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Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). Returning God's Call was published in l989 by Westminster/John Knox Press. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Chapter 1: Hearers of the Call (I Corinthians 1:1-2, 9, 26a)


Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Jesus Christ... to the church of God. . . to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. . -. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. - . consider your call.

-- I Corinthians 1:1 -- 2, 9, 26a

What metaphor of the Christian life have you chosen? We act out the images we have of ourselves. The way we see ourselves as Christians determines how we behave. A picture is not only worth a thousand words, it is the parent of a thousand deeds. Do you see yourself a soldier in God's army? A sister or a brother in faith's extended family? A scholar in the school of Christ? A traveler along the Christian way? Each of these metaphors has served Christians well. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, used the military metaphor with great effect; slum dwellers of nineteenth-century London found the discipline of a soldier to be strong armor against the pull of a former life. The ex-soldier Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, modeled his society after military ideas. There are Latin American priests who see themselves as chaplains to God's guerrilla army of liberation.

The idea of the Christian fellowship as a heavenly family housed on earth has a long history. The Shakers saw one another as brothers and sisters in a surrogate family; no wonder they were able so easily to adopt orphans into their communities. Roman Catholics call their priest Father; in their religious orders are Brothers and Sisters.

Life in Scottish Presbyterian parishes of a previous generation was very much like being in school:

The pastor was teacher in residence; sermons were long and scholarly; when the pastor visited a home, he tested the children's knowledge of the church catechism. Andrew Murray, a Scottish-trained missionary, named his devotional classic With Christ in the School of Prayer.

In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan captured the imaginations of many generations with his image of the Christian life as a journey. In his contemporary novel The Blue Mountains of China, Rudy Wiebe tells the story of Mennonites who moved from Germany to Russia, China, Canada, and South America -- modern pilgrims in search of religious freedom. One of Wiebe's characters says, "You know the trouble with the Mennonites? They've always wanted to be Jews. To have land God had given them for their very own, to which they were called; so even if someone chased them away, they could work forever to get it back."

The New Testament is not limited to the images of soldier, sibling, scholar, or sojourner. It offers such metaphors of the Christian life as "ambassador for Christ" -- a favorite of evangelicals -- and "citizen of God's commonwealth," a favorite of social activists. Then there is the disciple, the member of Christ's body, the friend of Jesus.

It is the argument of this book, however, that these various metaphors are not as useful for our time as still another: hearers of the call. If we had to select one and only one way of picturing the life of the Christian, it would be the image of one who has heard and keeps hearing a persistent summons to belief and action.

When I was a child, playing hide-and-seek outside in the waning daylight of a summer evening, inevitably our front door would open and my mother's voice would call, "Jack, time to come in!" I would go on with hide-and-seek as though nothing had happened. To anybody passing by, I looked no different from my playmates. But I was different; I had been "called in"; everything was changed. In a similar way Christians -- who may appear no different from others -- have ringing in their ears God's summons to believe and to obey. Henry Thoreau said that some march to a different drummer. Christians do not hear a different drumbeat; they hear Jesus' distant but clear voice saying, "Come, follow me." It sounds over the whir of the lathe, the cry of a baby, the clink of coins, the curses of enemies, the whisper of success, the roar of the crowd, the nagging of conscience. 

An Active Voice

You may object that the metaphor of hearers of the call is too passive, too quiescent. You remember the injunction of the Letter of James: "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only." But in scripture God's call is a powerful spur to action. Moses heard the voice of God in a smoking bush and went off to lead a people out of slavery. Amos left his sycamore trees at the summons of God. We assume that Jesus himself was called to his ministry.

In The Blue Mountains of China, Wiebe tells the story of a Mennonite farmer named Sam Reimer. One night Sam hears a voice saying to him, "Samuel, Samuel. . . I am the God of your fathers, the Lord your God. Go and proclaim peace in Vietnam." In perplexity, Sam goes to his pastor, who tells him to listen for the voice a second time. The next night the call comes again, but Sam cannot get anyone to believe that he has truly heard God's voice. His pastor won't believe it; neither will his wife or his fellow Mennonites. The Canadian government won't give him a visa to Vietnam; the inter-Mennonite Church Service Society won't help him. Sam's reaction to these rebuffs is to give up hope and die. On his deathbed he says to his wife, "When I heard the voice, I should of gone. Left a note and gone. When you know like that, are chosen, you shouldn't wait, talk. Go."

Fritz Graebe was a civil engineer with the German army in World War II. He said that after witnessing the mass murder of Jewish civilians in the Ukrainian town of Dubno, he heard his mother's voice, saying, "And Fritz, what would you do?" He was not disobedient to that inner call. Fritz Graebe contrived to save the lives of hundreds of Jews.

