If you lived along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee in the first century chances are you were a devout follower of the God of the Old Testament. Nearly every town, from the important commercial locals like Capernaum to the small hamlets like Bethsaida, had a Synagogue and was accustomed to Rabbis who regularly and faithfully read and taught the Word of God. In fact, you were probably literate. So important was the reading and understanding of the Torah that the Synagogues taught every child how to read, and, up to a point, interpret and understand the books of Moses.
If you showed special aptitude, you were able to continue you schooling with the Rabbis. And at a certain point, if you had the ability and the drive, you were able to leave your family’s trade and study to become a disciple of a Rabbi and finally, a Rabbi yourself. It was an honorable and respected calling, but very few had the ability to follow the schooling that far.
When we are introduced to Christ’s first disciples, we do not meet them in the local graduate program at the feet of the Rabbis. We discover them tending to their nets in the family business. The system of Rabbinical education had turned these guys back to their nets. There was nothing necessarily wrong with any of them, they just were not up to the task of being disciples.
Unless the teacher was Jesus. What does it mean to be called by Jesus to be his disciple?
First of all, it means Jesus initiates the call. The standard path involved young would-be disciples striving and memorizing massive amounts of Scripture to show themselves approved and able to be disciples of the best Rabbis. The only qualification Jesus’ disciples seem to have is his desire for them to be disciples. Any achievement tied to following Christ is subsequent to the call—it is not their achievement that draws Christ to them, it is Christ’s call that draws them into the depths and wonders of the Kingdom of God.
Secondly (and what naturally follows from the first point), anyone can respond to the call. In fact, at one point, Jesus calls a piece of societal scum to follow him (Mark 2:14). Jesus approaches us as people who do not know how much we really need him. In fact, it is only after we have spent some time with him that we really grasp the depth of our need. Being called by Christ does not mean clear and complete comprehension first in order to receive the approval of our Master. It means we press forward in the Kingdom of God in joyous response and discovery because of the unmerited favor Christ showed us by calling us.
Third, we are called to a journey. We all learn step by step what it means to follow Christ, and we learn it together. Jesus did not call a group of isolationist ascetics who would live alone in silent contemplation. These fishermen, tax collectors and merchants would spend the next several years with Christ day and night, and then years more with each other and another generation of disciples.
Jesus did not call a group of followers who already knew what it meant to accurately follow him. Jesus called people to be disciples and discover what it means to reflect him moment by moment, failure by failure, victory by victory.