I’m standing on the beach, surrounded by fishing nets and rotting jellyfish. My hands are cramping from three days of morning-to-night net mending, untangling the wet mess of ropes, and yanking gloppy jellyfish from the web. I’m happy to be working with my husband and sons, but I’m ready for a rescue. I’m ready for Jesus to come strolling along our Alaskan beach like he did on the shores of Galilee, calling out the simple deliverance to those fishermen, “Come, follow me!” (Matthew 4:19).
Jesus called those fishermen away from their nets to a higher pursuit, to “go and be catchers of men.” Of course they said yes! Who wouldn’t trade in dirty fish for soul-saving work?
The Great Divide
While I’m onboard to jump ship and drop the nets, I’m also troubled with Jesus’ call. Christ’s words seem to imply a world divided between the flesh and the spirit—the sacred and the secular. This was amplified in Jesus’ final earthly charge to believers: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
I remember pondering this idea years ago, immersed in another kind of dirty work: changing diapers, hauling baskets of molding laundry, scraping dried food under the high chair. If Jesus called the fishermen-disciples away from their mundane labor and toward a higher calling, what about the rest of us? Aren’t we all laboring in daily sludge? Surely Jesus is calling us to more! Surely we are doing lesser work than those in “full-time Christian service” who are living extraordinary, make-a-difference lives!
I hear this struggle from many around me. A middle-aged friend who teaches health at a Christian high school confides in me one night that she’s not doing enough for God. She thinks she’s being called to resign, move to Mexico, and start a ministry for abused women. A neighbor making dinner for her large family hears the evening news, sees the refugees, and feels like she is wasting her life on floor polish and toilet bowl cleaner. Another friend who homeschools her four children questions this “calling,” wondering if God is asking her to serve abroad somewhere.
It’s little wonder we wrestle over this. For believers, “calling” is serious business. The word itself comes from the Latin vocatio, from which we get our word vocation, and the Greek kaleo, both meaning simply, “to call.” We believe the caller is God himself and that the one who is “called” is chosen particularly for nothing less than God-appointed work.
We join a long history of angst and confusion over calling, fed in part by these very Gospel passages, and, fed by the church, both Catholic and Protestant. Through the centuries, both created social hierarchies with the clergy on top and the commoners who made bricks, milked cows, and mucked stalls, on the bottom. Evangelicals have played their part as well. Those who join the clergy or become missionaries or in some way enter “full-time Christian service” are clearly doing more for the kingdom than the rest of us—right?
The Priesthood of All Believers
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther eloquently addressed this in “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility.” He named “a cobbler, a smith, a farmer” as “all alike consecrated priests and bishops,” who all serve one another for the “bodily and spiritual welfare of the community.” Luther went so far as to say that “God is milking the cow through the vocation of the milkmaid.” Today, websites like TheHighCalling.com echo Luther’s wise words, aiming to encourage people in their daily work.
In the Garden of Eden, God’s first appointment for Adam and Eve was work: they were to “tend and watch over” the garden (Genesis 2:15). This labor was not a burden but a blessing. Creation was indeed “very good,” as God declared, but he did not declare it perfect—because it was incomplete. It needed the man and woman to cultivate it into full bloom. That work in the garden is the genesis of agriculture and the genesis of culture-making, all of which was presented to God as worship.
All these words—culture, agriculture, worship—are linguistically connected reminding us that our own work, our own culture-making, done with love for God, is an offering of worship. There is no division then between the work of our hands, the culture we create, and our worship. It’s all the same activity.
But even when we can rejoice in this theology of work, our struggle isn’t over. Is it truly enough to attend to our own culture-making and worshiping when persecution, sex-trafficking, and wars are raging on? In light of these palpable needs, and Jesus’ own command to be salt and light, calling seems to be taking on a new urgency. It’s becoming more and more synonymous with a particular kind of work or ministry that responds to the needs at hand. We are urged, all of us, to become activists in some way, aided by recent books like Dare Mighty Things and Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery. These notable books (and many more like them) were written to launch us from complacency into action.
