Epiphany 3 2020 - The Character, Chemistry and Competence of Calling
I wonder what the job description of a disciple would have been? Nowadays, if you want to appoint someone, whether they be a teacher, receptionist or vicar, there are job descriptions, person descriptions, contracts, terms and conditions, statements of particulars and all that kind of paraphernalia. You’ll be pleased to know, if you saw that harrowing and shaming couple of programmes about Bishop Peter Ball and his high crimes and misdemeanours recently, that any appointment of any clergyman or woman is also accompanied by rigorous safeguarding checks and compliances. It is all good, as they say, and rigorous and reassuring.
But it is a long way from Galilee in 30 AD. When Jesus identified “Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew casting a net, and James. Son of Zebedee and his brother John in the boat with their father Zebedee mending their nets, and he called them”, as today’s gospel puts it, there was no process, paperwork or portfolio, just the simple, ‘follow me’. It was an open-ended, unlimited, unrestricted, undefined, unprotected, unsafeguarded, unsafe even, invitation. By unsafe, I mean dangerous, and indeed it was. Most of them ended up dead within a few years. It’s another world from that of modern day recruitment, vocational discernment and training.
In the Church, that process is sometimes summed up with four C’s. That is to say that Calling can be considered in the context of three other Cs: Competence, Chemistry and Character. Calling to a particular job can be all about competence, chemistry and character. Although it is quite possible that those first disciples whom Jesus called on the lake, had none of these things!
Competence is of course, about someone’s ability to actually do the job. In modern terms, to fit the job description. If the job requires sailing a boat, hauling fishful nets, industrial sewing skills and being able to swim, then these are the competences one needs to look for. The disciples presumably had these skills, learned from their fathers most likely. So we can assume that they were fairly good fishermen. Jesus called them to be fishers of people, and so was presumably working on the assumption that these fishing skills were transferrable. And he was right. Although as we learn from later stories, they took a while to learn their new roles and they made mistakes, messed it up, misunderstood, argued, lost the plot, bottled out, ran away, and one of them denied him and another betrayed him. So one might say that our Lord’s recruitment process wasn’t ideal. Not on paper at least.
But then there is the Chemistry, which is all about how people get on with one another. Are they going to like each other? Well that may not be entirely necessary, but they are going to have to work together. If they are going to rub each other up the wrong way, compete, undermine each other, destroy each other’s efforts, tell tales or cause workplace conflict and disruption, then the chemistry is not good, there will be bad smelling smoke and explosions. And we do know that later on, there will be some whiffs of bad chemistry among some of them, as they compete for the best places in the Kingdom of Heaven. They are human after all: No-one gets on with everyone all the time! Nowadays – and dare I say it, Brexit has been a case in point – it’s not that there is disagreement that is a necessarily bad thing, but the way in which we handle disagreement is what matters. And that is about chemistry, at home, in the workplace, in all aspects of life. There have been some bad chemical smells in our country these last twelve months or so!
One wonders about the disciples, some of whom were brothers. Not all brothers get on like a house on fire, indeed, sibling rivalry can be the worst kind. So in this day and age, careful interviewing, psychometric tests and role-playing tests might well be the order of the day. But not for the sons of Zebedee.
By the way – are you like me, who when I hear the name Zebedee, cannot but picture that mad creature on a spring from the Magic Roundabout? Maybe not. Emma Thompson’s father really does have a lot to answer for!
But whether the first disciples were bouncy guys or not, the other thing that they would have needed was character. We all have characteristics – marks of character, which define us and distinguish us out from everyone else. Everyone is unique, and the chemistry bit is partly about how characters interact. It is also about how they can weather the storms of life, how resilient they are, how they handle stress, work-life balance and so forth. And we know that the disciples were not terribly good at handling storms, not at first anyway. Soon, in a boat on the lake, with Jesus asleep in the bow, a storm brews up, and they panic. One of the teaching aids that some companies use for learning about conflict management involves creating a profile of someone that indicates how collaborative, forceful or controlling they are in two kinds of context, storm or calm. Some people for example, behave very differently when under stress, and it’s good to see that coming. It’s all very well being highly collaborative when the waters are calm, but if when the storm brews someone becomes shouty, aggressive, self-preservative or a gibbering wreck under pressure, it is good to see that coming. It’s not ideal having someone on board your team if they are going to bale out at the first sign of rain. This is all about character. And when we think about the character of the disciples, it is not obvious that they would have got through a selection process that examined character too closely.
Add Chemistry and Competence back into the mix to determine their calling, and these chaps do not look like ideal candidates. Yet Jesus does call them, and not simply because they happened to be idling around when he passed by. Far from it – they were busy, working, literally, minding their business. Jesus knew what he was doing, even if his methodology does not conform to modern recruitment practice. He called people whose competence, chemistry and character were perhaps a little doubtful. Which is what made them ideal candidates.
For they grew into their roles, walked and talked with Jesus, followed him everywhere, even ultimately to his and their own deaths. Peter denied Jesus, but this does not mean he was a bad appointment back then. His mistakes, just like, more so even, than his successes, formed him. For being a disciple is not just about what you know, it’s about your experience. And of course, in the case of Christian discipleship it’s not just about what you know but who you know. They got to know Jesus very well indeed. And this is where we, two thousand years later can be like them, whatever our calling looks like, whatever we know or think. For the key thing is whether we know the Lord Jesus.
Knowing Jesus and following him is the mark of true discipleship. Jesus the good shepherd who doesn’t push his sheep, but leads them. Like “Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew casting a net, and James, Son of Zebedee and his brother John in the boat with their father Zebedee mending their nets,” our calling is to follow. It is as easy, and as hard as that.
Because there isn’t a job description, role profile or anything to tell us what we are signing up for, where we are going and how easy or difficult the road will be. There is no wage packet, not contract, no working hours or time off. And the call is one that is all encompassing, as we embark on a fishing journey that not only calls us to share our faith with others, but to commit our time, our talents and our money to the great cause that leads to forgiveness of sins and eternal resurrection life. I think we sometimes forget that – for while sharing our resources with the wider church – the family of God – is not buying salvation as such, it is a key dimension of the common life which we share, an which is characterised by the hope of resurrection in our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is this resurrection hope which characterises our faith. It is this hope which is the catalyst in the chemistry set of faith. And it is the mercy of God which makes all our faulting efforts to achieve anything, competent enough for salvation.
So let these be the marks of our calling:
Competence in that in Christ everything is possible.
Character, that in Christ we are a new creation, redeemed in our very being.
And Chemistry, that one day we shall all be blended as one with Christ in the sweet fragrance of the resurrection.
To him be all honour praise and glory, now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/01/2020