In the mid-1960s, there was a country song that won several awards and was eventually recorded by none other than Elvis Presley. Most everyone in this church today probably remembers the first line from the chorus: “There goes my reason for living.” The songwriter, of course, is referring to a woman with whom he is in love, and, although one hopes that it might be an exaggeration that she is literally his reason for living, it’s an understandable emotion. Now, I could argue that devotion to one single human being is not by itself a worthy “reason for living.” But, at least he had that. As I look around at our society today, I wonder what percentage of people would hem and haw and stammer and stutter if they were asked to respond, off the cuff, to the question, What is your reason for living? I suspect it would be a substantial majority who would have a difficult time with that. It is indeed quite common and easy for someone in our society to feel adrift and aimless in life, to feel no purpose in life, to have no “reason for living.” It may even be the default condition. And, I have to say, people who profess faith, Christian or otherwise, are not immune from this. One might expect Christians to do a little better than non-Christians about having a purposeful life, but it’s not always the case.
Indeed, faith is fragile and vulnerable in this world. There is no end to the number of competitors for our attention and interest. Every direction we turn, something is popping up and screaming, “Make me the one! Let me be your reason for living!” It could be a politician, it could be a video game, it could be a career, a diet, a vacation getaway, a social cause … all in endless varieties. The allure of the world can distract our attention from our faith. Pressure from the world can overwhelm and smother our faith. When our faith does not supply a compelling sense of direction and purpose for our lives, when our Christian identity is not our “reason for living,” the world is right there with plenty of alternatives to choose from.
Simon, later called Peter, was a simple fisherman. He didn’t aspire to anything greater than eking out a living from a large Palestinian lake. Then he met Jesus. Jesus asked if he could borrow Simon’s boat, tied up just a few feet off shore, to use as a speaking platform from which to address the crowd that was gathered. Simon allowed this to happen, Jesus taught the people for a while, and then Jesus—who was a carpenter by trade, not a fisherman—presumed to give Simon fishing advice. He said, “Push off a little further out and then drop your net.” Simon probably rolled his eyes inwardly—he’d actually been out on the water all night; this was in the early morning—but he decided he would go ahead and humor Jesus. Well, you heard the story: Simon let down his net and it was soon filled with more fish than he was even able to haul ashore; he had to ask for help.
Then, after giving Simon an unsolicited fishing lesson, he says, in effect, “Why don’t you leave this fishing thing behind?å I’ve got something rather more fulfilling in mind for you. Follow me and ‘fish’ for people instead.” And when they got back to shore, Simon Peter—along with his partners James and John, Luke tells us—“left everything and followed Jesus.”
A few hundred years earlier, a fellow named Isaiah, was, like Peter, just minding his own business when he has this crazy vision of the glory of God, surrounded by six-winged angels, and lots and lots on incense. Isaiah is so impressed and inspired by the experience that, when the Lord asks, “Who will go for us?” he immediately responds, “Here I am. Send me.”
Both of these accounts are instances of vocation, which is just a Latin-based way of saying “call.” God called unsuspecting individuals, first Isaiah and then Peter, to serve him in a particular way. Isaiah became the prophet who gives us the great bulk of the language and theological framework for how we understand the notion of “Messiah,” the pattern for which Jesus eventually became the fulfillment. He created the environment in which the arrival of the Messiah could be interpreted. Peter, after some fits and starts, became not only an Apostle, but first among the Apostles, the “Rock” of the Church.
In these two calls, the call of Isaiah and the call of Peter, we see vocation as a means of grace. Vocation is, indeed, a means of grace. First, vocation conveys the grace of forgiveness and absolution. Before Isaiah is permitted to respond, “Here I am, send me,” he is terrified by his own abject unworthiness, as we read,
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”But, in God’s mercy, Isaiah is not left to wallow long in his guilt:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”And Peter—when he witnessed a carpenter having given him the best fishing advice he’d ever gotten, was smitten by an awareness of his own sinfulness:
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”The Lord’s invitation for Peter to follow him carries an implicit declaration of pardon. For Isaiah and for Peter, the call of God first imparts the grace of forgiveness.
Then, after pardon and absolution, the call of God invites and allows the one who is called to be enveloped by the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven, to participate in the manifestation, the realization, of God’s love, God’s ongoing project of raising up things which were cast down, making new things which had grown old, and bringing all things to perfection. In Peter’s case, the call of Jesus incorporated him into a community of disciples focused not on catching fish, but catching people—catching them not to kill and eat them, but catching them alive in order to give them deeper and more enduring life.
You and I are among the “fish” that “Peter” has caught over the last 20 centuries. We have been “caught alive,” and initiated through baptism into the mystery of the Kingdom of God. We have been sustained through Word and Sacrament as we explore the Kingdom’s riches. We are called to be disciples who make disciples; we are caught fish who catch more fish. That is our purpose. That is the meaning of our lives. That is our reason for living.
As members of twenty-first century North American society, we run the risk of drifting through life aimlessly, but, in the words of the familiar hymn, “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea.” I have a vocation. You have a vocation. They’re not the same. We’re all called by the same Jesus, but he calls us to different ministries in his Kingdom. The peculiar vocation that each of us has been given, however, is a means of grace to us. It is the channel for the perfection of our holiness; indeed, for our eternal salvation. And when we respond to that call, when we emulate Isaiah when he said, “Here am I, send me,” we become ourselves means of grace to others. We catch other “fish” alive, that they may experience what we have experienced. The most wonderfully exciting thing we can do in our life of faith is to listen for and discover that vocation. That vocation alone can divert us from the distractions of the world; again, in the words of the hymn: “Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying, ‘Christian, love me more.”
Indeed, may the grace of the Holy Communion we are about to receive enable us to hear the clear voice of the Savior saying, “Christian, follow me.” Amen.