A Series of Bible Studies by Fr Robin Eastoe
The Right Reverend Dr Laurie Green, Bishop of Bradwell
In my study, in the place where I say my prayers each morning, is a Christmas card which I received some years ago. Its message is simple and compelling. "We have need of Him, and in His infinite love, He has condescended to have need of us."
It is because of his great love for us that God calls us to share with him in the joy of his creation and in his mission to the world. So he calls each and every one of us, and for this reason we can confidently say that every Christian has a vocation a call from God to do his will and play their unique part in God's purposes for the world.
I am grateful therefore to Father Robin Eastoe, a member of our Bradwell Vocations Group, for writing these insightful Bible Studies on Vocation, and to Canon Peter Ashton for his illustrations designed to help us meditate on the text.
My hope is that the resulting booklet will assist groups and individuals to think again about their own call, and to ask again that penetrating question, "What is it that God is calling me to be and do?"
Isaiah, Isaiah 6.1-9
The Call of the Fishermen, Mark 2.16-20
Mary, Luke 1.26-38
The Woman at the Well, John 4.1-30
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicised Edition, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy Is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. ". The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: 'Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!' Then one of the, seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs, he seraph touched my mouth with it and said: 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out. "Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am; send me!' "And he said, 'Go and say to this people: "Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand."
This is a splendid and very vivid story of how one of the great Old Testament prophets was called. It has a certain strangeness about it, especially in the vision of God and the details of the Temple arrangements, which add to its sense of grandeur and of something extraordinary happening. But if we look more closely at the story, it has elements that anyone who has ever felt a sense of God's call will recognise. This story, set in the dim and distant past, is timeless enough to be very contemporary.
For the story sets out the four elements of calling. First there needs to be a sense of glory and inspiration. Isaiah is in the Temple, presumably praying and worshipping. His mind is full of the things of God, and then he receives this vision. Anyone who is to act in the name of God needs first of all to have a sense of God's presence and glory This may come through private prayer and bible study; but more likely it will come through sharing in the worship and life of the Church. If that worship and life is inspiring and uplifting, it will enable people to hear the call of God. But if the Church's life and worship is dull, then we will probably be thinking of something else (when will this service end?) when God speaks!
Secondly there is a sense of unworthiness and sin. 'Not me, I couldn't possibly do that, I'm not that sort of person, I'm not good enough!' Of course this may come from a falsely low opinion of our own self-worth, or from a false sense of humility; these are different from a sense of sin. But it is a remarkable fact that only those close to God have a sense of sin. The greatest saints to whom we might look up as outstanding examples of holiness had a very genuine sense of their own sinfulness. In contrast someone with a casual attitude to God will simply make excuses for themselves or not see any fault in what they do. Every person whom God calls will have a sense of being unworthy, of needing God. It is precisely in this need of God that,we find our greatest strength!
Leading on from this there is a deep sense of forgiveness and acceptance. Isaiah found his lips cleansed with a coal taken from the altar. We all need that sense of sins forgiven and of being accepted as we are. This may not get rid of our sense of unworthiness, but it will help us to trust God, and to know his love.
Finally there is a sense of offering 'Here I am, send me.' God compels no one. Many turn their back on his call. We need to be able to offer ourselves, accepting the sacrifices, trusting in God's love and care. But it takes some courage to say 'Here I am, send me.'
1. Can we recognise this pattern in other examples in the Bible of people being called? Can you recognise it in any event in your own life?
2. How can we so organise the Church that people will be inspired enough to hear God's call?
3. Do you think God's call will be heard whatever the churches are like, or can the poverty of our discipleship mean that people may not hear the call of God?
4. A sense of sin seems to have been a very important part of Isaiah's calling. Do'you think it will be important for anyone who feels God's call?
