While modern job descriptions expect ever more unrealistic standards, Jesus continues to take us as we are; knowing what he can make of us
The British are renowned for their gift of understatement but this may be changing. Language is routinely inflated now as people try to distinguish what they mean from the feverish hyperbole around them. One curious outcome of this is found in the terrain of recruitment. The person specification of the average professional job seems to demand the brain of Stephen Hawking, the imagination of Steve Jobs, the business acumen of Marissa Mayer, the enthusiasm of Sheryl Sandberg, the diplomatic skills of Ban Ki-moon and the problem solving speed of James Bond.
It’s probably a surprise to a winning candidate when the workplace turns out to look less like the West Wing of the White House and more like Dibley Parish Council.
The absence of realistic expectations and a lack of self-awareness may contribute to this culture; unfortunately it often compels candidates to sell their skills dishonestly and to endure chronic insecurity when they land the job.
The calling of the first disciples by Jesus is, by contrast, an exercise in studied understatement. The chronology of Matthew 4 suggests that the imprisonment of John the Baptist led Jesus to think in a structured way about his message. He withdrew to the quietness of Galilee and, no doubt reflecting on the State’s efficient muzzling of John the Baptist, considered who he wanted to be surrounded by in preparation for the moment when the authorities would come calling in the night.
These people would embody and express his message. If today’s recruiters had been charged with the task of locating Jesus’ disciples, it is unlikely they would have chosen Peter, Andrew, James and John. More likely they would have sought urban, educated types who were easy with the language of power and the subtle requirements of political occupation. Jesus went to the place where the countryside met the sea and chose some honest working class men used to turning in long shifts; quiet people minding their business in an unfussy corner of a small land which history would otherwise have passed by. There is no way of knowing what Jesus saw in them because the narrative is characteristically sparse. There is no suggestion they had previous experience of leadership. The story of their three years in the company of Jesus showed they were devout but also prone to impetuosity and self-aggrandisement; men who earned A starred for effort but C minus for understanding.
God takes us as we are. We know this in our heads but it often bypasses our hearts. We feel like the employee who spun their skills shamelessly at interview and now feels fraudulent and inadequate. The response of many biblical heroes to their calling was to remonstrate with God over his choice. Moses, Gideon and Jeremiah lacked eloquence, courage and experience, but God was entirely dismissive of their objections. It is interesting that the disciples responded differently, neither questioning nor challenging Jesus. There is a welcome lack of pretence in their demeanour, an unassuming candour in their response. When Isaiah encountered the call of God, he said ‘here I am, Lord; send me’. When we wrestle with our inadequacies as a Christian, it can become indulgent. All God is asking of us is the next step.
The early message of Jesus was disarmingly simple: ‘the kingdom of God has come near’. In case anyone suspected him of inflated claims, he proceeded to demonstrate this with an inexhaustible sequence of self-authenticating miracles and healings. He was also not afraid to take unsettling ideas and make them serve new purposes. Like twentieth century Poland, ancient Israel lay at the crossroads of history’s empires, to be trodden like mud in the lust for territory. When Israelites heard talk of kingdoms drawing near it usually meant their peace and tranquillity would be violently overturned, either by occupying armies or deporting powers. A kingdom drawing near echoed with the loss of freedom and the threat of violence and yet here Jesus demonstrated a kingdom which liberated the oppressed and brought peace in spades. It turned human expectations on their head.
If the paradigm of fishermen forsaking their nets for a bigger catch is the one that lingers in our minds when we think about the calling of God, it should not inhibit other models. When Jesus calls in life, the vast bulk of people do not drop their nets to follow him, they take those nets up again the next day, as they always have. Most people do not give up the day job to follow Jesus and this is a crucial distinction which should not be lost in our calculations. There is no sense in withdrawing Christian people from secular workplaces. Jesus used the image of his followers being salt in the world. When we salt a meal to eat it, we don’t deposit the salt in a huge lump on one square inch of the meal like a toddler might, but spread it liberally across the food. Evangelism, the task of telling others that the kingdom of God has come near, is a shared responsibility. At times we would prefer it were not, as we tend to shrink from the judgment of others.
All human beings communicate values without thinking about it; it’s an implicit function of being alive. The question is whether we radiate the values we hold dear or if we contradict them. The Christian who loses their temper easily has not earned the right to speak about the peace of God; the one who trashes people behind their back is in a poor place to talk about the grace of God; the one who never smiles won’t be tolerated talking about the joy which faith brings. This is where we move on from the idea that God calls us as we are, for he calls us with a view to transformation. This is not an easy journey for any of us, but if it is one other people see us making, there will be some integrity about us which might help others to think more deeply about issues of faith.
The task of witness, which has been the daunting privilege of God’s people through history, has become an especially challenging one today, for there are subtle yet growing restrictions being put in place over what one can and cannot say or do in relation to faith in wider society. It has often, and rightly, been said that we need to have permission to share what we believe; this suggests we need to show integrity in order to be listened to. There is, however, an increasing sense in which permissions are being withheld by some authorities who impose a shallow sense of neutrality that denudes human conversation of its inherent right to ‘convert’. We should all be robust enough to listen to what other people hold dear without taking mortal offence; this is the essence of a truly liberal society. Our shaky grasp of this is inching us slowly into a post-liberal culture where the distinguished role of evangelism which those first disciples took up is restricted. This may begin with the sharing of faith, but it is unlikely to end there.
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