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 2: The Call to Adventure (Matthew 4:17-22)
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. -Matthew 4:17-22
Christianity began as a workingman's religion. No, that is not the gospel according to Marx; it is the Gospel According to Matthew. Matthew tells us that immediately after Jesus began a public preaching ministry, he took four fishermen as his apprentices. He was walking by the Sea of Galilee and spied Andrew and Peter casting their nets. He called them to follow him, promising to make them fishers of men. In Matthew's Gospel, then, linked tightly together are Jesus' ringing pronouncement, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," and his invitation to the fishermen, "Follow me."
Matthew's narrative wastes no time in describing how the new movement grew: Brothers Peter and Andrew left their nets to go with Jesus. And as the three were going along the shore together, they came upon three other fishermen -- Zebedee and his two sons, James and John. Jesus called the two brothers also; they left their father in the boat and went with Jesus and the others. A carpenter's son and four fishermen -- that was the beginning of the Christian church, as Matthew tells the story. Quite literally, the church began as a workingman's movement.
And where the church has prospered it has, in some measure, remained a workingman and workingwoman's movement. It has kept tightly linked Jesus' pronouncement of the impending kingdom of God and the call to working people to follow him who inaugurates that kingdom.
That should not be interpreted as a partisan political statement. Long before critics invented the sociological concept of the working class there were two kinds of people in the world, those who worked for a living and those who did not. The Christian church has always done better among those who have worked for a living. When it has catered to men and women of leisure, it has gone to seed. And, like winged dandelion seed, it has been carried about by shifting winds of change, following now this fad, now that. For what have people of leisure to do but seek the latest fancy? The fate of the church that forgets its working class roots was never better described than in this poem by Elmer F. Suderman:
Here they come,
my lazy daisies,
their dainty perfume
disturbing the room
the succulent smell
seductive as hell
Here they are,
my pampered flamboyants,
status spoiled, who bring
with exquisite zing
their souls spick and span
protected by Ban,
their hearts young and gay
decked in handsome cliche,
exchanging at my call
with no effort at all
worship for whispering,
God for gossiping,
theology for television.
Baptized in the smell
of classic Chanel
I promote their nod
to a jaunty God
who, they are sure,
is a sparkling gem
superbly right for them.
There they go,
my soft-skinned crowd,
my sun-tanned, so-so
suave, cool, adorable
Wherever the church allows "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" to be separated from Jesus' call to working people to follow him, the game is up. The vital nerve of the Christian movement has been severed. The positive proof of this negative judgment is the enormous appeal of Methodism to the English working classes of the eighteenth century. An Anglican church that had become the private club of landed and titled people had run out of energy. When the Wesleyans went with the gospel to working men and women, the church in England experienced a great revival.
The affinity of the gospel and of the working class lies in this: Any religion that does not get at the working core of persons will not have much hold on them. For a religion to succeed, it must in some way claim the working hours of its adherents. It must win what Wayne Gates aptly calls "the vocational heart of the person's being." Some religions, it is true, succeed precisely by helping persons forget the misery and drudgery of daily toil; but such faiths provide a means for coping with work, they do not ignore it.
It has been the particular genius of Christianity never to forget that it began as a working-man's religion. Enormous vitality has flowed from the coupling of daily work to faith in a better future. Ann Lee, who founded the movement known as Shakers, said of her conversion, "I gave my heart to God and my hands to work." From the belief of the Shakers that every daily chore was a service done unto God flowed their superb craftsmanship.
Therefore, just as it is important for Americans to face backward and to take their bearings from the Declaration of Independence, so Christians need from time to time to examine their charter. The account of the Calling of the Fishermen, standing at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, serves as a charter for the Christian movement. Two things in particular need to be recalled about that narrative.
Work and Religion
Jesus' call to the four Galileans served to make neither a religion of work nor a work of religion. He said to them neither "Follow me, and I will make you better fishermen" nor "Follow me, and never again will you have to fish for a living." Jesus' call should not be interpreted to mean either that work has henceforth a sacred quality to it or that being a follower of Jesus is a full-time occupation that replaces the necessity to work as others do.
Some would make of the Calling of the Four a holy baptism of daily work; they would use it to mark work as sacred to Christ. Jesus called four callus-handed fishermen to be his disciples, goes the argument; therefore, work is what fits persons for the kingdom of God. Jesus came to the workplace to find disciples; those who are in the workplace stand on hallowed ground. True, there have been times in Christendom when an occupation was regarded as one's high and holy calling from God, and this account of the calling of the fishermen was used to justify that view. Housewives cooked and cleaned to the glory of God; farmers plowed to the glory of God. In effect, Jesus' call made a religion of work.
