As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake for they were fishermen. ”Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
For those who are at wits end because of the difficulty and stresses of work, there is something really cool going on in this story. Here, Jesus takes people who were doing the stinky, salty, wet, dangerous, low-paying, sometimes cold, sometimes hot, always exhausting work of fishing (I’m guessing, not a very “fulfilling” career), and asks them to join him in the work of the Kingdom of God.
By the way, this doesn’t mean that they stopped fishing (the stinky kind) altogether. There are several stories that follow this one which tell us that Peter and Andrew eventually had to pull out the nets again, probably to earn a few bucks. So, if you are looking for a magical experience that liberates you from ever having to do your own type of stinky, salty, wet work again, this story won’t deliver what you’re looking for.
But it also might deliver something much, much better.
The thing that I love about this story is that – from here on out – Peter and Andrew no longer have to think of themselves as (the stinky kind of) fishermen. They were about to take on a new identity that would change their purpose in the world. True work, for them, was about to become something entirely new, and something that – though far from easy – would be much more meaningful and joyful to them.
Think about this for a minute. How much do you know about Peter’s fishing techniques? How about Matthew – what kind-of tax collector was he? How much do you know about what Bartholomew did for a living? How about those tents that were made by Priscilla and Aquilla? Were they good tents? Would you want to spend a rainy night in them?
We don’t know any of these characters based on what they did for a living. We know and understand them based on their relationship with Jesus and how they continued his mission in the world after he was gone.
So this is today’s good news for those who are caught in the mundane, work-a-day world: your identity is no longer tied to your work. Your work isn’t what defines who you are. Your identity now flows from your participation in the work of God in the world.
Workaholics: rejoice! No longer do you have the pressure of being a hyper-productive, big-buck earning superman. There is a place where you can be loved, regardless of whether you can produce anything.
Cubicle dwellers: take heart! You may never climb very far up your firm’s ladder. You may never have the corner office, or the six figure paycheck, or the massive stock options. That’s okay, because what happens in your office doesn’t determine who you are any longer.
Minimum wage earners: things are looking up! It doesn’t matter whether you wear a suit to work, where you live, what you drive, or even whether you own a car. Those things don’t define you any longer. There is something much more important about you.
I won’t dwell on this point, but the reality of a new identity, not tied to work, has a corresponding down-side for those who are attached to the prestige that comes from well-paying or highly respected jobs. They have more to give up before they can find greater riches and identity in the work of God, and they will struggle with that surrender.
God can free us from everything that ties us to work. Our need to be respected because of the kind of work we do? Gone. Our compulsive desire to have a certain amount of income to buy the stuff we need or pay for the debts we have incurred? Gone. Our need to feel like we are being more productive than others in some kind-of contest of personal merit? Gone.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t work. It simply means that we don’t have to be tied to our work in ways that make us feel like we are slaves to it. Work is still an important thing, to be sure, because it feeds our families and furthers God’s work in the world (again, see my prior post). In that sense, we should take work quite seriously. But, once we have been called, work is no longer the thing that our lives are about. We can take it or leave it, and we’ll still be the same persons. Our businesses can crash and burn. Our clients can desert us. Our new boss can run us out because he doesn’t like something about us. And we’re still okay, because we aren’t so tightly bound to our work that it controls who we are, making us miserable.
There is another side to this: God is also calling you to a new kind-of work. Not the paying kind-of work, but work that furthers the same ends that Jesus sought in his ministry. And probably, it is only when you find that work, and become passionate about it, that you are going to begin to think of yourself differently, finding freedom from the cursed work of this world.
Not surprisingly, you may find that there is a relationship between what you do for paying work and what you are being asked to do in your real work. For example, I started practicing law because I have some modest abilities to work with words and ideas, and to interpret other people’s ideas in one context (for example, case law) so that they can be reapplied in other contexts, where I am asked to be an advocate for someone. Now, I’m discovering more and more that God is blessing the things that I do in His work that have to do with the expression of words and ideas, and how they are used in new contexts. That doesn’t mean that I don’t do other things as well. It just means that – just as Peter and Andrew were still fishing in a sense – so I am also still advocating, even when I don’t need a law license to do it.
Here is the way I would re-cast the story of the calling of Peter and Andrew in my own life:
As Jesus was walking through the building, he saw Matt. He was sitting at a desk, typing a brief on his computer, because he was a litigator. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to be an advocate for the Kingdom of Heaven.” At once he left his desk and followed Jesus.
(By the way, in writing that last sentence, I don’t mean to imply that I’ve somehow reached a level where I’ve “dropped everything” to follow Jesus, as it seems Peter and Andrew did. But I do think that the last sentence is an expression of the direction of my life, a direction that has only been made possible because God is immensely patient with me.)
How about you? Would anyone care to write the story of your own calling? How can God save you from your own ties to your occupation? How is he calling you to new work that furthers the mission of Jesus?