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Breath of the Spirit: When Do You Answer Your Phone? And Other Questions of Discipleship

The call of Jesus’ first disciples often challenges us to ask how we have responded to this invitation. Today’s reflection asks a preceding question: “Have I come to know the One who calls?”. Further, do others – at least implicitly – come to know that same call and Caller through their interactions with me?


Sunday, January 22, 2023: the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 8:23-9:3

Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14

1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17

Matthew 4:12-23

When Do You Answer Your Phone? And Other Questions of Discipleship

A reflection by Jeff Vomund

When I was young and our land-based, rotary dial phone rang, it was a moment of excitement. We had no idea who could be calling, and we couldn’t wait to find out. In fact, my brother and I would often race to see who could pick up the phone first. Occasionally, if we arrived just at the same time, we would get so distracted by pushing, shoving, and jockeying for position to pick up the receiver one of our parents would sneak in ahead of us!

These days, it is difficult to imagine taking a call on my mobile phone if I do not know the called. Typically, I simply ignore calls from numbers I do not recognize, assuming them to be spam or telemarketers.

Beyond that, it is increasingly rare for someone to call at all. For a certain age (somewhat younger than me), actual phone calls have been all but replaced by text messages. As our phones become more visual – tools for information, entertainment, or organization – to call another person is less an act of introduction and more an act of intimacy. We only answer calls from people we know.

This highlights an aspect of this Sunday’s gospel that we often overlook. Matthew’s version of Jesus calling his first followers collapses this moment into a rather inexplicable act of “blind” faith wherein Jesus seems to simply approach people and ask them to come with him. They obediently leave family, friends, and work to do so. However, this literary device meant to introduce us to Jesus’ earliest followers likely obscures the historical reality. Matthew covers this territory so quickly: John is arrested, Jesus goes to Capernaum and lives among those who fished for a living, he begins to preach about the nearness of God’s reign.

Left unanswered is how well Jesus already new those whom he called – and how well they knew Jesus! In Jesus’ day, scholars estimate Capernaum had about 1,500 residents. Surely, anyone who began a preaching ministry in that intimate context would have been hard to miss. Peter, Andrew, James, and John (and the women Jesus doubtlessly called but whom the patriarchy of our tradition has erased) likely had already heard what Jesus had to say and seen Jesus in action. When Jesus called them to a deeper ministry, they would have known one another. As with our mobile communication devices, we answer calls from people we know.

Given that reality, what did Jesus’ first followers already know about him that made them willing to depart from their typical daily activities and commit both to a relationship and a new way of relating? The author of Matthew does not give us much to go on. But the text suggests that Jesus emphasized God’s nearness to the people in this fishing village. This may have been a shock to Jesus’ listeners. So much of Jewish religion at the time centered around the Temple and Jerusalem. In contrast, Jesus seems to have been very clear that God’s care and concern also reached into the boats and nets and lives of the local fishers and their families. What must it have been like to hear that God’s infinite love and caring includes you? Not just your nation, but you personally are God’s concern. Jesus preached this message of God’s intimate nearness, then he backed it up with actions. He prayed with people, healed them, ate, and drank with them. The people of Capernaum did not have to blindly trust in a distant divine love, they experienced that love in Jesus.

That makes me ask myself: do people get a sense of God’s nearness when I am near them? Do others experience God’s loving care through my own concern? Do my friends, family, and coworkers have a deeper sense of their own wholeness and lovedness after we have been together? Do people want to connect with me because they have at least an inchoate sense of an acceptance and celebration of who they are?

At times I fear we want to follow Jesus without the implied commitment to become more like him. We want to follow Jesus without welcoming the stranger, without speaking to the outcast, without caring for the downtrodden. More personally, I want to identify as a Christian without recognizing the dignity and worth of people different from me or whose lives challenge my own way of thinking. But the challenging part of Jesus’ call remains that one cannot follow without being close the those Jesus welcomes: the forgotten, the poor, the marginalized.

Have you and I experienced Jesus’ intimate presence and passionate message in a way that tempts us to follow where he leads? Even if that leads us toward greater acceptance and trust than we have been conditioned to have? As humans, we tend to respond to calls from people we know? Have I spent the time and created the space to authentically know the One who calls? Also, do my words and actions help others experience that same call in their own lives? Which is to ask if my presence proclaims the nearness of Love and the intimacy of acceptance?

Jesus calls people he knows. We respond to a call – be it a phone call or otherwise – when we know the caller. It is my hope that others come to know Jesus – and can thus respond affirmatively to that call – through the Spirit’s presence in knowing of one another.

Jeff Vomund is a member of Dignity/Washington and currently lives in Arlington, VA. After 15+ years of full-time parish ministry and 7 years of teaching students with particular learning needs, Jeff now works at George Mason University as a Graduate Research Assistant and a Graduate Lecturer, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.

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