HOMILY: The biblical notion of call

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Jesus calls his disciples

THE NOTION OF “CALL” is not peripheral to scripture but fundamental to the Bible’s understanding of human existence before God. Who can forget in the opening chapters of Mark and Matthew’s gospels those encounters by the Sea of Galilee? Fishermen, Simon and Andrew casting their nets in the sea; James, son of Zebedee and John his brother, sitting in their boat mending their nets. They have no inkling of what is about to happen to them, something that will change their lives forever. Jesus, walking by the sea, calls to them, “Come, follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:16-20). They drop their nets and leave their father and his workers behind in the boat where they’d been sitting.

The Bible offers many other stories, like the story of Peter’s call renewed, which appears at the end of John’s gospel. It is perhaps the most exquisite story of all the New Testament. Deflated disciples fish listlessly. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a figure appears with a charcoal fire burning—it is someone unknown but hauntingly familiar. He issues directions on where to fish and the fishermen haul in an abundant catch, which prompts a heart-pounding recognition. Peter, knowing who awaits him, plunges into the sea and swims ashore. Sharing a breakfast of bread and fish by the sea, the strain of joy and shame is about to burst within Peter. And then comes the moment of reconciliation: “Simon Peter, do you love me more than these?” Peter undergoes the threefold question in order to heal the breach of his threefold betrayal. Then Jesus invites him, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” Peter’s discipleship is restored; his call renewed.

In these and many other biblical stories where Jesus calls disciples we find certain fundamental qualities:

• They make abundantly clear that the life of discipleship begins not with a choice but with a call. Jesus’ authority and his alone is the source of that call. It comes unexpectedly and without warning. 
• Most of the stories also make clear that the call is first and foremost a call to follow after Jesus. The focal point is the person of Christ. The disciples follow after Jesus, surely not ahead of him and not even alongside him. Jesus is out in front of his community; the disciples follow behind, often in confusion and fear. 
• But there is something more in the content of the call. Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people.” The disciples who are called to follow Jesus will be plunged into the work of transforming Israel, of renewing the covenant community, of establishing the kingdom, of healing and exorcism and teaching just as Jesus was. And their destiny would be to encounter the withering power of alienation and death in Jerusalem just as he would. 
• Most of all, the stories make clear, the disciples’ lives would never be the same. They leave their boats and their families and new allegiances would be required.

THE NOTION OF VOCATION in its most fundamental meaning is not defined by any specific role or function but is something far greater, something written on a vast canvas. It is pure gift, with God as its author and life as its subject. This call is not first and foremost to a particular role in life but more fundamentally is a call to seek the face of God, a call to holiness and the fullness of life itself. This is the endpoint of the biblical quest: to see the face of God and live. It is for this that we are called, all of us as part of the human family, and surely all of us as part of the church.

The biblical call stories remind us that responding to God’s vocation requires conversion and lifelong personal transformation. It is not by accident that the most pervasive biblical symbol for describing the life of faith is that of the journey. All of Israel’s history is cast as a long and often tortuous journey of faith: from the first stirrings of Abraham’s trek into the pastures of Canaan through the exodus from Egypt and the journey to the promised land and from the wrenching experience of exile to a muted and hope-filled return to the land of Judah. 

And so, too, is the life and mission of Jesus cast as a long journey, beginning in the bursting energy of his ministry in Galilee, and then the ominous and purposeful journey to Jerusalem where he would meet his destiny in death and resurrection. Response to God’s call is not an instantaneous or static reality but one that unfolds over time and one that must endure the rigors of the march to Jerusalem, a journey that often involves challenge, fatigue, and failure. Each one of us has received a call. Our biblical heritage gives us the means to understand that call and to respond in faith.


Fr. Senior is a Passionist priest and biblical scholar. He is General Editor of The Bible Today, past President of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and author of a number of books on scripture. Homily courtesy of Prepare the Word: Whole Parish Evangelization (TrueQuest Communications).




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