There are two ways we can hear this Gospel account appointed for today: This is a two-thousand year-old story about Simon Peter, James, and John who fished by trade on a lake in Palestine. This is history – rather patchy history – about how Jesus began assembling his inner ring of 12 apostles in the northern region of Galilee.
or:This Gospel story is autobiographical. Like Peter, James, and John, we each have been summoned by Jesus. Jesus has caught our attention, and we have followed him. This story gets us in touch with our ownstory. It’s part of the backdrop of why we’re here today.
Is this Gospel story about them, or is it about us, about you? The answer is “yes.”
On the one hand, we’re introduced to Peter, James, and John, who continue to figure into Jesus’ life and story. These three leave everything to follow Jesus. Sort of everything. Peter is married, and he doesn’t leave his wife. None of the three leaves his ego behind. That will become obvious. All three of these men are shown to have very mixed motives for following Jesus. Complicated. Sometimes quite duplicitious. Tradition has it that all three ultimately and willingly accept martyrdom for being followers of Jesus… but we’re a long ways from that when we first meet them here in their boats.
We also don’t know the back story. Clearly these three – Peter, James, and John – were searching in life for more than fish. They were fishing for meaning in life. They were fishing for a way, or a place, or a person to whom to belong. They were fishing for hope. They were fishing for forgiveness. We don’t know their stories: their families of origin, their education, their health, their habits of heart, their successes and failures in life, whether they had an active religious practice, or whether they were “lapsed” Jews, or whether they even “did” religion at all. We don’t know. But they had life stories as real, as wonderful, and as complicated as you and I do. It’s safe to say Jesus’ calling the three of them, and their each “leaving everything” – well, mostly everything… except their own personal baggage – did not happen in a vacuum. There’s a back story to this Gospel story, and we don’t know it. What do we do about the back story that’s missing?
Ignatius of Loyola, the fifteenth-century founder of the Jesuits, developed a series of “Spiritual Exercises” to help people deepen their relationship with God.[i] This is a fascinating way to experience the Gospel in a very alive, personal, revelatory way. Pray the “back story” of this story. Ignatius would say:
- Ask God to touch you through this passage of Scripture, to speak to you today.
- Do some homework. Read this passage slowly and carefully several times. Let the details of the story emerge. Let the questions and insights occur as you notice more with each reading.
- And then, this is what is fascinating: Let the drama slowly unfold in your imagination. Let what happens, happen. Don’t control the story. Let yourself experience what happens. Do not moralize by trying to glean lessons from the story, or attempt to wring teachings or clever applications from it. Simply allow yourself to be affected by the words and actions of the story. Picture yourselfin this Gospel scene. Where are you in this story?
- In this Gospel story, Jesus is speaking to Peter, and to James, and to John… and to you. What is your conversation? What do you hear? What do yousay? What do youdo? That is your prayer. The otherwise-unknown “back story” of this Gospel passage will fill in with your life story.
This is a fascinating and illuminating way to pray, to meet Jesus today through the doorway of the Gospels. The “back story” becomes alive with your life story.
And this is not just a story that comes from your own life history. This is not just a story about why you went to church when you were 8 years old, or 28 years old, nor just about why you dreamed about becoming a certain person, nor just about why you majored in whatever in college, nor just about why you pursued that first job… and second job… and third job, nor just why you married or partnered with a certain person. All of that, and more, forms your life story, but this isn’t just history. Our life vocation – “vocation,” from the Latin, vocaremeaning “calling” – continues all our lives. Jesus keeps calling us daily to co-operate with him.
I’m not denying that our individual vocations include very significant personal relationships, nor am I denying that our individual vocations are about what we do or have done for a living, nor am I denying that our individual vocations include avocational interests and hobbies that mean the world to us. All of that and more comes under the banner of our individual vocations: to whom and to what we have been attracted and committed in our life history.
But there’s another element about vocation, about our calling, that is very much now. Given all the givens in our life, what is Jesus’ call for us now? When we are younger, our vocation – our calling – is more about what we are todo. When we are older, our vocation – our calling – is more about what we are tobe, given the givens. Matthew Kelty, the Trappist monk and sometime Abbot of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, said that “the vocation of a monk is to be real.”[ii]That rings very true to me: true to life. The vocation of everyoneis to be real. And it’s to be real now. What are you being called to be, now? I’m speaking here about vocation as invocation: of God’s breaking through to you, coming to you, calling you now.[iii]What are you to be? You will know the answer by uncovering or discovering the truth that is within you. What are you to be, now? The clues probably come from your own early life.
I’ll tell you a little story from my own life. The single, greatest, most formative influence on my own life came from my paternal Grandmother. If you ask me what I learned from her, I could speak for a long time, in between smiles and tears of gratitude, about somuch I learned from her. Anything particularly special, you might ask? And I would answer, “kindness.” Be kind. My beloved Grandmother, who lived on a modest income, in a tiny stucco house, an immigrant with an 8th-grade education, had suchpower, and authority, and formative influence on me and on so many others because she was so kind. I learned kindness from her. You would rightly ask me: So, are you kind? And I would answer, “yes.” “Yes, I am kind… except when I am not.” Momentarily we will have opportunity to make our confession of sin… which I need because of my own lapses, which are sometimes egregious. I am clear, though, that I am to be kind. That’s my vocation, that’s my calling now. What about you? What are you to be, now? What is your vocation? What is your calling to be, now. From where, or from whom, did you learn this. What is yourback story?
Your vocation, your calling in life, what you are to be now, will come out of your greatest strength and your greatest need. Jesus, after all, calls us to follow him. He doesn’t point us on the road to independence to figure it out. He calls us to follow him. And to follow Jesus will be a melding of our strengths and our needs. We have to have enough clarity and strength to say to Jesus: “Yes, I will follow you.” We need enough weakness to remind us we that we mustkeep following him or we will otherwise get lost. Jesus is the Savior we need. What about you? What are you to be, now? What is your vocation? What is your calling to be, now? Claim you vocation for now. You must. And you must have Jesus’ help.
In the Canon of Holy Scripture, we have four Gospels, four versions of encounter with Jesus: The Gospel according to Matthew, then there’s the Gospel according to Mark, and to Luke, and to John. There was, of course, also the Gospel according to the Samaritan woman and to any number of lepers, the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, according to Peter, according to merchants and shepherds, according to Elizabeth and Simeon and so many others. So many unwritten Gospels about personal encounters with Jesus. The version of the Gospel which probably has greatest authority for you is the Gospel according to You. What has been revealed to you, what has proven inviting and necessary for you? What is essence of Jesus’ work and words embodied within you? That is soimportant for you to hear, remember, and claim. It’s your vocation. It’s why you are still alive, today.
There is an ancient Hasidic wisdom about a Rabbi Zusya. When he was an old man, he said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ Rather, they will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”[iv]Vocation is about accepting our true self, and it is like none other. Our vocation is our calling. You have the truth within you. Listen. Listen. Listen. What do you hear?
[i]Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a Spaniard and founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), was born into nobility, had vain longings for chivalry and a heroic life, became an officer in the Spanish army, was wounded in battle… which became the portal for God’s breakthrough in his life. He developed a series of “Spiritual Exercises,” a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices to help people deepen their relationship with God.
[ii]Matthew Kelty, OCSO (1915-2011).
[iii]“Invocation,” from the Latin, invocare: “to call upon, invoke, appeal to.”
[iv]Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (1975), p. 251.
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