“Living Into the New Identity”

1 Sam 3:1-9; Mark 1:16-20
South Presbyterian Church – January 25, 2015
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift


The very observant among you will notice that the bulletin cover picture is the same this week as last. That’s because the topic is the same:  Jesus calling us to new life. Last week we looked at what it is to be called … how that happens … and how some other people HELP us to learn to recognize God’s voice.

But what happens AFTER we’ve sensed God’s call. How do we live into the new identity … that new life? How do we REDEFINE ourselves?

Simon and Andrew were just doing what they did every day … getting ready to go fishing. The same for James and John.

What are the common things that WE do all the time? Go to Wegmans? Sit and read a book? Dive through Starbucks? Eat lunch with other residents or your co-workers?

What if right in the middle of what you do every day … what if right in the middle of sending your kids off to school or just as you’re in the produce aisle at Tops … what if Jesus … whom you may have heard about but probably never met before … came up to you and said, “Stena … I want you do come with me.”  Or … “Jim … follow me.”

What  would YOU do?

It’s not like they were waiting around to get chosen up for kickball and you’re thinking, “Ooo … ooo … I want to be on HIS team.” This is somebody you don’t KNOW and you’re supposed to leave right then and there and drop everything that you’re doing RIGHT. THAT. MINUTE.

Puts it in a little bit different light, doesn’t it?

Well … to be sure there were cultural differences at between then and now and I want to share some of those differences with you. This is information taken from Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis which some of you have read. He’s a contemporary theologian and scholar and he explains the whole call process THIS way:

The question among the rabbis, the teachers, of Jesus’ day was how young do you begin teaching the Bible, the Torah, to kids? One rabbi [in the Bava Baktra, a tractate of Jewish teaching] said, “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him [with Torah[ like an ox.”  [Isn’t that a great image? J]

Education wasn’t seen as a lucury or even as an option; education was the key to survival. The Torah was seen as so central to llie that if you lost it, you lost everything. The first century Jewish historian Josephus said, “Above all else, we pride ourselves on the education of our children.”

So around six years old many Jewish kids would have gone to the school for the first time. It would probably have been held in the local synagogue and taught by the local rabbi. The first level of education was called Bet Sefer (which means “House of the Book”) and lasted until the student was about 10 years old.

Sometimes the rabbi would take honey and place it on the students’ fingers and then have them taste the honey, reminding them that God’s words taste like honey on the tongue. The rabbi wanted the students to associate the words of God with the most delicious, exquisite thing they could possibly imagine.

The students would begin MEMORIZING the Torah and by the age of ten would generally know the whole thing by heart. 







Remember, Bell writes, the text was central to life for a Jew living in Galilee in Jesus’ day. If you have read the accounts of Jesus’ life, have you ever noticed how everybody seems to know the Bible? Jesus quotes a verse or a phrase from a verse, and everybody seems to know the text. This is because from an early age Jewish people were taking in the words, and they were becoming a part of them.

By age ten, students had befun to sort themselves out. Some would demonstrate natural abilities with the Scriptures and distance themselves from the others. THESE students went on to the next level of education which was call Bet Talmud (“House of Learning”) and lasted until sometime around the age of 14.

Students who didn’t continue their education would continue learning the family trade. If your family made sandals or wine or were farmers, you would apprentice with your parents and extended family as you learned the family trade in anticipation of carrying it on someday ad passing it down to the next generation.

Meanwhile, the best of the best, continuing their education in Bet Talmud, would then memorize the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. By age 13 or 14 the top students had the entire Bible memorized. …

[By the way … this practice continues today. A friend of Rob Bell’s went to Yeshiva … Jewish seminary … in the 1980’s and said he was the only one there who DIDN’T have the entire Hebrew Scripture … the entire Old Testament … memorized.]

These advanced students would ALSO learn the art of questioning and answering with other questions … the rabbinic dialogue that Jesus employed.

Rabbis had no interest in having the student spit back information just for information’s sake. They wanted to know if the student understood it, if he had wrestled with it. … In the world of rabbinic education,, the focus was on questions.

But back  to this call process.

Around the age of 14 or 15, at the end of Bet Talmud, only the best of the best were still studying. Most students by now were learning the family business and starting families of their own.

Those remaining would now apply to a well known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s talmudim (disciples). We often think of a disciple as a student, but being a disciple was far more than just being a student. The goal of a disciple wasn’t just to know what the rabbi knew, but to be JUST LIKE the rabbi.

This level of education was called Bet Midrash (“House of Study”). A student would present himself to a well know rabbi and say, “Rabbi, I want to become one of your disciples.”

When a student applied to a rabbi to be one of his talmudim, he was desiring to take that rabbi’s yoke upon him. He wanted to learn to do what the rabbi did.