However, more often the opposite interpretation of Matthew 4:18-22 is given: All who would be truly Christian must forsake ordinary employment and become full-time workers for the Lord. Their total time and energy is to be given to making converts for the faith. Appeals to young people to enlist in church occupations -- which are described as full-time Christian service -- are based on this same text. In this view, religion becomes work. The pursuit of religious faith for oneself and of converts for the movement is regarded as the highest understanding of work.
While both notions of the proper relationship of faith and work have some validity, the story of the Call of the Fishermen cannot be used to support either view. The effect of Jesus' call was not to make Andrew, Peter, James, and John full-time Christian workers, nor was it to make daily work a sacrament. Look again at the narrative.
Jesus appears by the sea and calls to four young men to follow him. Andrew and Peter respond by abandoning-for the moment-the tools of their trade. "They left their nets and followed him." The other two brothers run off and leave their father to manage the family fishing business all by himself. There is no way to read this narrative as a glorification of work! If anything, the story teaches quite the opposite. It shows five young Galileans, under the banner of God's kingdom, going off on a lark, leaving the older folks to do their chores. Shades of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn!
But if the story cannot be used to make a religion of work, neither ought it be used to make a work of religion. "Fishers of men" clearly implies some kind of task. It is not simply to be with Jesus and enjoy his company that the four are summoned. There is a purpose in their calling; there is work to be done; there is a goal, which will require as much or more energy than hauling nets and cleaning fish.
But if the narrative serves to make neither a religion of work nor a work of religion, what is its effect? Matthew 4:17-22 gently pries apart work and faith so that work can be seen for what it is: a part of God's creation but nothing sacred in and of itself. The narrative serves as a gentle reproof of two popular misunderstandings: (1) that the life of faith is all work and no play, and (2) that work is faith in action. However popular these notions maybe, both are heretical. Neither represents the biblical understanding of our work and God's work.
God's Work and Ours
According to scripture, work is an essential and necessary part of human life -- no more, no less. Let us say once more, for emphasis, what we have already said about the Call of the Fishermen: Jesus' summons to a life of faith and obedience desacralizes work. It was the fishermen, not their boats and nets, that Jesus wanted. Those things are holy that are set apart for special use by the Deity. In this particular narrative the fishermen alone were set apart for God's special use.
It may be said of the four that once they had followed the trade of fishing, but no more. Henceforth they followed Jesus. You and I, who believe in Jesus Christ and count ourselves his disciples, are not to follow a trade or profession as though it were the Holy Grail. We are to follow Jesus. Work is to take a secondary role in our lives. If Christ is truly our Master, then work cannot be equally important. We may be engaged in work, but never married to it. And whenever we are pressed or tempted to make work supreme, we are to recall the story of the four fishermen. We are to remember how they left their nets and their boats to go and be with Jesus, to do what he would have them do.
If work is not to command all our time and energy and devotion, what is left? Work is part of God's ordering of creation; it belongs to our humanity that we work. To be a human being is to work. It is that simple -- and that profound. In the second chapter of Genesis it says that after God created the garden, the human was put in it to tend it and till it. In the very beginning of things human beings are pictured as stewards of creation. The first human being was an ecologist. Even before Adam became a husband, he was a husbandman. Not a creature with no responsibilities and no tasks, like the other animals, but one put on earth as in a lovely garden, to care for it.
In the next chapter of Genesis we hear the story of the fall. Adam and Eve were not content with caring for God's garden, they hankered for a managerial role. And so the idyll was spoiled. But while through sin the good order of God's creation was marred, it was not erased. Work became for humanity a drudgery -- almost a curse. Yet work still belongs to the order of creation. As Robert Calhoun said many years ago in God and the Day's Work, "Man is by nature-and not by choice-a worker.., man, then, is a working animal." Work is the divine calling given to all of humanity. That is how it has been from the very beginning. Even the fall has not erased that.
That reality seems to underlie Jesus' choice of four workingmen to begin his movement. He did not choose his first disciples from the priestly class or from the leisure class. Nor were they intellectuals, academics, poets, professional athletes, or the unemployed young. Jesus chose four fishermen. He began his own work by coming to us in our most natural state, while we were at work. When the fishermen first heard Jesus' invitation to discipleship, they smelled of tar and fish. True, Jesus called them to set aside, for a time, their fishing gear. That is a clear signal that daily work is not a divine mandate, as though God had set us all to work and we dare not rest so long as we have strength and daylight. However, Jesus did come to men while they were at work. This is a strong affirmation of the role of work in human life.