The prophet Jeremiah tells the inner pain of not obeying the call of God:

If I say, "I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,"
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
- Jeremiah 20:9

 

Right for Our Times

What is so timely about the metaphor of hearers of the call? It has several considerable advantages. First, as we shall demonstrate, it is an extraordinarily rich metaphor; it is applicable to a whole range of settings -- family, piety, economics, missions, stewardship, enmities, caring ministries, marriage. No other single biblical metaphor has such range. The soldier metaphor is fine for warring against injustice, but "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is not to be hummed when you sit down with your spouse to discuss household finances. Family metaphors don't help with civic responsibilities. The scholar metaphor is useful for worship and Bible study, but books like Andrew Murray's With Christ in the School of Prayer don't have much to say about faithfulness in the workplace. The sojourner metaphor, too, is hard to reconcile with domestic responsibilities.

Hearers of the call also puts us in direct line with Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and the apostles, all of whom have this in common: They were summoned by God to fulfill the divine purpose.

Hearers of the call has a particular resonance in our culture, dominated as it is by the mass media. All of us are audiences for television, computer networks, radio, and publishing. We are constantly being studied (by researchers) and wooed (by advertisers and politicos) through the mass media. We live in a world that increasingly organizes us into audiences and wants to deal with us as audiences. Russell Baker, writing in the New York Times (September 30, 1987), said, "Since 1952, the electorate has been treated by politicians less and less as an electorate and more and more as an audience." If we are indeed treated more and more as audience, one of the primary ethical tasks of our time is to sort out the various appeals to our ears.

The metaphor of hearers of the call has one additional advantage, which will be referred to in more detail in chapter 11: It applies to the church as a collective as well as to the individual Christian. One of the considerable threats to the health and welfare of Christianity in our generation is a tendency to individualism. Carl Dudley characterizes the religious attitude of many young adults as "believing but not belonging." This is American individualism at its most typical. If we are to overcome the tendency of our age to privatism, we need metaphors that suggest collective as well as individual obedience and commitment.

We shall test the usefulness of hearers of the call by examining ten "calling" narratives from the Gospel of Matthew. This Gospel is particularly useful for our purpose, for it contains a number of accounts in which Jesus is represented as issuing summonses to various persons: calling fishermen to leave their nets; calling those same fishermen to take up the cross, follow a life of humble service, and go into the world with the good news of the kingdom. Some scholars say that Matthew was written as a Christian handbook, a manual of discipline. If so, that makes it particularly useful as a source for examining various calls to discipleship.

Another feature of Matthew invites the attention of those who want to invest discipleship with new meaning: The Gospel is structured of five large chunks of Jesus' teaching, each preceded by narrative. John Meier calls these five discourses "the five pillars of the Gospel." The author of Matthew was most likely a Jewish Christian leader of the church in Syria in the late first century A.D., writing at a time when the church had split from the Jewish synagogue and was struggling to define itself. The five pillars and their accompanying narratives suggest that the Gospel writer saw Jesus as a new Moses: As Moses called Israel to leave Egypt and go adventuring in the wilderness, where he delivered to them the commandments of God, so Jesus calls the church to a new obedience, "to boldly go where no one has gone before," in the famous words from Star Trek.

In keeping with the notion that hearers of the call is a collective metaphor, we shall invite to the discussion four authors of popular commentaries on the First Gospel: Jack Dean Kingsbury, an American Protestant and author of Matthew in Proclamation Commentaries (Fortress Press, 1986); David Hill, a Britisher, author of The Gospel of Matthew in the New Century Bible Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972); John P. Meier, an American Roman Catholic, author of Matthew in the New Testament Message Series (Michael Glazier, 1980): and Eduard Schweizer, a Swiss, author of The Good News According to Matthew translated by David Green (John Knox, 1975). Quotations from these four books will be indicated by the author's name and the page reference in parenthesis. 

Christ as God's Call

One further consideration remains, before we look at specific narratives in Matthew. What particular force or import are we to assign to a call from Jesus Christ? Is a call something like a sermon, in which we are exhorted to a new kind of behavior? Is the listing often calls from Jesus an attempt to replace the Ten Commandments with a new table of moral requirements? Is a call something like an invitation to join a party, which we may accept or refuse depending on our mood?

The answer lies in the identity of the one who issues the call. There are various ways in which the identity of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel is described. Some see Jesus presented as the divine Son of God (Kingsbury). Others see him presented to the reader as the Son of man, who will return at the end of time to judge everyone for his or her deeds (Meier). Some see Matthew's Jesus as "Messiah and Son of Man and supremely Lord of the Church" (Hill, p. 43).

As Hans Frei points out in a series of essays in Crossroads, a person's identity is revealed in what he does, how he enacts his intentions. The Jesus we see in Matthew's Gospel is the person who is perfectly obedient to the will of God, so that the one who calls us is the one who himself hears and truly obeys the Father's will. His verbal summons is at one with the example of his life. He is the one of whom the apostle Paul wrote, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:5 -- 8).

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