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).
SERMON: "God Believes In You" O Lord your faithfulness to us and to the world you made causes our hearts to tremble. Come now O God, speak your word to us and help us to hear it. Grace my lips and anoint our ears with your Spirit and touch our hearts and our minds with your redeeming power. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen How God spoke through the prophet Isaiah is truly awesome. It is not for nothing Isaiah is considered one of the major prophets. God used Isaiah to deliver some of the most encouraging and challenging messages - and none of those messages are more incredible than his messages to his Servant Israel, his suffering servant - the one whom by his stripes we are healed. Listen to the message that God delivers about him through Isaiah in today's reading: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations." What a call that is! What a promise that the servant of God should not only reach out to God's own people, but to the whole world. - that the servant of God should not only bring light to the children of Israel: the light of hope and vindication and wholeness; but that the servant of God should bring it all nations. A call to the whole people of Israel, and a promise about one person, one child of Jacob. And this one person, this servant, this one we call Jesus Emmanuel this one whose name means God Saves, God is With Us, this light to the nations, tells us in the same way he is so we are - and so we should be: - salt of the earth - to give savour to life and to preserve life - and light of the world - to show all people the presence of God's all present kingdom. We have a task to do. One that many of us feel uneasy about, thinking - as most people do - that we are not up to it, - that somehow we are not well shaped or well designed enough to give off the right kind of light, - that for one reason or another we are not the ones for this particular calling, - that it is really meant for someone else - for specialists like the pastor or the priest or that woman who reads her bible all the time or that fellow who sings in the choir; - that we have a tough enough time praying and doing those good things we ought to do: - without having to be someone like John, who calls out to all: "behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" - without having to be someone like Andrew who bothers his brother Peter with the words: "I have found the Messiah" - without having to be like that person who knocks on our doors on Saturday mornings or like that fellow at work who always says a quiet grace before eating his lunch... You know something, I think most people, and that probably includes some of you here today, feel inadequate most of the time -- inadequate and afraid. That is why folks go about trying to prove to themselves that they are OK - to prove it by striving to be the world's best parent, - or at the very least, Golden's best wife or best husband, or best lover. So many try to prove to themselves that they are OK by trying to be the one who can ski or curl or play golf the best, or by being the one who provides for their families the best or by being the one who can drink the best... So many people are trying to prove to themselves that they are OK. And so many are afraid they are not despite all that trying, all that striving. It's truly sad. So much energy for such little return. And yet, to our inadequacies and to our fears, no matter how well hidden, or how up front they may, the prophet says, Jesus says, God says, but one thing, and he says it over and over again "I believe in you." I believe in you. Believe in you too, Believe in you too by believing in me and in my love for you. God says that to us - he says it in the prophet's declaration "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations." And he says it cross of the one who died for us.... He says: My child, I believe in you, I give you everything, for you I sacrifice myself, and for you I am raised. My son, my daughter, for you I am the Lamb of God, for you I am the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, giving you gift upon gift so that you may be all that I have made you to be. God believes in you. This is the gospel that we are to announce to others. God believes in you This is the faith provides the light for the oil, the flame that lights the lamp. God believes in you this is the oil of blessing that provides the power for our living, the oil to keep the lamp burning. God believes in you. God believes in me. God believes in us..... That is incredible. Perhaps too incredible for you to accept all at once: this idea that God believes in you and that your belief in his belief in you makes all the difference. But consider this -- consider the ones whom Jesus chose to be his disciples the ones who were to teach his ways when he was gone - the ones into whose hands were entrusted the life saving message that he came to deliver. There was nothing extraordinary about them. In fact, they were not even ordinary as some might understand ordinary. Some were outcasts, of questionable character to many of the religious folks of the day - like Matthew the tax collector; - others were poor, uneducated, roughing living, - a few were fishermen, - there was even a zealot who wanted to overthrow Rome, mighty Rome, who could squeeze the life out of Israel as quick as it could put up a cross to kill those who threatened the public