No Specific Content
Note this also about Jesus' call to the fishermen: It had no specific content. He said simply, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." The summons is cryptic. Commentators like David Hill do not think so. "This image [fishers of men] indicates that the disciples will be preachers and active witnesses of the Kingdom: they will be as effective in seeking men as they have been in catching fish" (p. 106). But that kind of interpretation requires that we read the Gospel backwards, that we already know about the sending of the disciples out into the world to extend Jesus' ministry. In this initial contact between Jesus and the disciples in Matthew's narrative, "fishers of men" might mean almost anything. It is a metaphor with no obvious point of reference. In what sense were the four to fish for men? Jesus did not tell them. It belongs to the nature of Jesus' call that the fishermen were to come after him without knowing precisely what they were to be or do! It is not until the final paragraph of Matthew's Gospel that it becomes fully clear what "fishers of men" means. There it is that Jesus gives to his disciples the Great Commission: They are to go into all the world and make disciples of the nations.
That end, however, is not visible from the beginning. All that Andrew, Peter, John, and James can hear is "Follow me." They go after Jesus with little knowledge of what it is they have signed on to do. They are like soldiers who have enlisted in an army to fight in a war yet to be declared; like actors who have signed up to perform roles in a play that is still being written. Jesus' call to them is a summons to step out into the unknown; it is a call to adventure.
Brother Lawrence was an ex-soldier in the Middle Ages who joined himself to a monastic order . He was put in charge of the kitchen. For reasons of his own, he resolved to practice the presence of God in his kitchen. In whatever he did-scrubbing pots, shelling peas, mopping floors-he worked as though God were there. His efforts are recorded in a set of letters to friends and colleagues, letters later printed in a book that has become a devotional classic, The Practice of the Presence of God. This ex-soldier did not want to write a devotional classic; he did not intend anything designed to make him saintly or famous. He set out on an uncommon adventure in the most mundane of settings, though he would not himself have called it an adventure. If asked about it, he probably would have shrugged and said that he felt called to do it.
If there is one person living in our own lifetime who is apt to be remembered as a saint, it is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who has devoted herself to the destitute and dying of India. Although she has appeared on national TV and has walked and talked with presidents and popes, certainly she did not set out to become world-famous. Rather, she had a modest but unflinching desire to help people; she had a call, if you please. Any Roman Catholic nun might have used her office to do what Teresa did, but she found an extraordinary way to use an ordinary office.
Surely William Shakespeare did not set out to write great literature, nor Handel to write classical music; nor did the mother of John and Charles Wesley, when she spanked them for mischief, say to herself, "I am training up the leaders of Methodism." When Abe Lincoln first ran for public office in Illinois, surely it was not with the ambition of being the Great Emancipator . Our conventional thinking is backwards. We suppose that persons once decided to be great and influential, rather than remain mired in the ordinary. It is just the opposite. They found in the ordinary workplace an occasion for doing what they would have described as their duty or their calling.
It is dangerous to pile up examples of persons who have made of an ordinary place or a run-of-the-mill office an opportunity for extraordinary service to God and to humanity. That would serve to make heroic what is commonplace. For the call of Jesus to all Christians is to make the workplace the scene of obedience, with no blueprint given of just what that obedience might look like. As with the Gospel of Matthew, it is only in retrospect that we can say that our occupations were great commissions. We are simply to allow the workplace to be an occasion for Jesus' call to faithful service. In commenting on the story of Jesus and the Fishermen, Eduard Schweizer certainly got it right when he observed (p. 76), "The true help that comes from God consists in his taking men and their actions seriously, incorporating them into his own operations." Paul said something similar when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for [God's] good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12b-13).
Surely it is with this understanding of Jesus' call that we are to read such difficult biblical passages as Colossians 3:22, which bids slaves be obedient to their masters, as though they were obeying Christ himself. There is nothing in that passage that should be read as an approval of slavery. Rather, it is Paul's way of saying what we have been saying in this chapter: The workplace, whatever it may be, may become the scene of God's being glorified through human activity. When Paul urges slaves to serve their masters well, slavery is not thereby sanctified. Rather it is shown to be what it is, a given part of the worldly order of things, which has no sanctity. It is we who are sanctified, made fit for divine service, by the call of Christ to faith and obedience, just as the fishermen were given roles in God's great drama of salvation.
In sum, to those who have heard the call of Christ, the workplace is a proving ground, a scene of high adventure. It is a place for making miraculous catches of fish, for turning water into wine, for walking on the sea, for turning the ordinary elements of life into that which serves God's purposes. The workplace is not a humdrum locale, where nothing ever happens; it is, potentially, the place where God's kingdom may become visible.
As Christ was present to the four by the Sea of Galilee, so is he present in the workplace you and I inhabit: kitchens, farms, offices, schools, factories, drilling grounds, laboratories, studios. As Jesus' call was to the fishermen, so it is to us-a call to high adventure.
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