By Kathleen Henderson Staudt
I have been trying to create ways to talk about vocation WITHOUT moving immediately to questions about “how am I supposed to make my living,” and especially without moving immediately to the question: “Is God calling me to the ordained ministry?”
It is almost impossible to disentangle these questions these days in our culture, where identity and worth are so tied to our role in the consumer economy, let alone in the Church, where vocation and discernment so strongly tied in people’s minds to questions about ordained ministry. But I insist on disentangling them. I believe it is essential for us as a church to be focusing, not so much on roles and résumés as on the original call of each of us to “follow” Jesus , to practice ever more faithful and intentional discipleship. I’ll probably return to this theme in future posts. For now, here are some Eastertide musings on discipleship and how we experience the call of Jesus.
The gospel appointed for Friday in Easter week tells the wonderful story of the risen Jesus calling the disciples away from their fishing to come and have breakfast with him, on the beach by the sea of Tiberias. (John 21:1-11). Immediately after breakfast, as we know, he repeatedly asks Peter “Do you love me,” and offers him a new, pastoral ministry: “feed my lambs.” One of the things that has always struck me about the story is that Peter and his friends, doubtless disoriented in the aftermath of the Passion and reports of the Resurrection, return to the work that they know, the work that has identified them and sustained them economically, the work they were doing when they first met Jesus. And here as in the Lucan version of the story (Luke 5:1-12), Peter and the beloved disciple recognize the urgency of Jesus’ call by the way the fishermen’s work is transformed in His presence. They have been coming up empty. The stranger on the beach tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, and suddenly there is abundance, and they recognize him – “It is the Lord”, and head for the beach to be with him.
If we attend closely to the language, the story of the calling of the fishermen in Mark and Matthew can also be read as a story about the call to discipleship as transformation. Jesus finds the disciples fishing by the side of the sea, and the narrative tells us “for they were fishermen.” He calls them and, in the New Revised Standard Version, says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17). What is lost is the phrase I grew up with, in my Presbyterian Sunday school where we used the Revised Standard Version: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” It isn’t all that clear what that means, “fishers of men,” and it doesn’t seem to be their reason for following him: there’s no new job description here. But Jesus is promising some kind of change that begins where they are. That’s the literal meaning of the Greek, I’m told: Follow me: and I will make you to become fishermen-of-people. They will be transformed into some new version of what they already are.
Dwelling a bit with these stories, in meditation, and especially with the post-Resurrection version of this call story in John, I think we can gain insight from remembering how the call of Jesus tends to come to us where we are. (“wherever we may be,” as the catechism says of the ministry of the laity (BCP 855)) When I talk about vocation with laity - people whose primary work is in the world rather than in the church as institution, I find they tend to think of vocation as being about something that’s coming in the future, or something that will require a radical shift from all that they know and are. But in fact, I have observed that most people experience the call to discipleship beginning where they are, and the transformation comes in stages, beginning with that desire simply to follow Jesus, for reasons we often can’t explain to ourselves. For many people, though we do find ourselves making changes in our lives, the call to discipleship emerges gradually, as we grow into what it means to be followers of Jesus.
This is something we emphasize in our language at worship, but most of us need to spend more time reflecting on what it means. I have been a scholar, a lover of literature, a teacher; I am a wife and a parent. Gradually, as I’ve grown in faith and deepened my spiritual practice, I’ve learned that all of this is “for Christ,” even though the content of what I teach and write, and the focus of my relationships, is not always explicitly religious. But the call of Christ has gradually changed me, has “made me to become” someone new, and it changes the way that I view the work I’ve been given in my profession and in my relationships. It seems that the transformation in me does touch the lives of others, often in ways I do not see.
So when I speak with people – especially laity – about call and discipleship, I invite them to look at where they are in life right now, not what they wish they were doing or think they “should” be doing. Vocation is not about lines on a résumé. Nor is it about office in the church. It is about identity, community, and spiritual practice. What is it, we ask, in your work, your gifts and abilities and yearnings right now, that makes you feel fully alive? Where is the abundance? Or where could the abundance be? That’s probably the part of you that is hearing Jesus’ call to discipleship, to being “made to become” a part of the new thing that God is doing.
It is true that sometimes people are in a place where they need to “leave their nets” immediately, and “do” something totally different. But usually, vocation is about an ongoing process of transformation, through the practices of discipleship that are summarized in Jesus’ command to follow him. I find this expressed most simply and poignantly in the Easter version of this call story, where the renewed call to “follow me” is preceded by a much more homely invitation: “come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12)
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.