God Calls Us
If someone says, “I’m going to call you,” immediately we think of a phone call. If I tell another person, “So and so called me,” they would think the same. When we read today’s Gospel (Mark 8:34 – 9:1) from the Sunday after the Universal Exaltation of the Precious Cross, we hear that Jesus “Called the people” 34Καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος τὸν ὄχλον (v.34). Knowing they did not have phones back then, we imagine a scattered crowd mingling around, and then Jesus raising His voice, “Hey everyone, come over here.” And that is probably what happened. But since that time 2,000 years ago, millions of people have used the same terminology, “Jesus called me,” to mean something different.
Today, if someone told you, “Jesus called me,” would you think of a phone call or Jesus appearing in the middle of a crowd and calling a bunch of people together? That is doubtful. Most likely when someone says, “I was called by Jesus Christ,” he or she is talking about an intensely personal experience in which the person senses or feels intuitively that Christ is speaking to them directly. Usually this call is for one of three purposes: 1) to cause the person to change their life radically, from sinfulness to righteousness, or 2) to strongly encourage the person to enter a vocational ministry, or 3) both 1 and 2.
I want to focus today on purpose number two, the calling to ministry, because today we remind everyone in our parish to support our seminary, Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston Massachusetts. When people feel the calling to church ministry in the Greek Orthodox Church of the United States, this is where they go. Hellenic College is for undergraduates pursuing a bachelor degree, and Holy Cross is the graduate school. Almost invariably, a person will need a graduate degree in theology to pursue a vocation in church ministry.
Let’s take a closer look at some examples of persons being called to ministry in the Church. Starting with the Apostles, we hear in Matthew 4:18-22 that Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John while they were working their jobs as fishermen. It says that all four of them immediately left their nets and began to follow Jesus. Thus, we learn that a person can already have a job and be called to ministry. In other words, you don’t have to be young coming right out of high school or college to be called by Jesus. Neither does church ministry need to be your first job. When I went to seminary, for some of my school mates ministry was going to be their second or third career. Even though I was in my mid-20s, others were in their mid-30s or mid-40s, a few even older than that.
St. Matthew was also called from his job (Mt.9:9-13) but he probably was not the most righteous or admirable person. Because he was a tax collector (aka publican) for the Roman authorities, he was considered by his fellow Jews to be a traitor and a sinner. When questioned by the Pharisees, Jesus did not deny their accusations, but said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (v.13). Of course, we are all sinners to one degree or another, but it’s important to remember that a person does not need to be near perfection in righteousness and holiness to be called to ministry. Actually, one can be quite far from this.
Look at St. Paul. He was once named Saul and he persecuted and encourage the murder of Christians. Nevertheless, Christ called him, from that former life to a new one. As recorded in Acts 9, we hear the risen and ascended Christ speak to Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (v.4) and speak to Ananias the reason for His miraculous appearance to and blinding of Saul, 15But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake." (v.15-16).
The calling of Philip is less dramatic as recorded John 1:43-51. We just hear that Jesus was traveling in Galilee, found Philip and said to him, “Follow me” (v.43). The calling of Nathaniel, also known as Batholomew, is a little more intense because of Jesus seeing him under the fig tree when He was somewhere else and knowing him when they had never met before. However, what most people miss in this story is that Nathaniel came to Jesus in the first place because of Philip’s witness, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (v.45). The witness of one person to another is probably the most common way people begin to listen and hear the call of God. Do not underestimate the power of God’s ability to speak through you to help Him call others to ministry.
We do not know how the other five Apostles (Judas Iscariot, Thomas, James Alphaeus, Thaddeus & Simon, see Mt.10:2) were called but we do know that all twelve would abandon or betray Christ. Yet, all of them were restored with repentance except Judas Iscariot. It perhaps goes without saying, but calling to ministry is no guarantee of protection from temptation, neither it is against persecution. There will be great challenges because the devil works hardest where people are working hard for Christ and His Church. That’s why parishes, our Metropolises, our Archdiocese, and even our seminary seem to be constantly struggling with various issues, often with one person or group pitted against another. If the devil can succeed in these places, he can do great damage to the faith of many.
Sometimes, people ask me, “How did you come to be a priest?” What they mean is, “How did you receive your calling to ministry?” I will share in briefly my story and then a couple lessons that can be drawn from it. The seed was planted in my heart when I was 18 years old and I travelled with a group of 20 other youth around the same age from our home parish, St. Mary Greek in Minneapolis, to the Patriarch Athenagoras National Retreat Center just 30 miles outside of Cheyenne in the foothills of southeastern Wyoming. Most of the staff were seminarians at Holy Cross in Boston, and the director asked me one day, “Have you ever thought about being a father?” I replied, “Well sure, I guess I’ll get married and have kids someday.” He said, “No, I mean have ever thought about being a priest?” I was like, “Yeah right, no way!” I didn’t respond this way because I didn’t like priests or the church. It was just one of the farthest things from my mind.
Now that week was very impactful on me, and I went back to the retreat center for a week each summer for the next four years. But I never consciously was thinking about priesthood, even though I was fairly involved in the life of the parish community back home. Yet, I was nowhere near perfect as I had my own personal ups and downs along the way. My friends and family can attest to that. It wasn’t until after I finished college, and it took me a long time to do that, that I worked as counselor at St. Mary Summer Church Camp. I had not been to camp for eight years, since I was camper. But two things happened: I met a priest whom I could relate to and I worked closely with the kids. And right after that week was complete the light bulb flashed and the message was crystal clear, “Serve God in the Church.” From that point, everything in my life was geared towards attending seminary. And about a year later, Pres. Jane and I moved to Boston.
In conclusion, I will share three main lessons that I learned about God’s calling. First, I learned that many different types of people are called to ministry. If anyone has reservations about God calling to ministry, don’t let it be because you think you need to be like me or some other priest. You don’t! God needs lots of different personality types in ministry because the same diversity exists in lay people of the parish. Second, I learned that there almost as many different ways of God calling people as there are people. Almost everyone has a unique story but many of those stories gravitate around similar experiences. Church camp is one, serving as a missionary is another, being involved in church, working closely with a priest, or visiting a monastery and getting to know a monk or nun. Third, many but not all of the people God calls are wounded. They have truly suffered in some manner or another. In that experience, they have developed a deep sensitivity to the suffering of others, and they want to help. And helping others to heal is often the way God helps us to heal.
So, remember, God is calling each and every one of us, some to vocational ministry in His Church, whether ordained or not ordained, and others to committed faithful volunteer service in the Church. Others may be called to serve in church related organizations like FOCUS, IOCC, OCMC and by the way these opportunities are growing. Others may be called to teach in educational institutions in a manner that witnesses the Orthodox Faith tradition, whether explicitly or implicitly. Others are called to work in secular jobs but to witness their Faith in Christ by humble example and look for opportunities to explicitly grow in the Faith and share it with others. Please support Hellenic College and Holy Cross to help further God’s calling. Amen!