There is a part of the Gospels that has always seemed astonishingly abrupt to me.
In Matthew 4, Jesus is walking along the shore when he spies Peter and Andrew fishing. He approaches them. “Come, follow me,” He encourages them, “and I will make you fishers of men.” After that, the Bible says, “at once they left their nets and followed Him.”
Jesus goes on a bit farther and spots James and John. They’re not fishing alone; they’re with their father Zebedee, preparing nets. Jesus calls them too. “Immediately,” the Bible says, they left their boat and their father and followed him.
Please don’t tell me this is natural to you. It isn’t. This is the strangest and least developed short story on the planet. The Bible tells us that Jesus is not particularly remarkable in either aspect or countenace – “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2) – so we know he was not so astonishingly handsome or amazing to attract followers. He spent no time developing a rapport with the men who would become His disciples; there’s not so much as a “how are you?” anywhere in here. And He hasn’t been blowing up the world with miracle and wonders to the degree that they agree to accompany Him out of a desire for fame or power.
It’s inexplicable. Jesus happens by. He asks; they answer. And not only do they answer, they give up everything to go along with Him: jobs, livelihood, family. Such a decision seems absurd, and I am tempted to try to explain it away, to justify it, to fill in the missing details that would explain why four men left everything to spend their lives with a Savior they didn’t yet know or understand. I wonder: had they been secretly hungering to leave all along? Had Peter and Andrew been longing secretly to be something more than mere fishermen? Were James and John tired of working with Zebedee?
But I don’t think there is any answer. Rather, I believe that in the Christian faith we must accept that there are great mysteries: happenings that are God-guided, God-born, and out of reach of our understanding. Whatever the circumstances were of the disciples Jesus called, it was God who had in some way prepared or tugged on their hearts. The story that we see in the Bible is only one side of a coin; on the other side exists God’s work in the cosmic realm, His shaping of the universe, of us, of our souls. We do not, and cannot, see clearly the workings of the Spirit. Yes, Jesus asked them to follow Him, but I suspect most of the work had already been done; as the actions of the disciples indicate, the invitation was a mere formality.
God had long been at work; in that moment, Jesus ignited the divine spark of love.
I am reluctant to speak too casually about God’s nature, about His will and His way and His call. Although I am a Protestant and I am happy in my Christian tradition, I think sometimes the Protestant tendency to view God as an on-call friend with whom we can always have a chat means that we forget how high above us, how incomprehensible to us, how enormous and complex and sovereign He is. Familiarity, as they say, can sometimes breed contempt. And yet reading that story makes me marvel.
Friends, there are times when you will know.
It won’t make any sense. It will perhaps seem counter-intuitive. To the world it will seem abrupt or strange. But at some point – at the moment of your salvation, certainly, but I suspect also at other moments long past that – you will know. The divine spark of love will ignite. You will know there is something that only you can do. You will receive the once-only invitation to do whatever it is God has for you to do.
May you leave your nets behind.