Nourishing our Call

January 17, 2021                    Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1:43-51


The second Sunday after Epiphany, and as every year at this time, the readings invite us to think about call. It makes sense: we have just heard the story of Jesus’s baptism, the beginning of his public ministry; so it makes sense that the next Sunday we hear about him calling his first disciples. Jesus’s ministry was never supposed to be a one-man-show: from the very start, it was about a team, a movement, a chain-reaction of lives transforming lives.

And from our point of view as well, as we begin a new year with its hopes and resolutions, we reflect on those two realities that tell us who we are as Christians: last week our own baptism, and this week our own call to discipleship.

I wonder: is that a word you think about in relationship to yourself, call? Is it something you reflect on in your prayers, looking for a sense of what God is calling you to do in your life? It is not a word we use a lot, I think, outside of sermons. A “call” was traditionally a special call some people discern to the ordained ministry, and the like – we didn’t talk so much about the call of lay people.

But on the other hand, when I think of some of the most popular hymns people love to sing, especially among the newer hymns, speak of our call to ministry – You are Salt for the Earth, O People; Will You Come and Follow Me; Here I Am, Lord. Why do we love these? I think they speak to our deep longing for a sense of purpose as Christians called to serve the world.

In the readings we heard two stories of call, the call of Samuel and the call of Nathaniel. The call of Samuel is one of those wonderful stories which, for me at least, is imbued with all the warmth and sentiment of childhood. I’m sure I must have heard it many times in Sunday School, it’s a story children can find themselves in. But I’m not sure it’s the most helpful story for adults to think about call – because the call Samuel received was such an extraordinary one. Not many of us are likely to hear God’s voice out loud in the silence of the night; and not many of us are called to overthrow a corrupt and unjust regime and lead God’s people in righteousness (though some of us may fantasize about it.)

Where as the story from the gospel has a much more everyday feel, a story about ordinary people. Even the way the story is told: it’s not polished into a dramatic Hollywood script, it’s more like the way we might tell a story:

So Jesus finds Philip as tells him to follow him. Now Philip is from Bethsaida, you know, the same place as Andrew and Peter, they must have known each other, the place isn’t that big. So then Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel and says, “You’ve got to meet this guy Jesus from Nazareth, he’s everything the prophets foretold.” And Nathaniel says, “If he’s from Nazareth, how good can he be, that two-bit little village back in the hills? What, the Messiah’s from Torbrook?” So Philip just says, “Come and see.” When Jesus sees Nathaniel, he says: “Well, here’s a true-blue Israelite, a guy who speaks his mind.” Nathaniel says, “How do you know me?” And Jesus answers “I saw you under the figtree before Philip spoke to you.” And Nathaniel was just bowled over.

It’s a bit of a run-on story, full of asides and loose ends (what was Nathaniel doing under the figtree? Some deep, heartfelt prayer, perhaps? We’ll never know.) It’s a story that unfolds in a circle of friends, one person talking to another, as might happen with us. Some of Jesus’s disciples may have been strangers to each other, but this core group must have all known each other from the fishing quarter of Bethsaida.

One good definition of friends – it goes back to the ancient philosophers: friends are people who bring out the best in each other. As they encounter this remarkable new friend from Nazareth, as they introduce each other to him, and are slowly transformed as Jesus brings out the best of each of them. After a year or so on the road with Jesus, would they have recognized their old selves?

I like to think that’s what we are here: a group of friends. A group of friends brought together by our friendship with Jesus. At our best, we bring out the best in each other. We bring our dreams, dreams of a better world, dreams of a meaningful life, and we try to be a safe space where we can coax these deep longings a little bit out into the open. We try to be honest with each other. We try to be kind.

I love the simplicity of Philip’s answer to Nathaniel. He doesn’t try to explain, to hold forth with some theological argument, to give him a tract. He simply says: “Come and see”. Come and see. It’s too big to explain, and I don’t fully understand what it’s about, but there is something good and wonderful and real going on. Just come and see if it doesn’t stir something in you too.

And that, I think, is all that we have to do too. No theological explanations, no pestering our neighbours by telling them what they have to believe. Just our own witness: I’ve found something that rings true to me, that means a lot. And the simple invitation: come and see. Come and be part of our circle of friends. Come and say the prayers with us, or just listen if you’re not sure you want to say them; come and sing the songs – it doesn’t matter if you think you can’t sing. Let the holy words ring within you, see if they don’t call up echos of your deep hopes and longings. See if they don’t call up the best in you.

There is a definition of vocation, of call, that I use a lot with my students, and I’m sure I’ve shared it with you before. From the American writer Frederick Buechner: vocation is the place where your deepest joy meets the world’s greatest need. There’s a lot in that simple sentence.

Your deepest joy. That is, a call is not something impersonal, out there, meant for someone else. Your call is yours, part of the most intimate core of who you are: the deep hopes and longings of your soul, the thing you are most passionate about, that makes your heart sing, or bleed, that is so precious you can only share it with your most trusted friend. That’s the energy that drives your call. It is there, deep down inside of every one of us, though we sometimes lose sight of it.

The challenge in following our call is to name and claim that deepest joy within us, and find a way to let it be fruitful for the world around us. Whatever it may be: helping others in practical ways, caring for the sick, capturing the beauty we see around us, making music, tending the earth, speaking up against injustice, teaching, raising a family, or even sharing the faith. Whatever our heart beats for; and I suppose it will usually be some combination of several things. And often it’s the little things, making someone smile, sharing a kind or encouraging word.

That sense of calling, of letting our deep joys make a difference in this world, is so important. Without it we are living our lives like a tourist, a spectator, a mere consumer of life; but when we can connect the passion within us with the needs of the world, then we are truly alive, then our life is meaningful and satisfying.

Again, I would suggest that is what are here for, when we gather as a church. To be friends who bring out the best in each other. To be a community where we can explore the deep joys and hopes and longings in our hearts; where we can let some of the words of our faith touch and stir these longings and give them names; where we can begin to speak them aloud (for what else is prayer?), and they will be cherished as holy and precious. And where we can help one another see how the deepest joys of our hearts are exactly what this world needs, and find opportunities to minister together from that deep place.

Is that what we are thinking all the time when we come together as church? Of course not. But I hope that in this community of friends, nourished by these ancient holy words and stories, we catch a glimpse occasionally of what we are called to be. And that we will continue to encourage one another with the invitation that Philip spoke to his friend: Come and see. Come and see.