The call of the Apostles in the Gospels seems artificial and contrived. Despite some differences in the individual Gospels, the Apostles give up everything to answer a call from someone they have only just met. It seems very unlikely as a journalistic account, but it very accurately describes if not the moment when the call is first heard the moment when it is understood. I can relate to this myself and can also see it in the life of Martin Luther King, but here with one enormous difference.
The Apostles were the first leaders of the Church, but we see them today as disciples, followers of Jesus like the rest of us. They were not of the poorest class, Peter and Andrew seemed to be rather prosperous and some may have been better educated than the average Jew. We see in today’s Gospel that the immediate group had some connection with John the Baptizer, so they were knowledgeable and interested in religion. Being the disciple of a famous rabbi would have allowed social and most likely financial improvement. Yet there was significant risk, Jesus’ message was as strange then as now. There is a kingdom coming, but it will not be brought by war and power, but by love and nonviolence. No matter when or how a person hears this, realizing what it really means is always a revelation and always requires a firm decision. Today we read the Apostles’ “yes”.
I was born in a time and place where even the dogs and cats were Catholic. The Church was the center of our lives. It was natural for a young man to be attracted to the priesthood. It made it easier because the priests and sisters in my parish were outstandingly good people. When my dad was dying, they would take turns driving my mom and me to the hospital to see him. When I was in the seminary high school the Pastor would take me to dinner a few times a year but always on the way we would visit someone in a hospital or nursing home. He made it seem the natural thing to do. Yet with all these signs of charity, I also realized that the priesthood at that time was a high-status profession and an opening to the “good life”. Now notice that I am not directly speaking about a vocation to the priesthood here, but an acceptance of discipleship. That occurred after ordination, when I had to ask what kind of priest I wanted to be. My “yes” was to follow the example of the priests and sisters of my youth.
Martin Luther King was born into a prominent ministerial family. He attended the best schools and secured a very well-paid pulpit in Birmingham, Alabama. He planned to do this for a while then find a teaching position in a major city. This was the path of many successful preachers before and after him. Although he had gone through a period of unorthodox theological beliefs in his youth, he was now secure in his faith and prepared for a successful if unexciting career. Then he was called to be disciple in the fullest sense. He because the leader of the Birmingham boycott because he had polish and was too new in the area to have alienated either the white or black power structures. Everyone thought they could out-maneuver him. Despite his youth he proved politically very savvy. He was also spiritually sophisticated and very soon realized that this would not be something to burnish his resume but a true acceptance of God’s call. He also knew that it was a death sentence.
I would not have written this a year ago. I would have made the analogy to the Apostles who recognized over time that following Jesus would be following him to the cross. Yet looking at the division and hate in our country, I now think he knew within months that he would be martyred. But a few days ago, barbarian hordes rampaged through our Capitol with murder on their lips and nooses on their hips. The depth of their hated may have surprised us but these were emotions that MLK would have observed from childhood and could see where they would lead.
Yet from the very beginning until the bitter end, he preached nonviolence. How extraordinary! He preached – and in so many ways accomplished – loving the people who eventually killed him. How many of us could do that?
Yet would not our lives be happier and more fulfilled if we could? God is love and he made the world out of love. Human love is effectively seeking the good of the other. When we love, especially those who will not return it, we are righteous, in the strictest sense, we are in a right relationship with God. When we do not, we are out of harmony with him.
We can easily forget that MLK was Doctor Martin Luther King: the “doctor” was an earned degree in philosophy from Boston University. When he said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, he was making a philosophical statement. It may have political effects, but it more than a strategy – however successful – but an affirmation of the created order. This is simply the way the world is.
To love our enemies is the most difficult task, but it is the one that binds us closest to God and the way he created the universe. We need to see this not as a ticket to heaven sometime in the future, but a means of earthly happiness here and now.
To make love the center of life – whether in ancient Palestine, 20th Century Alabama, or 21st Century Brooklyn – is not only to know what is right, but to hear the call of the One who made it so.