the birth of God in us, then deepened this awareness based on God’s self-revelation, and now, we are also beginning to look towards Lent, which will focus our attention on the stance of self-giving – one that is required to transform the mere awareness of God into action. Transfiguration, on the last Sunday before Lent, will drive home the point that in all this, we are being transformed into the likeness of God… and what’s that? Why, Light, of course; first, heralded by the Christmas star and the prolog to John’s gospel. So there you go: a bird’s eye picture of the winter/spring portions of the church year; but for now, we are still exploring this theme of calling and response.
Last week, we read about God calling Jeremiah, and today - Isaiah. Leaving the OT prophets for the time being, let’s look at how Jesus also called his first disciples. In today’s version from Luke, we met the central trio of the 12 – Simon, James, and John – who had been fishing all night, to no avail. In the morning, Jesus sees them from the shore, advises them to put the nets in again, in deep waters, and they are rewarded with a miraculous catch. In Matthew and Mark, we’re not told of these details, only that they left their nets and followed Jesus after the episodes common to the three gospels: baptism - temptation - imprisonment of John the Baptist. And in John’s gospel, we don’t even get the fishing at all! And quite significantly, it’s not Jesus’ words that compel them to follow, but those of John the Baptist that pointed out Jesus as “the Lamb of God”; plus, their own curiosity that prompted them to ask, “Where are you staying?”. What’s common across the gospels, however, is that to follow Jesus, they left what they were doing, and totally changed the focus of their lives. A costly endeavor, to be sure.
For even as we tend to regard Andrew and Simon as “simple” fishermen, they might have been successful businessmen: fish was a staple food, and that from the Sea of Galilee was in demand; though, ever-practical Luke did try to show that every business has its ups and downs! Still, when they followed Jesus, they would have left behind a family-run operation – boats, equipment, and client base – established, perhaps, over the generations. More significantly, they left an occupation in which they were experts, and which allowed them to support their families; that is, a cause of well-earned pride.
As such, I find that the very first cost of changing one’s life is not even the risk and uncertainty. Even before considering these, we might be struck by the perception that all our knowledge and experience accumulated previously is irrelevant to the future, and therefore, is wasted. Is that the reason Jesus tells the brothers, “now you will be fishers of men”? To indicate that they will still take some of their people-skills developed in the market square, and personal qualities honed at sea, and make use of them even in their new life? With God, no experience is ever wasted. Personally, I have felt affirmed in this insight after my own career change from the academic world to that of the church. What have you accomplished, and what do you seek? How can one support the other?
True, God will take us into some deep waters to help us trust him. He might even give us extraordinary success in the old focus of life to remind us that we are, in fact, very good at what we do, that we have these skills worth taking with us into the new focus, and that we can do even better with him. But, he doesn’t necessarily want us just to keep hauling in the fruits of our first endeavors. What’s also true is that it took time for “Simon” to become “Peter’; to go from hearing God’s calling to becoming the rock upon which generations of believers then stood to hear theirs. But, Jesus had renamed him before any of this took place, in anticipation of him growing, changing, and succeeding.
Mind you, success in the gospel sense might look different from that of our hopes, and achievements. Still, as I said earlier, all important experiences have the potential to feed into one’s true vocation; and so I don’t think that following Jesus means totally going into the wilderness. It is so for the minority of us, but most of us can accomplish more in the area of “fishing for people” right here where we are – provided that we are willing to go deeper into the waters of our relationships, charity, and self-giving.
I’ll end by saying that this fishing episode was certainly not the last one in the lives of Jesus’ friends. I imagine that they still fished from time to time over the three years that followed, to augment the hospitality and financial contributions of Jesus’ supporters (many of them female!). But more significantly, after Jesus died, and everything related to their journey with him seemed lost, they were able to reclaim their life’s purpose. Yes, it meant first going right back to where he first found them. It is then, in the again ordinary context of daily living, that the risen Christ appeared to them, fed them a very non-miraculous breakfast of grilled fish, and thereby made apostles out of disciples. And it is so for us. The periods of intense spiritual learning may lead us to extraordinary places, but they are always followed by the return to Galilee, where the true work is cut out for us. If you read 1 Cor 15:4-8 and other texts closer, Jesus didn’t actually stay with his friends continually over the 40 days following his death – I used to think so – but, in that period, he appeared to them in visions, from time to time. It may be helpful for us to hold on to this idea because it means that 2000 year later, we can have similar experiences of Jesus, and we do not need his physical presence to sustain our faith. Have you ever seen a vision of Christ? Maybe it was while sleeping, maybe waking… but most usually, it is either in the face of another, or within your own heart, continually transformed into God's likeness by mercy and grace. Amen.