Everybody loves an underdog story. Humble origins, overcoming disadvantages, surpassing expectations, courage in the face of adversity, and so on, these are the themes that ground the contexts of innumerable narratives that are passed down from one generation to the next — from David v. Goliath (pace Malcolm Gladwell) to modern-day sports triumphs. We seem to take collective comfort in knowing that anything is possible, anything can happen, and anyone can be a success, regardless of the obstacles ahead.
Yet, when it comes to the church, which is the Body of Christ, we are slow to recognize this familiar underdog setup.
Today’s Gospel from Matthew’s account brings us to the foundations of Jesus’s ministry and the famous “call” of the first disciples. These men were illiterate fishermen, unimpressive in their trade (how many pericopes throughout the Gospels focus on when these guys do not catch fish), and even less impressive in their social standing. They were and remained underdogs, the least likely to continue the mission and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth after his death, no matter how charismatic his presence was in life.
But they do.
When it comes to saints and sinners, I think it is far too easy for us to forget the underdog and unlikely origins of the Christian community and instead assign the magic, heroic title of “saint” to Simon, Andrew, James, and John, while appropriating “sinner” for us today. Time has allowed these early disciples, the Twelve especially, to become more than who they were and, therefore, allow us to pale in comparison — at least within our own imaginations.
Today’s Gospel calls to mind how the church began and remains a community of the ordinary, a collective of those who try and fail, but try again no less.
There are ways that today’s Gospel account has also been reduced to a priestly vocations ad, which is really misguided. Yes, the Spirit of God calls people to different ministries and ways of being in the world, this includes those called to the ministerial priesthood. But this Gospel passage isn’t about the ministerial priesthood, it is about the way in which God in Christ continues to call women and men where they are — like the Simon and Andrew at the seashore — and call them to do something both ordinary and spectacular.
The ordinary activity of Christian living is to follow in the footprints of Christ, to “Follow me,” as Jesus asks us to do. It is little things done with love and lovely things that bring light to the world.
The spectacular is what happens when all are engaged in the ordinary activity of Christian living.
Simon Peter was not the one responsible for the continuation of the church after the death and resurrection of the Lord, but it was the entire community bonded to one another in the spirit of Christ and sharing the love of God. This is what St. Paul alludes to in the beginning of his Letter to the Corinthians in our second reading this Sunday. What makes us who we are, we can hear him suggesting, is the call we have received to love one another, walk in the footprints of Christ, and embrace the invitation that comes to all women and men. When we bicker and dispute about ultimately unimportant things, we weaken our connection to each other and work in ways that stand in contrast to the true meaning of our faith. We are the Body of Christ and therefore constitute and continue the community that we call church.
The Christian community began and remains a story of underdogs, those who are not necessarily hailed by the world as clever, popular, intelligent, original, or special. The Christian community is what happens when our ordinary efforts and ability to love meets the invitation from and power of God.
When we consider our proximity to Simon and Andrew and James and John, we can begin to see the responsibility we have to do what they have done — to come and follow Christ.