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On Vocation with Jesus: Jesus vs John in the context of neo-liberalism and Anadarko

January 23, 2014

Matthew 4:12-23

The first thing that stands out for many people and did for me when I read this gospel story is the suddenness … Who would up and leave their life for a wandering passer-by?

As usual the gospels are thin on detail that is not relevant to their message… so they don’t explain, they don’t tell us whether the fishermen had heard of Jesus, or met him before, or discussed his teaching. We just don’t know.

I suspect the reason is simple… we don’t need to know. That’s not the point. The point is not the abruptness of the change as the nature of the change.

Today as a new year is beginning we come up against this word ‘vocation’ again.

For fishermen on the beach fishing is a search – a search for food, a search for fish to provide an income, a ‘living’ as we call it. The change is that it becomes search for people… people to what end … people with whom to share and enjoy the reign of God. Think about that for a moment. I will make you ‘fishers of men’ = I will set you on a search to find people with whom to share and enjoy the reign of God [pause]

In fact that is what happened to these disciples… this sudden change of direction on the beach that day became not just a moment of madness, but a vocation that determined the shape of their whole lives. For whatever reason (the story does not say) they ended up following a call to find people with whom to share the reign of God as Jesus was introducing it to them.

In our family it’s course selection time. Difficult decisions press in on my daughters. At a young age they are forced to think about the future about jobs, careers, and vocation. It starts with which subjects to take. The common dilemma is between what really interests them and what might earn them a living. How to keep your options open when you’re still young and so on. But at some point, I believe it comes down to a more basic question, a question that many young people just don’t know the answer to. ‘What do you believe in? What matters to you?’ Not what titillates your interest, or what will bring you success, or even what are you best at? It’s the question of vocation.

The most important question is not how to find a way of a way of earning a living… a way of sustaining, providing what’s necessary for something else called ‘living’ that you can then do because you have a job. That’s important, but it’s not so important. Not as important as ‘vocation’. Vocation is about what your ‘living’ is, what it means for you to be truly alive, what God is making of your living – of the project that your life is.

Recent research on ‘vocation’ among ministers and church goers found (H/T David Lose), unsurprisingly that preachers spoke about their “vocation” a lot. However, at the same time they found that people in the pews tended to say that they didn’t feel ‘called’. Perhaps they looked at people like me, ministers, as being ‘called’. But they didn’t think of their lives in vocational terms… their job was, apparently, just a job, not really significant before God and in the bigger scheme of things.

I think that’s sad for their job… but it’s also sad that they have tied their sense of ‘vocation’ and calling to a job – something they get paid to do by an institution whose fundamental purpose is to make money, whatever else it does.

The disciples did not leave fishing for another job. They left fishing for something much more than a job. They left fishing to embark on a search, a lifelong search to find people with whom to share the reign of God… in other words to find people with whom to share and live the life of Jesus Christ.

“Fishers of people” includes jobs but it’s bigger than jobs… it’s a metaphor for a relational life that is being learnt in the presence of Jesus.

What does this mean for us? To be more precise what does it mean to be taught this relational life from Jesus? How does it connect with some of the challenges we face.


Jesus started his ministry as a disciple of John. He was baptized by John and begins his ministry under the same slogan – “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. But as it turns out Jesus’ take on the kingdom of heaven is very different … so much so that John gets confused and starts sending him messages questioning the direction he is taking. Jesus has turned the kingdom of God on its head – for John it is a threat, for Jesus it is Good News. For John the reign of God is the revenge of God and only the righteous converts have a chance of entering. For Jesus the reign of God is “the year of the Lord’s favour”, it is good news for the oppressed, liberation for those in bondage, healing and wholeness.

For John the reign of God is close … close in the form of an immediate threat, but not yet present. For Jesus it is both close at hand and indeed present already, in his own ministry.

It’s not like there is no judgment in Jesus ministry, there is still an end of the world in the background. For both of them things are going wrong in the world, there is ruin and devastation to be addressed. Neither man has their head in the sand.

For John God will sort it out in vengeance. For Jesus God is already present sorting it out in grace, engaging the world from the bottom up.

And that’s the key difference. John the Baptist has a violent God… ultimately he anticipates the idea that only violence will redeem… the myth of so many stories and movies, the myth of redemptive violence – a cowboy with a gun wears the white hat. Jesus acknowledges the violence of the world… more so as his own death becomes inevitable… but he acknowledges it in the context of a gracious God – Abba Father who freely gives and who addresses violence with love.


What strike me is that in different ways we too live with the end of the world in the background– we understand what Ernst Kasemann called ‘the mood of world ruin’. This week an Oxfam report declared that now 85 people have same amount of wealth as 50% of the world’s population. 85 people (who could all fit in a double-decker bus) have that much control over the rest of the world, that much privilege… in the face of continuing extreme poverty, for so many of that 50%. You have to wonder where our current economic system is leading us. What is the endpoint of this process, this philosophy?

This month we have been exercised as a community to think about our future. Do we care that the vast majority of scientists have concluded that runaway global warming is an imminent danger and that we may very soon have released enough carbon from fossil fuels to pass the 2 degree threshold? That even if we don’t find any more oil to burn at all and simply use our current stockpile we will be well on track for disaster? And if we don’t care, what does that say about our faith and our theology? In the context of this scientific situation we are asking ourselves, as a community in Dunedin, whether we will cooperate with Anadarko and be lured by the prospect of the wealth it might bring us. This is not a party-political bandwagon. This is simply the question that science puts to us (on the one hand) and the gospel puts to us (on the other).

Like John the Baptist and Jesus we too know something of the mood of world ruin.

As Christians we take Jesus’ side on this matter. God will finally sort these matters out. But God is present now (and not in vengeance). And in the presence of Jesus, God is setting people free, liberating them now. And those who fish for people are on the look out for those with whom to share the reign of God now. This is our good news and our vocation.

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