Sunday 14th January 2018
The Second Sunday of Epiphany
First Reading: 1 Samuel 3: 1 – 10
Second Reading: Revelation 5: 1 – 10
Gospel Reading: John 1: 43 – 51
We are all called….What – Me?
Well, actually, we are all called – to something. To be or to do or to become something, whether or not we use the word “calling”. We might explain it as that childhood assertion of wanting to be an astronaut, or a policeperson (can’t use the word “policeman” any more, can I !) or a millionaire, or a doctor. Or a mother, or farmer, or a priest; or almost anything else you can think of. And, as we grow up, this sense of what we’re meant to be, to do with our lives, can alter radically according to changes in circumstances, or inspiration from an outside source, or just this urge of knowing where we’re meant to go, what we’re meant to be.
Regrettably, “calling” when used in a churchy context is too often locked in with the somewhat mis-used word “vocation” and artificially restricted to the idea of God calling someone to be a member of the clergy – one rarely hears about any other form of “calling” unless the particular church or vicar is very open minded, liberal, and not afraid of identifying and then using gifts and abilities. Like us! But there are so many ways of serving God; just think – when was the last time anyone was encouraged to think of offering to do the essential church cleaning, or volunteering to be a Welcomer as being a “calling”? Or simply by talking about God and Jesus to others?
We see this business of calling in both the Hebrew and Gospel scriptures this morning, though the John reading doesn’t use the actual word. But it’s definitely there – however, more about Philip, Nathanael and Jesus later.
Samuel, you might remember, is the child that Hannah prayed for in the Temple, the prayer that Eli the priest overheard and thought she was drunk. When that child Samuel was born, she gave him to the Temple to serve God, watched over by Eli. So Samuel was in an intensely religious atmosphere, a place filled with the drama, dreams and prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures. But we’re told that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, with few visions; the religious traffic appeared to be one-way only: sacrifices and prayers from earth to heaven. Hardly ever the other way round, where the Lord spoke to any of the people on earth, even the priests and temple ministers. No wonder then, that Samuel thought it was Eli calling his name – after all, he was there to serve Eli even if he was being taught to minister to the Lord. Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
Just imagine….what would we have thought? Even if our own religious background or surroundings included going to church and observing all the formal structures of worship, if we believed that we heard a real voice coming out of the ether calling our name, most of us would probably contact a medical professional for advice. As for having visions… would we admit it? We sane rational “normal” people don’t experience that sort of thing, not in the 21st century Church of England, do we. Visions are just as rare now as it was in Samuel’s day. Or are we being close-minded and very dismissive of how God might work?
As it happens, the Lord didn’t give up – persistence is a good thing even for God! Eventually, after the third time Eli was disturbed, his religious expertise told him that if he hadn’t been calling Samuel it must be….the Lord. And that the correct response to God calling someone could only be the willingness to pay attention. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Neither Samuel nor Eli knew what the Lord was going to say, or demand, or ask Samuel to do. Simply to be obedient, it would seem, to be open to God’s plan, just like all the other people in the Bible in somewhat the same situation: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Mary. Jesus.
Think of the alternate scenario: What if Eli had been jealous that Samuel had really heard the Lord, when his much more senior mentor Eli might never have had this vision or experience? Would Eli have said “you’re bonkers, it’s just your imagination, ignore whatever you might hear. Go back to bed and leave me alone!”
God calling is something we all might hear at times – but do we pay close attention and really listen? And, if we do listen, can we be sure that it isn’t something we’ve manufactured in our own minds. We can easily deceive ourselves that it’s God when it might be our own wishes or wants. Or we might decide to refuse the calling, or actively avoid it. If it’s really from God, will the niggle stay bothering us until we finally give in? Would we be like an Eli, willing to help discern that it was God doing the calling, or would we be an insecure jealous supervisor dismissing another’s call – who resented someone else being given an opportunity for service, selfishly blocking any possibility of fulfilling that opportunity or promise. I have to wonder- can human actions obstruct God?
When we come to John’s gospel, it’s Jesus asking Philip to follow him – a different sort of calling. This is a real person talking to another real person; no visions, words out of thin air, mistaken identity of the one making the invitation. There’s no sense of Philip leaving an existing life of sitting behind a tax collector’s booth or abandoning fishing; but what we do hear is that Philip’s very first action is to go and find someone else to tell about Jesus, this is what he’s inspired to do. “We have found him,” says Philip. Good news indeed! And Nathanael initially sees only the obvious surface facts of Jesus as coming from Nazareth, dismissing him with “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What a tiny, provincial, dead-end dump. How can Nazareth possibly produce the messiah promised by Moses and the prophets? Philip, like Samuel’s God, isn’t put off – come on, come and see, he says; echoing Jesus’ own invitation to his first potential followers right at the beginning of John’s Gospel. I believe that the really important point of this calling story isn’t about Jesus’s almost magical recognition of Nathanael; instead, it’s Philip’s role. He’s an evangelist, letting people know about Jesus and then leading them to him.
Here is the relevance for us. As followers of Jesus, we’re asked, we’re called, to help others to find him. To know him, however the Jesus in God becomes known to people in many different ways. Lots of us might think that we’re really small peanuts in the evangelism business compared to clergy, or others trained and authorised by the Church to talk about God and Jesus and the whole Christian experience – how can we possibly be part of something so important, especially if we haven’t heard a voice in our minds or ears asking us to do this? But evangelism is something we can all do in many different ways. Most of us wouldn’t choose to parade down Battersea High Street wearing a sandwich board, or stop people in the street to talk about the Gospels; but we can help spread the word by not being coy or apologetic about admitting to being Christian – with friends over coffee, or at work, for example. Willing to share stories about our faith and our Lord in our own way. The PCC did just that yesterday, experimenting with how to tell our own faith journeys to – relative – strangers. It wasn’t as hard as you might think!
How we do that telling is something each of us needs to discover. We might need guidance or encouragement. Sharing our faith with others, especially strangers, can seem like a very scary job. But if we keep it to ourselves out of reticence or fear of being ridiculed, how does that help spread the good news of Jesus and the Kingdom? I’ll bet we can all tell stories about our work, hobbies, children and pets, likes and dislikes; but when it comes to religion there seems to be a lack of confidence about finding the right words to use. Most of us won’t have an Eli who will give us those words; and really, there’s little point in worrying about what are the “right” words. We might quietly and carefully listen to what God is trying to tell us. We could invite others to “come and see” by starting a gentle conversation wondering about the meaning of life. We can gain confidence in talking about God and Jesus by participating in FaithWorks this year, which is about mission, about moving outwards, to be a church for others and bring people along to find out more. And as the Holy Spirit might say – be evangelists, tell the story, don’t mess about; trust God and just go and do it! Amen.
Leslie Spatt ©2018