Saturday, July 30, 2011

Jesus Calling

Reading the early chapters of Mark's Gospel, I've been intrigued by the idea of the call of Jesus, and how people have understood that over the years.

Early on in Mark, Jesus states his purpose in two ways. First, he says he came to preach in the surrounding towns and villages of Galilee. What he preached, of course, was the good news that the Kingdom of God had come. And following that he issued a call: “Repent and believe this good news.”

At another point he says, in answer to a criticism of the Pharisees, “I came to call sinners, not the righteous.”

The call implicit here is the same that is explicit in his proclamation of the Gospel. “Repent and believe.” Jesus "came" to issue this very call to one and all.

That word, “believe,” has a universe of meaning, of course. Believe the good news. Believe what you will learn from Jesus as you walk with him, as you listen to his teaching, as you see how he loves people, how unafraid he is, how bold to love, and how the natural response of people who have received such love is to love him back.

But to walk out this believing is a progressive thing. Sometimes, as we will see later in Mark's account, some who have followed Jesus with dedication will suddenly drop away. And Jesus meets their later return to him not with mistrust and rejection, but again with his call. “Follow me. Keep following me. Even after I'm gone, you will be able to follow me. For that I will send the Holy Spirit, and he will empower you, and show you what to say, in a hundred ways and situations, some of them quite dangerous. But the Spirit will show you the way.”

But that's getting ahead of myself. For now, Jesus calls. His call is to repent and believe, and then to follow. “Follow me,” he says to Peter and James and John, the fishermen, and to Matthew, the tax collector. And they do. They follow. They stick close. They watch and learn. In following, they become his students, and he their teacher. They want more of him. They want to do the things he does. They want to understand.

Then, in chapter 3, having taught them, he appoints them to do the same things he's been doing. Preach the Gospel, and overpower the demonic with simple commands, demonstrating thereby that the Kingdom has come indeed.

Now, here's a kind of “leaderboard” snapshot of the moment. You have Jesus at the top. He's the preacher/teacher, calling people to follow. Then next you have “the twelve.” They've been sticking with Jesus a little more closely and consistently than anyone else at this point. But one of these twelve will betray Jesus, and most of the others will desert him when the going gets particularly rough. But for now, they're a band of devoted ones, who've dropped everything to follow them.

After these twelve we have the many who have flocked to Jesus for healing. They too have heard his teaching. Some of them have no doubt believed his news, although who at this point can really understand its full implications? But most will go home, whether believing it or not believing it, and try to get on with their lives.

Now flash ahead to the church in Paul's day. Hundreds of people had seen the resurrected Jesus. There was then the remarkable event we call the ascension. After that, the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit in power. There is much powerful preaching of the Kingdom, and much miraculous healing (see the book of Acts), just like when Jesus was alive. The church is spreading like wildfire. Soon, one of the Pharisees who had been chief persecutor of the young movement will flip sides, becoming a Christian himself, and in time he will be best known as a prodigious church planter and writer of memorable epistles. In many of those epistles, which are usually addressed to whole churches (not just particular Christians), he will routinely describe every single believing member of that church as a people who have been "called to be saints."

What I want you to notice is this. It is not just the twelve who are called, but all who believe. You were called to believe, and the call to believe continues, and persists, and echoes down through your days and nights. It is a call to let your believing work its way into your blood and bone, and to let it guide your feet and your hands and your thoughts and your speech.

The call "to be saints" is the continuing call of Jesus to believe the good news and walk it out. No one does this overnight. That is why the call continues and continues and continues. Sometimes, even as the twelve, we fall a gigantic step back. We go from following to fleeing. No one is immune to this.

I've noticed over the years that a lot of Christians have imagined a kind of two-tiered "call." Priests and pastors occupy the upper tier. They have been called to a closer following than the rest of us. It's their duty to be pretty near perfect, or the rest of us get upset about it. These priests and pastors are the modern equivalent of "the twelve," in this view. They answered a "special" call. They're the elite. The rest of us are simply called to obey them. They're pastors, we're sheep. That's our call. They are set apart, while we just go about our lives, like the crowds who gather for a time around Jesus, seeking healing, seeking miracles, then disperse. Our call seems to all boil down to attending church and volunteering in its programs and ministries.

This way of looking at things fits nicely with a desire to elevate the priesthood to an elite status, leaving everyone else in an undifferentiated mass known as "the flock." When egomaniacs go into the ministry, this is the view they take. It serves them well.

But all this is so wrong, has such deleterious repercussions, and (most importantly) is so un-biblical. If you have once received and believed the good news that Jesus offers, you are not only saved, but called to work out that salvation from day to day (in fear and trembling), for it is God's purpose to work his will in and through you (Phil 2:12-13). You have been called to be a saint (a consecrated one, set apart for the purpose of God). Not just your pastor, your church leaders, but you. Not by sitting on as many church boards as you can get yourself appointed to, but by walking out the love of Christ for you by loving others in the same way.

The fact that we don't necessarily do that well, we saints, tells you either that love is hard or that we are weak and sinful and need a lot of help. Or both. We're going to have to draw near to Jesus, learn from him, and follow closely behind. We're going to have to let his words dwell in us richly, thankful to God for what He has done and continues to do. (Col 3:16) For we have been called, ultimately, to the very presence of the King, high and lifted up.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4 ESV)
A high calling, that. And it's to all who call upon the name of the Lord. There is no higher calling. Do not dream of another world, another time and place, in which you might walk out your faith. You are called to walk it out today, where you're at. May God be with you.


DebD said...

We learned about our calling to be a saint at VBS a few weeks ago. Yes, we are all called to sainthood. But, it's harder than we think.

The beginning of your post reminded me of a story I heard once. Someone visiting a monastery asked a monk what they did all day. He responded "we fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again." I think of this often as I stumble through my life trying to love God and love my neighbor (and enemies).

I disagree with you about the priesthood (or pastors). But, that is because we see it so very differently. Sure there is temptation..just like for all of us. So we should throw the baby out with the bathwater? They are not extra special people - in fact in the Orthodox tradition someone who actively seeks the priesthood is often rebuffed. There are many instances of great saints who literally RAN away from being ordained. These are our examples (and Christ, who said the first last and the last first). They surely do deserve our respect. And we are all called to the Royal Priesthood and we are referred to as the priesthood of the believer. The little guy in the pew can call out a priest (or bishop) on heresy or mistakes, etc. It isn't like the priest is up there, untouchable, but we the little people should just keep our mouths shut. People who say such silly things have no real understand of how Orthodoxy works (usually they assume it is just like the Catholics). Either that or they're people (usually us independent minded Americans) who don't like that "A" word: authority. Besides, they probably haven't met the one person put in a priest's life to keep him in his place - his wife.

Well...gotta run put a little guy to bed.

Bob Spencer said...

Good thoughts, Deb.