Call and Claim

Second after Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)          Psalm 139:1-6,13-18          1 Corinthians 6:12-20                John 1:43-51

Usually it’s a mistake to try to connect all the lectionary readings in a sermon. Usually they don’t really hang together, so the poor preacher trying to find a common thread has to twist and grasp at obscure details to try to make them say the same thing.

Today, however, is the exception to the rule. From the call of Samuel to the call of Nathaniel, the four readings really do seem to have the same theme: the claim that God has on our lives.

We begin with Samuel, the boy serving the old priest Eli in the Temple. We are in the time of the judges, an age of anarchy and chaos, when Israel is the prey of its powerful neighbours. What is more, it is a time of spiritual emptiness: the word of the Lord, we are told, was rare in those days. And then Samuel is raised up: the first of the prophets, and the last of the judges; the one who will raise up kings in Israel, and lead the transition to a new age of strength and prosperity for his people.

He is called first of all with a prophetic message for his time. The religious institutions have become corrupt; Eli’s sons, who have inherited his priesthood, are a couple of scoundrels. They have been taking advantage of the vulnerable women who come to the Temple seeking help from God. So the message Samuel has to deliver is one for our time as well: it was the #MeToo movement of its day, three thousand years ago, calling for a end to sexual exploitation by arrogant men with a sense of entitlement.

Now I remember this story so clearly from my own childhood, from Sunday school days – although it wasn’t exactly the crimes of Eli’s sons that were emphasized. I think what speaks so powerfully to children was the thought that even as a child you might be known and called by God. Samuel does not know God: three times he calls, and Samuel doesn’t recognize what is going on. But God knows Samuel, he knows his name and calls him by it. God has a purpose for Samuel all along.

There is that same sense of being known by God in the strange story of the call of Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a sceptic, not willing to go running after this new prophet from Nazareth of all places; a man who asks the hard questions. Jesus seems to respect him for it: an Israelite, in whom there is no guile. And yet, before his questions are answered, before he knows Jesus, he himself has been known and recognized. It’s a weird detail in the story: I saw you when you were under the fig tree. We don’t know what he was doing under the fig tree, and we’ll never know – that is between him and Jesus. But apparently it was a moment of significance in his life, something close to who he really is as a person, because when Jesus refers to it, he knows himself instantly known inside and out, and he immediately believes. Whatever Jesus knows about under the fig tree, it is a kind of claim on Nathaniel’s trust and life.

This sense of God knowing us inside out is emphasized in the Psalm, one of my favourites. God, you have known me and searched me out; God knows my inmost thoughts, even before I have utter them aloud, perhaps even before I know them myself. This knowledge is wonderful; it is both comforting and also more than a little disturbing, that I am so transparent to God, so unable to hide anything. God’s claim on me is rooted in the fact that it is God who made me, ‘knitted me together in my mother’s womb” – what a beautiful image.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
This intimate knowledge that my creator has of me is a kind of claim on my life; before I am my own, I am God’s. There is a purpose and meaning to my life that lies in my creator’s will, long before I begin to discern and understand it.

Our epistle reading, from 1 Corinthians, seems to take us to a very different place: Paul is calling some of the Corinthians to account for a bizarre misunderstanding of the freedom of the gospel. They have come to understand freedom as an absolute, as the right to do whatever they want with no other consideration: which for these men in the wild seaport town of Corinth apparently meant hanging out in the red light district. It is again a very modern sentiment: the idea that personal freedom is the absolute value above all others. When taken to an extreme, it turns our lives into just another consumer product, something that is ours just to enjoy however we want. Paul’s answer is to insist that we are not our own. We have been bought with a price: that price was the love and sacrifice that Jesus made for us. And that love stakes a claim on us and our lives. Even our own bodies are not our playthings to do what we like with; they are temples of the Holy Spirit, dedicated to living out God’s good purposes in this world.

So all four of our readings, each in its own way, focuses on the same cluster of thoughts: that God knows us more deeply than we know ourselves, before we know ourselves; that this knowledge forms a claim that God has on us; that this claim is the basis of a call to serve him in this world.

How does that feel to us: you are not your own, you have been bought with a price? As modern people, we probably find this stifling, threatening. We are the heirs of centuries of throwing off the oppression of feudal slavery to come to a time where we celebrate the freedom and independence of every person. The idea that anyone or anything, even the creator who made us, has any kind of claim that could limit that freedom, is deeply threatening and offensive.

And yet, as modern people we understand also something of the despair and meaninglessness of modern life. If we reject any claim our creator might have on us, if we see our lives as only and purely our own private possession, to do with whatever we like, then we have rejected the idea that our lives could have any kind of innate purpose. Purpose is something we have to create for ourselves, by the way we shape our lives and the stories we tell about ourselves. But not everyone has the leisure to plan our lives as though we were planning a vacation; those who struggle to keep a roof over their heads, and get their kids brought up, may find this one task too many. And for others, this sense of home-made meaning may be unconvincing. No wonder there is such a hunger for leading meaningful lives in our world today, even in the midst of plenty, such a thirst for a sense of belonging.

And that is the promise and challenge of the Christian tradition: that we do belong, we belong to our Creator, who created us for a purpose, and that purpose is a claim on our lives. It is a claim that may seem to rob us of freedom, the freedom to be the sole authors of our lives, to decide for ourselves what our life should mean. But the claim of God upon us, the purpose of God for us, is not something imposed on us from the outside. It is written deep within us, woven into our inward parts. It is our truest self. And in finding our truest self, in claiming and living our call to love and serve others, we find our way to our fullest and deepest freedom, the freedom to truly be ourselves.