Responding to the Call


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

January 24, 2021


Texts: Jonah 3:1–5; Mark 1:14–20

      In his novel The Call, John Hersey traces the life of David Treadup, an American missionary in China during the late nineteenth century. Based on the life of his father Roscoe M. Hersey, a YMCA missionary in China, Hersey’s account of the struggles that faced those who answered “the call” is inspiring and thought-provoking. 

      Converted during the missions fervor sweeping North America's college campuses in the late nineteenth century and stirred by the preaching of "James B. Todd," also based on a real historical person, John R. Mott, who established the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, David is recruited by the International YMCA to take the Gospel to China. In 1905 he enters the network of YMCA ministries across China-including everything from urban evangelism to rural programs of literacy and agricultural reform. 

      This is, of course, just after the Boxer Rebellion, an early nationalistic and violent rebellion sparked by Chinese who felt occupied and ruled by foreign powers, resulting in the torture and murder of hundreds of Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries, which led to an even more brutal occupation by European powers. Early in the novel, one of his college classmates goes to visit David’s mother and asks why is David “throwing his life away” rather than returning to take the safe path.

      That is, of course, the question that is always asked when someone responds to “the call.” It wasn’t any different back in the days when Jesus walked the shores of Galilee and called the fishermen to come and join him in his quest. The Sea of Galilee, known by many other names, including Lake Tiberias, the Sea of Gennesaret, is Israel’s largest freshwater lake, about 33 miles long by about 8 miles wide. Its ancient name in Hebrew Kinneret means lyre because of its shape. At its deepest point, it is about 40 miles deep; like the Dead Sea to the south, it is significantly below sea level. 

      The Gospel passage this morning contains two of three discipleship call narratives that we find in the first two chapters of Mark; the call of Levi comes later. Several traditional images come to mind when we read this story, mainly from the paintings of the early Renaissance. 

       Two men look up at a red-haired man in a flowing white robe; they hold nets in their hands; their gazes are fixed on the man. In the background of one of these paintings, you see the man who must have been the father, a man looking distraught; his sons, called, were putting down their nets; they were going to leave. Wait! You could almost hear him shouting. Wait! Just wait a minute! What are you doing? Where do you think you are going? And, in the faces of James and John is an expression of uncertainty. 

       Uncertainty is the feeling of many who receive the call because we don’t know what will follow. The call in Mark doesn’t refer to the saving of souls in the traditional sense of the word, but to being a witness to the reality of Jesus as the harbinger of the realm of God. The so-called act of “saving” souls is the easy part; it’s always easy to answer an altar call. But the question becomes: What happens next? 

      What Jesus calls us to is a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in this process of dismantling the dominant social world is to realize that the political and the personal are one. Jesus’ call is not a call out of the world, but into an alternative social practice. It is uncompromising; it is a call to break with business as usual. 

      In our history at Old First, we have had pastors who have broken with expected norms as well. When he decided to support the patriots, Abel Morgan responded to a call for freedom, clearly not a road safe to travel. Had the British won, he would have faced the consequences at the end of a rope––the losers would have been the traitors––convicted of treason to the Crown. 

       During the 1840s and 1850s, Old First cooperated with and supported the Underground Railroad Yes! We smuggled slaves to freedom! Yes! We broke the law. Thanks be to God! 

      During the 1950s, John Bates stood for freedom against the forces of the radical right that would have silenced us. He continued to preach the Word––the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed––and he was excoriated in the press. Representatives of the John Birch Society came to listen to him to decide if he was a “real American”––as if being an American and a follower of Jesus the Christ were the same thing. God forbid! When is God limited to one nation? 

      The question for us is when we are called, how do we respond? Often, like Jonah in the old story, we don’t want to go. Now in the story, Jonah runs from God literally; that’s because the idea of God was more limited at that time. We run from God when we decide we are not really called because we don’t like the direction or the consequences of the call. 

      The call to discipleship is an uncompromising invitation to break with the usual pattern of life around us. In Mark, the tone is urgent––for the kingdom is at hand; there’s a certain apocalyptic quality that most of us no longer take seriously because we think of apocalypse as the end of the world. But I think Mark is pointing to another kind of apocalypse––the end of political power as he knew it, for Mark’s Gospel was written in the aftermath of a disastrous revolt against Roman rule. 

      It goes without saying that the Romans did not take revolts lightly. During the 30s and early 40s, Palestine, especially Galilee, experienced sporadic violence due to the growth of armed resistance to Rome. Following an attempt by Emperor Caligula to install a statue of his horse as a god in the Temple in 40 C.E., armed resistance in the form of raids on Roman garrisons increased. The anti-Roman violence increased even more after the Jews and probably the Christians had been expelled from Rome. 

      By the year 66, the year after Peter and Paul were probably executed in Rome, fighting broke out between Jews and Greeks in Caesarea. The Romans attempted to expropriate Temple funds to pay for the cost of their armies which radicalized even the clerical leadership, who had long been in collaboration with Rome to maintain their power. By the year 68 Jerusalem was under Jewish control. 

        The Romans pursued a scorched earth policy in their pacification attempts. After two more years of intense fighting that probably resulted in the deaths of half the population in the countryside, the Romans besieged Jerusalem and took the city in the year 70. Every man they found, they killed; the women and children who survived were enslaved; the temple was destroyed. It seemed like the end of the world. 

      As we will see during this year of reading and discussing Mark’s Gospel, Jesus offers a hope not placed in worldly power, for reliance on the might of the world only led to further destruction. Mark’s Jesus offers a different vision and he calls us to share that vision. Rather than relying on earthly power and collaborating with it, we are called to live the kingdom of God despite what the world tells us to do. Like Bonhoeffer, we are called to live in a confessing church over and against political power. It is a radical vision––it is a radical call. The question is how we respond. 

      Let us pray: Eternal and holy God, give us the ears to hear your call and the vision to discern where it will take us. Most of all, help us find the courage to respond to your call to radical discipleship. In the name of him who always responded to your call, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.