The Calling of First Disciples

The readings between Epiphany and Lent tend to focus on revelation, vocation, and beginning. Last week, we reflected on the baptism of Jesus as the inaugural event in his ministry, and today, we are looking at how it began for his first followers – the two curious Galileans who approached Jesus to learn more, perhaps, as intrigued by the Baptist’s words, “behold the Lamb of God.” One of these men is unnamed, but could have been John, the only disciple that the Fourth Gospel never mentions by name and whose identity is traditionally linked with the so-called Beloved Disciple. The second was Andrew the Protokletos (“First Called”), who then invited his brother Simon (i.e., “the one who hears”) who later became called Peter (i.e., “the rock”).  

So, Andrew and the unnamed man came to Jesus to “inquire where he was staying”; that is, they politely asked to be his students. In those days, that’s how the rabbis acquired their disciples in general: not through advertising or active recruitment, but by accepting those who came to them on their own initiative. Not everyone would be accepted, of course; and Jesus did turn down others eager to  “follow wherever he went,” by saying, for example, “foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”… that is, “no place for YOU to see” (maybe!). But, for better or for worse, and following a period of prayer in the mountains when he had probably already pondered his admission strategy, Jesus chose to give these to an entrance exam that consisted of one question: “What do you seek?” Not, “Whom do you seek?”, but “What do you seek?” Not at all unfriendly; merely inviting them to crystallize what they really wanted to do “when they grew up” – and, at what cost. We now know the cost; to them, John the Baptist, and Jesus. But none of them knew it yet; and nor would a first-time reader of the gospel know what the phrase “behold the Lamb of God” truly meant. Not until its very end, that is, when the author adjusts the timing of Jesus’ death to fit his message. For it is only in John that Jesus dies on the day BEFORE the Passover meal was to be eaten – in other words, as the sacrificial lambs in the Temple were also being slaughtered. Quite a departure from the earlier accounts, in which Jesus and his friends would have already eaten some lamb, bread, and wine by the time he died on the day AFTER Passover. Theology and history do not always align; regardless, we now know what the future held for Jesus. But Andrew, Simon, and “the third guy” were yet to discover this, and John would himself die before he found out.

Nonetheless, they could anticipate the price of “going back to school”. We tend to overestimate the early disciples’ skills in some areas (such as the literacy level required to write the NT texts!), and at the same time, underestimate what it took to function as successful fishermen. Yes, family boats, established clientele base, equipment, etc. Even more significantly, it was considerable skill and expertise that provided a source of both income and pride. All of this would be traded for an unknown, and lots of learning. I’ve made such a change once, and I know that some of you have done so also.

Sometimes, what precludes us from making such a change from one career path to another is the perception that the knowledge and experience we had accumulated is irrelevant to the new occupation, and therefore, wasted. Is that why Jesus tells the brothers, in Mark, “now you will fish for men”? Was it to indicate that even in their new life, they would still have to rely on their personal qualities honed at sea, and people skills developed in the market square? With God, no experience is wasted, and I have, in fact, found my academic skills to be quite useful in ministry. But even if you haven’t had to alter your entire career to match your passion, you know that any kind of change – systemic, personal or organizational – involves an investment and shift in priorities. 

Indeed, it was not overnight that “Simon” became “Peter”. But, Jesus named him as such ahead of time because he expected him to grow. What does it take? Well, first for someone to pique your interest, teach you all they know, and then guide you to learn from someone else – that’s what John did for Andrew. But sometimes, it also takes a brother to invite you to come along and learn together from the same teacher. For without Andrew, who pretty well disappears from the NT after this point, there would be no Peter, who is one of its key characters. So, would you consider yourself a “John” or “Andrew” in this community? If you don’t know yet, I encourage you to consider how you might either direct others to the resources and teachers you know, or spark an interest in someone to learn more, or simply ask them to accompany you to wherever it is you find nourishment and knowledge. I know that in my time here, I’ve got lots to learn from and with you too (your tourtiere recipe, perhaps! 😀) 

Jokes aside, what is it that YOU seek? Like Andrew, Simon, and “the other guy”, many of us are curious to “see where Christ lives”: to learn about the Bible, emulate its ethics, enjoy spiritual gifts and closeness with God. But, there’s a crucial step that separates Simon from Peter, a follower from an apostle. By definition, a true apostle has seen the resurrected Christ. We are called to notice the “resurrected Christ” – not in the 1st century writings, but in each human being: first, in ourselves (hard enough!), and then somehow in other people (even the ones who are different, or unlikable). Let us go there, to that next level, whatever that means for each of us, so that in the words of St Paul, “the knowledge of every kind, and the testimony of Christ, may be strengthened among us, so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift”. Thanks be to God. 

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