So when this student came to the rabbi and said, “I want to follow you,” the rabbi wanted to know a few things. Can this student do what I do? Can this kid spread my yoke? Can this kid be like me? Does this kid have what it takes? …

The rabbi would GRILL this teenage kid because he wanted to know if this kid could do what he did. The rabbi did not have time to train a kid who woudn’t ultimately be able to do what he did.

If the rabbi decided that this kid did NOT have what it took, if this student was not the best of the BEST, then he would send the student home. He might say, “You obviously love God and know the Torah, but you do not have what it takes to be one of my talmdim.” And then he might add, “Go home and continue learning the family business.”

BUT … if the rabbi believed that this kid DID have what it took, he would say, “Come, follow me.”

The student would … leave his father and mother, leave his synagogue, leave his village and his friends, and devote his life tollearning how to do what his rabbi did.

So at the age of 30, when a rabbi generally began his public teaching and training of disciples, we find Jesus walking along 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.

WHY were they fishermen?

Because they weren’t disciples. They weren’t GOOD enough; they didn’t make the cut.

Jesus calls THEM … not the good-enoughs.

And the story continues, “At once they left their nets and followed him.”

Rob Bell says: This is strange, isn’t it? Why do they just drop their nets? Why would they quit their jobs for some rabbi they had never met? … But given the first century context, it’s clear what is going on here. Can you IMAGINE what this must have been like —  to have a RABBI say, “Come, follow me?”

Of COURSE you would drop your net. The rabbi believes you can do what HE does. He thinks you can BE LIKE HIM!

He does the same thing with James and John who are apprenticing to their dad in order to become fishermen.

If they are still with their father, then how old are they?  14, 15, 16?  20?

Jesus took some boys who didn’t make the cut and changed the course of human history.[i]

But think about it. He continues to do that today. I mean … I was a little singer from Oneonta … or a little music teacher … when I was called to follow in this closer  (away.

But SOMETIMES … MOST times … we are called because of who  we are and what we are already doing and we don’t have to give up jobs and family … we don’t HAVE to move and the call is JUST as important.

Y’see … by virtue of our baptism and our WILLINGNESS to be committed to God through the Way of Jesus, we are CALLED just like those early guys were.

We are tapped on the shoulder … we are TOUCHED by Jesus … by the Holy Spirit. NOT because of what we DO or who we ARE but because of what we CAN be and who we can BECOME!

The Rabbis looked at POTENTIAL. Can this person live the life I will teach them? Can this person carry my yoke UPON them? And by virtue of us BEING here …  by virtue of us WRESTLING with what he teaches … by virtue of us QUESTIONING (which, you will remember, was PARAMOUNT for students to do in his day) … by virtue of all those things, the answer is YES!!! We are CALLED. Whether we had an experience of standing by our boats on the Sea of Galilee and hearing those words with our ears … or an experience that developed more GRADUALLY, we are called.

Just like those guys 2000 years ago … those not-good-enough-guys … WE are the ones who are called to change the world through our faith and our following Jesus.

“But I can’t do THAT,” you say …

Want to know my answer to THAT?  “Tell that to Jesus because evidently HE thinks you CAN.”

And just THINK how their identities changed … these guys were FISHERMEN. Later on we’ll find one who was a TAX collector and another who was a BUSINESS man … their lives CHANGED.  Who they WERE changed. They were no longer seen the same way by families and friends. They were seen as JESUS followers … DISCIPLES.

That change happens today with US, doesn’t it?

In my 20’s I was signed up for the Metropolitan OPERA auditions. I was training at the highest level with my teacher, the great John Huyck. 3 hour lessons twice a week … languages, repertoire … and months before that event, I withdrew because I realized I hated opera. It wasn’t my calling. NOW my voice is NOTHING because I haven’t worked on it but I can remember the first time I realized that someone had known me for 10 years and never knew that I’d been a SINGER.

That had been my self-DEFINITION. It’s who I WAS. It was who I had always thought I would BE. It was a “given” in my world …

My whole self-definition had to change.

And each ONE of our self-definitions changes when we say yes to our call. You’re called to be a parent??? It’s a new identity. You’re called to be a nurse?  New Identity. You’re called to teaching?   New identity.

See what I mean?

When we say YES to God … we have a new identity.

And this isn’t only true of individuals. It’s true of groups of people.

South Church has been around a LONG time … 166 years in one form or another. But I GUARANTEE that we are developing our NEW IDENTITY because we answered a call from God to choose life … to say YES, Lord … put us where you want us and show us what to do! And now we’re at the point where ALL of us here … ALL of us who because we are ALL South Church … we ALL are having to figure out what our new identity is, just like Simon and Andrew … just like James and John.

And that, my friends … is what today and next week are all about — the excitement of honoring the journey so we can look around and figure out who we are becoming… because once again … Jesus is saying … “Come … Follow Me.”

And so this day, let the people say, “Amen.”


[i] Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Zondervan, ©2005, pp 125-132.


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