Audio length: 15:32 minutes
For each of us, when we approach the things of God we need to be open to what God wants of us and we need to be taught by God, through His Church, through Holy Tradition and through the Scriptures, as we listen to what He wants us to know.
We are now early in the Church year and it is very appropriate at this time of beginnings to consider the calling of the disciples. Tradition calls St Andrew the “first-called”. The title and description of “first-called” comes from St John’s Gospel where St Andrew recognises Christ as the Messiah before Simon Peter does.
The story we heard today from St Luke’s Gospel comes after Christ’s baptism and temptation in the desert. St Luke’s version differs from St John’s Gospel in some details. It is clear that the writers had to edit and compress events. That need not detain us because there is no real conflict in the accounts. We can be sure that Christ chose the Apostles, His messengers, carefully. St John’s Gospel makes it clear that Simon Peter and St Andrew were followers of St John The Baptist, and there was a previous connection by the time of the incident recorded in the Gospel reading for today. So it is clear that Christ who healed St Peter’s mother-in-law before this call. It is also probably why He was using their boat rather than another as He wanted to preach from it and they would understand. Saints Peter and Andrew were known to St John the Baptist and had been followers of his so Christ had a way of knowing them as already on the road to the Kingdom. As followers of the Baptist they were already clearly thirsting for something more than the usual religious life. They were seeking to know God better and this allowed God to move in their lives. The same situation applies to us: whenever we seek to know God better, we allow Him to move in our own lives.
The grace of God can work within us when our desire is right. Father Deacon Emmanuel touched on this in his last sermon. Once we have the right desire we are able to receive God’s grace. As he said, quoting St John Chrysostom: “Both the eagerness [to serve God] and the working of [that eagerness] are a gift, for if we have the will, then [God] energizes the willing, He increases our willing. ... He does not deprive us of free will . . . but He shows [us] that by [having the right aim] we receive more eagerness in the will. . . . For it is His will that we live as He desires we should; and if He desires it, He Himself both energizes in us to this end, and will certainly accomplish it.” Such was the case with the two first-called disciples. They had the will to follow and allowed Christ to train and teach them.
Now we may have a problem when we think of the disciples. We might forget that saints are people just like us. They are seen in icons where they are shown, quite rightly, as venerable. We see them with the nimbus or halo and in clothing which is not like ours. There is a look we expect from icons. I have seen icons of contemporary saints, and in these they wear their usual modern clothing. That is perfectly right and proper. In the case of the icon of Saint Evgeny Rodionov the New Martyr he wears 20th century Russian army combat gear. This may surprise you, but it is perfectly fitting and right. The holiness of saints is true throughout ALL the ages. Saints are not distant figures but are to be found in all times and places.
The inner group of the twelve disciples were ordinary people. We know of course that they were to achieve very great and remarkable things. We see from the pages of the New Testament that they were sometimes frail (one thinks of St Peter denying Christ during His trial) and were not always understanding the exact meaning of what was said. They had real personalities, and we can see that clearly. They had the same human weaknesses as us all. We also are aware that these disciples were not intellectuals or theologians in the sense that some understand that. The inner group of disciples (at least) were not especially well connected. I think that this was important. They were not shackled by received views of what was right and what was wrong. They were not the sort to quibble over the fine reasonings of the rabbis or the demands of the religious establishment. In short they did not have to unlearn a lot; they were new wine skins for new wine to borrow a comparison. In Christ’s words -“no one puts new wine into old wine skins; or else the new wine will burst the wine skins and be spilled, and the wine skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wine skins, and both are preserved. [Luke 5:36-37].” This parable comes very soon after the passage in today’s Gospel. Here then is an important reason why Christ chose fishermen, not establishment intellectuals, as His disciples. Christ knew that His teaching was “new wine” to many people. New followers with new ideas and new approaches to life would be needed to implement that teaching.
For each of us, when we approach the things of God we need to be open to what God wants of us and we need to be taught by God, through His Church, through Holy Tradition and through the Scriptures, as we listen to what He wants us to know. We all tend to have received ideas and sometimes we need quietly to give them up. If for example we have had understandings and experiences in heterodox churches before becoming Orthodox this can be a struggle because we may simply assume things in a certain way and not even know we have made that assumption. If we have had the fortunate experience of growing up as Orthodox we still may find that we are making wrong assumptions perhaps because some things were never fully explained to us or we stick with some simplistic interpretations we may have been given as a young child. The challenge then is to read and study as much as we can. We need to seek to grow as much as possible, and we need constantly to turn back to God in order to achieve this.
God will deal with us as we are within our own ability to handle ideas and situations. From the Gospel accounts we see Christ teaching the Twelve with more detail and explanation than He gives to other people. This is to be expected; nobody can deal with everything all at once.. In much the same way He expects different forms of service from each of us and uses different abilities in us all.
St Gregory the Theologian points out that no one is pre-selected for salvation or damnation, because we are all given free choice. He says: “Now I concede that some men have more natural aptitude than other but I maintain that mere natural aptitude is not enough to bring men to perfection… It is deliberate choice that effects this. When you hear the words: ’to whom much is given [will much be expected]’ you must add: ’it is given to those who are called and who respond to the call’”.
Such is the call and the challenge that Christ brings to each of us. God is active in our lives even though we ourselves are still in a state of imperfection. We see in the lives of the saints and apostles errors that were corrected by Christ who called and worked with them notwithstanding all their imperfections. We see change and growth in this process. What truly marks the saints’ lives is a striving to do the will of God. We too can listen and take instruction from the Lord. As the Book of Proverbs says in Chapter 12 v 15: “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice”. The best advice is from God Himself of course.
Now if we hear a call and if we are prepared to obey that call, great things can happen to each of us. The Apostles were the first to hear the wonderful news of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have heard and (more or less) obeyed also. Our Apostle reading today was from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians. This letter is a delightful collection of greetings and mentions a number of people. It is a letter from a friend to friends. Like the Apostles these were ordinary people who answered the call of God and went on to do amazing things. Let us do likewise. We stand in that Tradition as part of the same Church. As St Paul put it “BRETHREN, be watchful, stand firm in your faith”.
I close with the final words of St. Paul from the reading from the Epistle today. To quote St Paul again:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen. “