My whole life. I’ve been reading this passage from the Gospel of Matthew all week, over and over again. And I keep coming up with the same three words. The same mantra. The same vocation. My whole life. When Jesus walks in, when he finds me cooking in the kitchen or praying in the back room or typing away on a laptop, he’s always asking for this. Always inviting an unconditional response. “Follow me,” he says. Not with some part of your life. Not with a fraction of your courage. Not after making a deal. “Follow me,” he says, “with your whole life.”
Now what does that mean? Your whole life. Those three words. Because Jesus is asking you too. This discipleship stuff is not just for ministers, not just for monks, not just for professionals and activists and martyrs. Jesus is coming for you, for your whole life. Now does ‘your whole life’ mean fanaticism or simplemindedness or impulsive hero worship? No. You look at the rest of Jesus’ story and everything he asks of these disciples, and it’s not about hero worship.
Instead, discipleship seems to mean becoming a whole person, a fully engaged person, someone in whom mind, body, spirit, passion, calling: it all works together for a common purpose. And for Jesus that purpose is love, that purpose is compassion, that purpose is grace. Are you ready to follow with your whole life? Unconditionally. Keeping nothing back. Because that’s the question.
I have a hunch this has less to do with dramatic, one-time changes, although there are times when we have to make choices. But my hunch it is has much, much more to do with mindfulness, orientation and prayer. You see, God isn’t some concept you have to figure out, a foreign language you’re having a hard time learning, an equation the experts want you to memorize. We’re not talking about calculus here. God is all in all, the entirety of your existence, the vastness of creation, and the mystery of all that was before and all that will be when we’re no longer here. God is the breath you’re drawing in this very moment—kairos! now!—and the pulse, the blood stirring in your veins even as you sit here tonight. God is all in all. And the wild thing is not just that God is in you, but that you are in God. Surrounded. Immersed. Enveloped.
So Jesus sees two brothers, James and John, and it could be they’re hanging around an old fishing boat with their father. They’ve finished fishing for the day; might have been a good day on the lake, a long day; and they’re mending nets that have frayed and torn along the way. I don’t know exactly how they’d do this, maybe tying the ripped rope in knots, maybe some kind of crude knitting tools. But fishing’s hard: it’s hard on those who fish and it’s hard on boats and nets. And, at the end of the day, James and John are mending those nets with their father Zebedee. Over there by the boat.
And what happens? Jesus sees them and Jesus calls them. There’s something so stark, so simple about Matthew’s vocabulary here. “Sees them and calls them.” And what happens when Jesus calls them? Do they hear something in his voice, something sweet, something urgent maybe? Have they heard him preach before? Is there something in the way the sun’s setting? Have they been arguing with their father? We only know that Jesus sees them and Jesus calls them. There’s so much left to the imagination.
And maybe that’s because this calling happens in thousands of ways, different ways for every one of us. I’m thinking of the electronics CEO who looks out his window one day and knows he’s called to go back to school and teach teenagers. I’m thinking of the lonely believer who wakes up one day and decides to find a church. I’m thinking of the poet who sits on the beach and suddenly sees God dancing like diamonds in the surf. The universe calls to you and me all the time, inviting praise, coaxing delight, insisting on three simple, amazing, intriguing, strange words. Your whole life. Your whole life.
However the call comes to you—and be assured, it’s coming—however it comes, it doesn’t come from outside of you. It doesn’t come from a God whose life and grace and wonder is distant from your own. It doesn’t come from a God who’s found you wanting and comes from far away to save you. However the call comes to you, it comes from deep within and it comes from the heart of love. Remember that wild truth of faith: it’s not just that God is in you, but that you are in God. All of you. All the time.
So I imagine James and John with calloused hands, working with those torn nets, tired from a long day of fishing. And Jesus helps them remember. Whatever it is about him. The words he uses. The love in his face. Jesus helps them remember the wild truth: God is all around them. God is deep within them. God is the mystery, the grace, the unity—of land and lake, father and sons, boat and nets, sun and wind, soul and flesh. And God is love.
And the thing is: once the seed’s been planted, grace doesn’t leave you alone. Grace doesn’t let you off the proverbial hook. Which, I imagine, is a funny metaphor for fishermen like James and John. Grace won’t leave you alone. Grace insists on your whole life. And Jesus says, “Follow me.” Not just once, not just at one early moment on your journey. But over and over and over again. “Follow me.” “Follow me.” I imagine that James and John are so moved, so grateful, so excited by Jesus’ invitation—that they leave everything behind, the nets they’ve been mending, the family business, even their father. They leave everything behind and follow Jesus.
And this is not easy. It will never be easy.
Because Zebedee is left behind. By the boat. By the boat with the yet-to-be mended nets. For all the excitement of discipleship, for all the joy of discovery, something is left behind. Maybe Zebedee represents security, comfort, the easy routine. Maybe turning your whole life over—over to grace, over to God—means stepping off your family’s map. Maybe it means trying something, doing something, that your father’s never done before, that your family just can’t understand. Maybe Zebedee is a symbol of the security you leave behind to follow Jesus. With your whole life.
In any case, it’s not easy. Something, somebody is left behind. Maybe your old self.
You’ve been fishing all these years, Jesus says. Now you’ll be fishing for people, reaching out, extending a hand, offering hope and compassion and kindness and community. You’ve been mending nets, Jesus says. Now you’ll be mending neighborhoods, knitting together coalitions, empowering leaders, imagining a beloved community of shared resources and generous cooperation. Each of you will have your own gifts to share, your own passions to contribute, your own spirit to invest in this mission. Music. Expertise. Love. Prayer. But we will fish together, we will mend together, we will embody the kingdom of God together. That’s what grace means. That’s what grace is all about.
The thing is, if God is one, if God is all in all, if there’s no dividing God up into parts, better and lesser, bigger and smaller, then there’s no dividing us up either. Grace means our whole lives. Grace means we’re all in. Grace means unconditional, extravagant, daring commitment. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Most of all, grace means following. Going where Jesus goes.
So in your prayers, in meditation this week, gently hold these three words, this mantra. My whole life. I am created in the image of God. My gifts, my hopes, my passions matter. My whole life. Jesus is coming along, looking for me. My soul, my spirit, my heart. My whole life. Whatever I do today, I can do it with God, for God, because I am always in God’s presence. My whole life. Gently hold these three words. One moment at a time. One day at a time. And go where Jesus goes.
I want to finish with words from the great 20th century German theologian, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was distinguishing between something he called ‘cheap grace’ and the real thing. Costly grace, the kind of grace that claims our whole lives. He put it like this:
“Happy are they who have reached the end of the road we seek to tread,” he said, “who are astonished to discover the by-no-means self-evident truth that grace is costly just because it is the grace of God in Jesus Christ…Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.”
Discipleship is the life which springs from grace. Listen, friend. Hush. He’s calling you.