In a sentence:
To be startled by the call to follow but not by the declaration of forgiveness – this is not yet to be forgiven.
The story of the call of the disciples must be one of the more terrifying passages of the New Testament: ‘…When [the fishermen] had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus’ (Luke 5.11).
If this is intended to demonstrate what it is to be a Christian, it is a very hard word for most people to hear, ourselves included. Yet it is Jesus who makes the call; and we have heard it – some of us – scores or even hundreds of times. To be free to follow – although we romanticise it hopelessly – would this not be marvellous? For many of us, our memories of Sunday School or similar are of heroes and heroines of the faith who seemed to do the kind of thing these disciples did. And yet many of us are not free, at least in the way that the disciples seem to be in the story.
Still we do not despair, for we can rationalise their response to Jesus. Perhaps they heard him many times before and it is just that it is this time, after a long period of reflection, that they happened to put everything down and follow him. Or perhaps it was their understanding of the nature of the world which made the difference. You would be much more likely to drop everything and follow the prophet of the impending doom if you believed that the world was soon coming to an end. Or perhaps the fact that these men didn’t have very much in the first place meant that it was easier for them to cast it all aside. With arguments like this we finally reach a comforting conclusion: they are freer than we because their situation and expectations were quite different from ours: there is no fair comparison to be made between them and us.
Yet this way of thinking denies the text of the Scripture as it stands. If we were supposed to understand that the disciples’ thinking along these lines we might expect that the Scripture would say this but it doesn’t. Instead of trying to explain away the actions of the disciples here we need to shift our focus from a timid hearing of the text to the theological centre of what happens when God meets the world in Christ.
It is our tendency to want to place conditions on our response to God’s call. Yet, while we approach God with our terms and conditions, the church declares that God approaches us unconditionally. There is no calculation on God’s part of achievement, no reckoning of debt or interest or repayment. This is the meaning of the word ‘grace’ which is so loved by Christians.
Now, the question is: despite all of our attempts to rationalise our response to it, can the call to follow – when it comes – also be a word of unconditional grace? When we try to rationalise our response to God’s call, we demonstrate that we hear it only as law – as mere demand, and so as bad news – for rationalisations are simply the application of laws. I suspect that this is typically how we approach the question of God, or God’s questions to us. We hear a command – perhaps to follow Jesus, or even ‘simply’ to believe – as bad news, and we seek to see whether, on balance, we can find any good news in it for ourselves; ‘balance’ is what it all comes to be about.
But, can the call of God be a word of grace and not merely a demanding command? Church talk about God’s ‘unconditional grace’ is usually talk about our access to God: by grace we are free to approach God. But unconditional grace is not about our access to God – our freedom to find salvation; it is about God’s freedom to find us. There are no conditions which might separate the love of God in Jesus Christ from us, and so no conditions which God has to meet before he may heal us; God’s ability to heal is simply a matter of his choosing to do so.
Now, if God is free to approach us to heal, he is also free to approach us to call; there are no conditions God needs to meet to call us to follow. So we must say not only the part which appeals – that ‘by grace we are saved’. We must also say what unsettles: by grace we are called – the same grace as that by which we are saved.
And it is the same grace. To defend ourselves against God’s freedom to make a claim on us is to deny that we are saved by grace. To say No to the call to obedience – whether it is obedience in dropping everything in response to a ‘special’ call or merely obedience in following God’s ‘standing orders’ – is to deny the salvation by grace we claim so strongly. To be startled by the call to follow but not by the declaration of forgiveness – this is not yet to be forgiven. To be uninspired by the direct call of God is to have become bored with his forgiveness.
To be called to follow, then – to be commissioned to ‘fish for people’ – this is the shape of healing and forgiveness from God. There is no forgiveness which then seeks an action in response – which looks for something to do – and actually might not get around to finding an action; the one who knows herself forgiven is the one who is free to respond to God’s call. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ cries the frightened Simon Peter after the great and unexpected haul of fish. But the decision of Simon to follow Jesus is the response of a confessed sinner who nevertheless has also heard that he is deemed fit for the service of God’s unfolding kingdom. That is, Simon has received God’s welcoming grace in the call to mission: he is commissioned to God’s mission in the word of forgiveness.
This is what we miss in our allergic reaction to the disciples’ following Jesus so seemingly carelessly. ‘From now on you will fish for people’ is not simply a task given to these disciples but the word of acceptance by God – the demonstration of forgiveness. What seems to us to be a careless and risky throwing away of their lives in launching after Jesus is in fact their taking up of the free offer of a share in God’s healing work in the world, a healing which begins with their acceptance of the invitation to participate.
In contrast to the idea that this commissioning is itself the word of forgiveness, our own reality is too often that we freely embrace what we consider the gracious gift of God – his forgiveness – and quickly name as an affliction what we consider the unreasonable conditions of discipleship: that we should follow.
But we explain away the first disciples’ response to Jesus at our own peril, for to save ourselves from participation in God’s mission is to insulate ourselves from God’s salvation. It is the call to be available to God which is the word of forgiveness.
Surprisingly, perhaps, what is needed to be able to say yes to God’s call is a greater sense of our unworthiness: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner’. For the call to service in God’s kingdom would then entail a greater sense of forgiveness, and so of gratitude, and so of freedom to say yes to the one who has given without bounds.
We have heard the response of those few disciples to the call of Jesus, and now it is over to us.
May God’s people not baulk at the invitation to follow but embody the grace of God toward them in service towards others, and this not in fear or resentment but with joy. Amen.