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?' "When Jesus heard this, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.' "Wow John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, 'Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?' Jesus said to them, 'The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom Is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
'I will make you fishers of men!' These are famous and memorable words, and this story of the calling of the fishermen is what many think of when we talk about discipleship or about Jesus calling us. Mark's version is the most vivid, since he gives no background whatsoever Jesus begins his ministry in verse 14 and by verse 17 he is calling Simon and Andrew to follow him. There is no indication that they had ever met him before. Jesus comes across them, calls them, and they follow. It is typical of Mark's stark storytelling style. He wants to give the impression of a big and dramatic change in the life of someone who follows Jesus. One moment you can be mending your nets, the next you can have left your nets, home and family behind to follow his call.
Mark's account is very effective, but we might suspect there that I being called than he makes out- Matthew tells us 1 Jesus had already moved from Nazareth to Capernaum, near where the fishermen would have lived, and begun to teach. Jesus was already known figure when he called the disciples. Luke fills in more details. He tells us Jesus had taught in the synagogue in Capernaum, causing quite a stir, and had performed miracles there. Indeed he had even healed Simon's mother in law. He had had an extensive teaching tour of Galilee before preaching by the lake, when he used Simon's boat to preach from. He then directs the fishermen to a huge catch of fish before saying, 'From now on you will be catching people.' So they knew a lot about Jesus before they left everything to follow him. In John things are rather different, but we do learn that Andrew at least has been a disciple of John the Baptist, and so has been taught that something great was about to happen. The others who are called also display signs of excitement and expectation.
Knowing Jesus is important if we are to be his disciples. So is being prepared for his demands, the demands of the Gospel, to rearrange our Lives. We won't quite see where it will all lead - neither did the disciples - we suspect that it will sometimes be more demanding than we would like. But we hear the call and we follow.
1. Do we think it fair that Jesus changes the fishermen's lives so dramatically?
2. How well do you have to know Jesus to have a true calling to discipleship?
3. Can you imagine Andrew or Peter saying no? What would have happened?
4. When God calls, do you believe we really have a choice?
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, 'Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. ^He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.' ^Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' The angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. ^And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.' Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let if be with me according to your word.' Then the angel departed from her.
We forget how young the central characters of the Gospel are. Jesus himself was only 33 when he died, the disciples seem to have been young men, probably only in their 20s; Mary would have been a teenager when she saw the angel. What a responsibility to lay on someone so young!
'You have been chosen to be the virgin mother of the Son of God!' How can a mind comprehend something so momentous. But Mary would have been able very quickly to understand what she was sacrificing, how hurt Joseph would be, how cross her parents. And however painful all this might be, it was as nothing compared to the agony of standing by the cross, watching Jesus suffer and die slowly. 'A sword shall pierce through your own heart also.' Mary's was a vocation of suffering before ever it was a vocation to glory.
But there is a pattern running through the Bible; that pattern is the partnership between God and humans. Apart from creation itself, God does not act by power imposed on the created order, but by working carefully and patiently in and through people. Often we might imagine God's patience being tested to extremes by our weakness, incomprehension and failings (the prophets show this quite clearly); but God goes on with this partnership, human and divine.
So when God's greatest act of all is to come about, the birth into creation of the Word through whom all things were made, he first needs a partner, someone to work with, someone to accept the most strange and awesome of all vocations, to be the Mother of God's Son. He finds such a partner; but not among the rich or the learned or the extraordinary or the talented. She is an ordinary village girl, young to the point of immaturity, unremarkable. Does her silence in the Gospels point to a lack of confidence, an awkwardness among company, a sign of ordinariness rather than a depth of contemplation? Her greatness lies elsewhere - in humility, sacrifice, love These are extraordinary values, but are rarely recognised as such.
Any sense of being called, no matter how small or insignificant, is a partnership with God We can so easily say, 'Not me! I am too ordinary!' It is not so easy to say yes.
But think of Mary, the ordinary handmaid who is so extraordinary that all generations will call her blessed. Does your greatness lie not so much in the talents you have, but in humility, sacrifice and love? If so, what could you not achieve in partnership with God?
1. What other examples can you think of from the Bible of God and humanity working in partnership? Do we also see it outside the Bible?
