It has struck me that often we use the terms disciples and apostles for the twelve as if they were synonymous, but first they are called to be with Christ, to learn and grow in that relationship, as pupils or disciples, and then they are sent as apostles. And still they are not ready for Good Friday, and even after Pentecost there is a period of learning together and coming to understand their continuing call. It seems that the call to discipleship precedes and continues beyond any particular task, and yet we often use the term “call” to describe a task, work to be done, even the choice of career, putting the cart of mission before the horse of discipleship.
An alternative approach would recognize every form of service as a way of learning Who it is we serve. The Easter season is all about a series of recognitions, an essential and continuing sequel to the resurrection that allows the disciples, recalling what they have seen and heard, to reflect on its meaning, reinterpreting it in the light of familiar scriptures. They will continue as apostles, responding to a continuing call that becomes clearer and more meaningful as they go along (“Did not our hearts burn within us. . . ?”). The process of learning is part of the call.
Often too, looking back and finding new meaning in the past, recognizing the role of grace, becomes a kind of retrospective call. I was away from the Church for some twenty years, and my return meant extended reflection and self-examination. There seemed to be no way to calculate the sins of omission -- the tasks I might have been called to do if I had been listening -- but a wise priest said, "it seems to me that you have been trying to be a good person," and instructed me to go and sit in a quiet church and spend some time reviewing what I had to be grateful for. In the end I made a kind of project of it over several weeks, thinking I should spend at least as much time, thought, and prayer on gratitude as on repentance, and gradually I realized that part of what I was grateful for was having worked in various ways that I had thought would be "helpful" and expressed my ethical concerns. I realized that without seeing these as calls I had been allowed to serve. (How many "former" Christians do we all know, working hard in the non-profit world for social justice or peace?) That in turn made me realize that God had been with me all along, grace not only bringing me slowly back but guiding some of my choices in ways I didn't recognize. At that point I was called – recalled – to a new understanding and recognition that I could offer to God the work I had done during those years of absence, not as compensating in any sense but as a usable foundation for responding to what would come next.
Sometimes we do things without knowing why but simply because "it is time" or part of a current job or role description. Parenthood is like that. We work and love, thinking "of course," as if what we are doing just came naturally, but at the same time we are learning love and caring and attention that can be turned outward and made more inclusive as time goes on. Part of the continuity to discover in later adulthood is to discover the grace of God's call in whatever good we may have done along the way, as a guide to the way forward, called and recalled.
Mary Catherine Bateson is the author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, and a Cultural Anthropologist. For more information about her, and the other books she has written, please go to her website: www.marycatherinebateson.com