peace. And the women who followed him all his days. - some were innocents like Mary, others anxious like Martha, - and some were prostitutes, and some had been caught in adultery, - and some had had many husbands, others had been considered not fit for decent company for many years. And yet Jesus entrusted to them as he entrusts to us - his gospel concerning salvation. And he was not disappointed. Consider these disciples, these followers, these ones no different than us, these ones that the scriptures portray with startling honesty as being ones who misunderstood Jesus, as being ones who twisted his words to suit themselves, as being ones who sought their own glory and honour, as being ones who betrayed and deserted him in his last hours. Consider these ones that to whom Jesus gave the keys of heaven and earth, saying to them - whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. Consider them and what they managed to do, all the while saying that it was not they that did it, but the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead doing it through them. I believe in you. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations." My friends, God believes in us who are sitting here in St. Andrew's today. It is too light a thing that we should be a people who only help our own, a people who only take care of our own family - be it of blood or of the spirit. There is a whole world out there where we could be shining, where we could show that not only is the lamp of our life full but it has the fire of faith shining from it. God believes in you. God believes in you and there ain't nothing you can't do,. You can shine in your homes, you can shine in this church, and you can shine where you work and where you eat. You can shine because God believes in you, you can shine because God makes you that way... It is a question I think of catching the vision. Of understanding that the very gospel we are called to carry to others is the same gospel that applies to us and makes it possible for us to shine. A story that made its way around the Net some time back: It is about a man, a prospector who is mining for gold, and suddenly discovers the mother lode - a thick, rich vein of almost pure gold. He digs our a big chunk and cashes it in for thousands and thousands of dollars. So he begins to live well, truly enjoying and appreciating his new- found wealth. But after a while, the money runs out. He's becomes hungry, destitute. He pawns his possessions to try to make ends meet. He lives on the street, hand to mouth. But wait a minute... there's something wrong with this picture, isn't there?! If he owns a gold mine of unlimited wealth, why doesn't he use it? Why doesn't he go back to the source where all his needs would be met! Why does he live as a beggar? Why indeed? We have it all. God gives it us. He is the only one who can. And he does. He believes in us. He gives himself to us and for us. He pours out the spirit upon us. He gives us the oil for our lamp, He equips us with the wick we need, He fashions every part of us and he holds in hands, or he puts us upon the stand so that we might shine.. The only question is - are we going to light up with the fire of our faith? Are we, by our trust and joyful acceptance of the message of God's love for us, going to allow the spark to set the flame a going? Andrew did. Peter did. So did James and John, and Mary and Martha, and that woman by the well and that late comer, that uptight pharisee called Paul, And so did little Mark - who ran away more than once only to return brighter than before and Phoebe and Justina, and so many more - ordinary and less than ordinary.. God believed in them - even when they didn't believe in themselves. And despite their weaknesses, their failings, their sins, their fears, they lifted up their own people and gave light to the nations. And you know something, someone spoke to you about God. Someone touched you. Someone quite ordinary, perhaps less than ordinary, was a light to your feet; showing you were the bread you needed was to be found, showing you how to go back to the mine and get the gold, showing you that God believes in you. God believed in them. And God believes in you. You Sarah, who are old and barren. You will mother a nation. You David, the youngest and smallest of your family, you will father an everlasting dynasty. You Simon, son of John, you who are changeable and spontaneous. You will be a rock for the faith of my people, the church! You Saul, you who persecute me, will be my greatest apostle. You Mary, whose shame was known to many in one town in one time, your love for me will be remembered throughout the world for all time. I believe in you. I give you myself. I believe in you CAROL CATHY I believe in you GORDON I believe in you MAY SALENA I believe in you JEANNINE JULIET, BETTY I believe in you GIL JOHN BRIAN I believe in you BRIAN BOB Say it to one another on behalf of God. Turn to your neighbour. Look over you pew, tell them, ANNIE, OR GEORGE, OR WHOEVER, I believe in you. and listen to it being said to you. I believe in you. And because I believe in you, you can do anything I ask you to do. You can do it. We can do it. We can be what God calls us to be. And have the joy and the peace that God wills to give to all through the gospel we proclaim. Praise be to God, who believes in us. May we believe in him and in his belief about us, and spread abroad his message to all who come near - day by blessed day. Amen