2. How many of these examples seem to depend on the humility, sacrifice and love of the person, rather than their obvious abilities and talents?
3. Should we trust youth and inexperience more?
4. In Mary we see that at the very heart of human/divine activity, in the very act of incarnation, enormous sacrifice is demanded of a young woman, little more than a girl. "A sword shall pierce your own heart also". How much is sacrifice a part of vocation?
John 4.1 - 30
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, 'Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John' - although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized - he left Judea and started back to Galllee. But he had to go through Samarla. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink'. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?' (Jews do not share things In common with Samaritans,) Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, "Give me a drink", you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.' The woman said to him, 'Sir, you have no bucket, and the well Is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?' Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. The woman said to him, 'Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.' Jesus said to her, 'Go, call your husband, and come back.' The woman answered him, have no husband.' Jesus said to her, 'You are right in saying, "I have no husband"; for you have had five husbands, ' and the one you have now Is not your husband. What you have said is true!' The woman said to him, 'Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.' Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you wilt worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.' The woman said to him, I know that Messiah is coming' (who is called Christ). 'When he comes, he wilt proclaim all things to us.' 'Jesus said to her, I am he, the one who Is speaking to you.' Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, 'What do you want?' or, 'Why are you speaking with her?' Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 'Come and see a man who fold me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?' They left the city and were on their way to him.
This is quite a long passage, but it is worth studying as it has much to tell us, much more than this short study can point to. We shall confine ourselves to Just six brief points,
1. The woman can do something for Jesus. It is something fairly small, but giving a drink to a thirsty person is a genuine act of charity. So much of the time we wrap ourselves up in a very false sense of being useless, as if God has made a mistake in creating us, let alone making us into a disciple!. We can all do simple and practical things for God, as this woman did, and they are no less important than her action, which was acceptable to Jesus.
2. The woman is a Samaritan, a foreigner. She is an outsider, and therefore easily dismissed, ignored or even mocked. So much of our ideas about vocation are confined inside the church, we forget that God is active everywhere, and we do not see other people through whom God is working, and in whom God is fostering a sense of calling. We need to be prepared to find God in unexpected places and unlikely people. This requires humility as much as insight.
3. The woman does not understand Jesus. She gets confused. Perhaps this is not surprising - how can we understand someone who begins to talk about 'living water'? But again we can see that many people will only do something for God if they can understand everything, see the size and shape of the task being asked of them, foresee what it will demand of them, weigh up the demands against the time they have available and the talents they see in themselves. By the time we have worked all this out it will be too late to act in the name of Jesus - the opportunity will have passed. Jesus calls her well before she understands what is going on.
4. The woman's honesty is important. She does not try to deceive Jesus, to trick him into thinking she is different from what she really is. We cannot trick Jesus who sees us as we truly are (cf. psalm 139). But Jesus wants her, despite the sort of person she is and the sort of life she leads. God wants us too, and honesty is important. We should not pretend to be the sort of people we are not, though we can aim at higher standards than we usually achieve. Honesty before God leads to a knowledge of our acceptance by him.
5. Jesus cuts through the false traditions and expectations that cut the woman off from this great source of grace. The enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans, the ' endless discussions about where we should worship God, could all be swept aside. Something much more important is being offered. Tradition is very important in faith when it is a record of God's timeless revelation in history. It is unimportant when it is simply a set of rules that have lost their relevance. But how often the excuses we find for not doing things seem to come from empty rather than from living tradition.
6. The woman in fact brings people to Christ. No matter how poor her understanding of what living water' is, no matter how poor her morals, no matter how separated the Samaritans were From living faith, she is able to bring a lot of people to Jesus (vs 29-30). This is what vocation and calling is - bringing people to Jesus.
1. How much understanding do we need to have before we act on faith?
2. Can you find examples of both dead and living tradition in the church?
3. To what extent must our lives conform to Christ’s standards before we can act for him? To what extent must we be an ‘insider’ in church terms?
4. How can we bring people to Jesus – and how is God calling us to do just that?