All these efforts are laudable and biblical, but there’s a fallout. In the rise of social justice concerns, I believe we’re falling back into a yawning divide that privileges clergy and “Christian ministry” and devalues the rest of our culture-making work. I see women and men doing essential work for the kingdom—raising children, growing food, building houses—who are denigrating their own labors, imagining a higher call elsewhere. At the root of this, I worry that we’re beginning to believe that God values us primarily for our labor and our talents. Most of all, I worry that so much emphasis on our calling can weaken our focus on the one who calls.
The Calling Is Jesus
I think of that morning by the sea when the fishermen dumped their nets to walk behind and beside this rabbi. What was it that lured these multi-generation fishers away from their nets? It wasn’t a new line of work. They had no idea what “fishers of men” meant. They were compelled, not by the call to exciting new work, but by the one who was calling them. The first and most essential call Jesus gives is this: Come, follow me.
We can become so fixated on discerning our “calling” and our “doing” that we forget that Jesus calls us first into a salvific relationship of love and obedience. The proper focus is Jesus himself, who he is and what he has done for us, not what we are doing for him. Mother Teresa, renowned for her good works, noted this confusion: “Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”
Dozens of verses in the New Testament flesh out this perspective of calling. In the largest sense, the church itself, the ekklesia, is “the called out one.” We’re called “out of the darkness” and “into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). We’re “called to be his own holy people” (Romans 1:7) and he has invited us “into a partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). This calling “can never be withdrawn” (Romans 11:29). We are called into liberty “through the loving mercy of Christ” (Galatians 1:6). Our calling is heavenly and “holy” and is given “not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning” (2 Timothy 1:9).
Are we free then, after the call to salvation, to do nothing, or to do whatever we like? We know that faith without works is dead and that we were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV). Salvation begins our life of faith; it does not end it. But no matter where it takes us, it must begin in love for the one who calls.
One of the most poignant passages in Scripture makes this clear. When Jesus commissions Peter in John 21 to establish the church, he does it by asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responds, impassioned, “Lord, you know I love you!” (verse 15, emphasis mine). Jesus does know. He then commissions Peter to “feed [his] sheep.” What is it that qualifies Peter for his new calling? It is not his skills or his talents or his labor that matters most; it is his love for Jesus Christ.
What about the rest of us who love Christ? Where will this love take us? What will we do?
Maybe it will keep you home, content, raising children, growing gardens, and designing houses. Maybe it will take you into the boardroom. Maybe it will take you across the world. Maybe it will take you to Israel, to walk in the steps of the disciples.
While thousands of miles from home, hiking around the Sea of Galilee during a research trip for my next book, I realized something further. Jesus didn’t call the fishermen far from the life they knew so well. As they followed him, there were boats and storms and lake crossings to come. He didn’t remove them from the world of fish or fishermen—both were present in abundance. If you want to feed a multitude on a hillside, what is better than a few fish? Nor can you pay taxes without catching a fish who might be harboring a coin in its mouth. You can’t show your friends the physicality of your risen body without roasting and eating some fish with your astounded friends, who thought you dead.
Following Jesus, answering his call, did not remove the fishermen from their neighborhood; it returned them to their neighborhood. Now, with opened eyes and ears, they saw their surroundings anew, in all its beauty, suffering, and sacredness.
Jesus is calling us still, right here in our own beautiful, suffering neighborhoods: “Come, follow me.” When we say yes to this call, we stand in the extraordinary position of being deeply loved. We are made holy and called into intimate fellowship with the Son of God. Our eyes are opened. All our work is worship—even yanking jellyfish.
Leslie Leyland Fields is an award-winning author of eight books, a contributing editor for CT, a national speaker, and a sometimes commercial fisherwoman, working with her husband and six children on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where she has lived for 36 years. Her most recent book is Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Thomas Nelson, 2014).