By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
In today’s readings from the lectionary, we get a sort of biblical sandwich. The slices of bread are the Old Testament reading and the Gospel, both about being called to God’s service, while the sandwich spread is the reading from 1 Corinthians.
Now, this sandwich spread is a bit too salty to be truly tasty, but it does have nutritional value. So let me say a word or two about St. Paul’s letter before moving on to the more palatable topics in the other two readings. Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. They have got it into their heads that, since they are saved, nothing they do here in the material world really is of ultimate importance. Consequently, the more “advanced” thinkers in the bunch have begun to advocate the complete abandonment of sexual morality. They argue that nothing that they do with their bodies affects their souls. St. Paul thinks otherwise. Now, we may not agree with all Paul’s teachings about gender and sex, but even so, we should pay attention to the theology that underlies today’s reading. The essential idea is that our material bodies are holy, just as the Temple in Jerusalem was holy. And if, as we are taught, we are mystically united with Christ through Baptism, then what we do with our bodies is of ultimate importance. More generally, what we do here in this fallen material world does make a difference, whether for good or for ill.
And now for the sliced bread in today’s biblical sandwich! And the bread is all about God’s call to us, our vocation. In the story from the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear about the calling of Samuel to be a prophet. Recall that Samuel had been dedicated by his mother Hannah to serve in the Temple, in gratitude for his miraculous birth. Today’s story tells how the young boy hears God calling him in the night. Three times, he hears the call, but each time he mistakes it for his master Eli. It is the priest Eli who eventually recognizes the call for what it is and instructs the boy how to respond appropriately: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as his master bids him, and the rest is history!
What strikes me in this story is how the discernment of Samuel’s call took place. Samuel was unable to figure out the meaning of his call on his own. He didn’t know how to respond. It took some consultation to make that clear. This community needs to be listening for that call in the night, especially as Fr. David’s retirement draws near. This community needs to discover what God is calling us to do, what God is calling us to be, in new and changed circumstances. And like Samuel, we are going to need all the help we can get to discern that call. Now, Samuel had his master Eli. We have one another, and we have our bishop. There may be some reluctance to draw the bishop into this process of discernment. But in all honesty, we have no choice; the bishop will have his say. So it would behoove us to invite the bishop’s participation in our discernment process sooner, rather than later, praying that our bishop will display the wisdom of Samuel’s master, Eli.
In the Gospel reading from John, we get yet another story of God’s call. But this call is not direct, as it was with Samuel, but rather mediated. God calls Nathanael to discipleship through his friend Philip. Philip, who is already convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, invites Nathanael with these simple words: “Come and see.” And surprisingly, Nathanael does just that, despite his prejudice against Jesus’ connection to Nazareth, a town of no particular repute. He comes and sees for himself. Jesus looks into Nathanael’s heart and discerns that he is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit or guile. When Nathanael asks where Jesus knows him from, Jesus displays a miraculous clairvoyance. He says he had seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before his conversation with Philip. Now, we are told that Nathanael is guileless, but frankly based on his response, I would be tempted to say that Nathanael was just a bit gullible! Nathanael’s response to Jesus’ clairvoyance is over the top: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Now, as it turns out, Nathanael is absolutely right on both counts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to label him gullible.
In this story of Nathanael’s call to discipleship, we see yet another aspect of how God goes about calling us to ministry in the world. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, the call is mediated through a person we know. It comes from the mouth of a friend or neighbor who says, “Come and see.” Recently, Sally Munro has invited friends to worship with her here at Incarnation. We have new choir members because of her invitation. Our music director has started up a new music program called Sunset Music & Arts. Over the next year, hundreds of people in the neighborhood will be invited to come and see. You never know, some may hear a call and stay! The Healing Center continues to offer alternative health programs to the neighborhood. It too is a way to say to our neighbors, “Come and see.” Now, the disappointing reality is that many won’t respond to our invitation. But they certainly won’t respond if there is no invitation! So I am asking each one of you to play the role of Philip and to invite your friends and family to some event or program at Incarnation. If they’re not churchy folk, pick something that’s not too churchy. The Pancake Supper on February 17 might be a good place to start, or perhaps the string quartet recital on February 21.
The Gospel reading ends with Jesus’ gently teasing Nathanael about how he came to believe and with his promising greater things to come. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Although it’s not apparent in the English translation, Jesus is not addressing Nathanael alone. The Greek word translated as “you” is plural. Jesus is addressing a wider audience, which includes us. But what does this prophetic saying about ascending and descending angels mean? Well, it’s an oblique reference to the story of Jacob’s ladder. Recall in Genesis how Jacob once fell asleep and dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder connecting earth and heaven. When he awoke, he recognized that the site where he had slept was holy, and he named it Bethel, which means “House of God.” Well, Jesus is reminding his audience of this same Bible story, but with one major alteration. There is no ladder! Or to be more precise, Jesus is the ladder! The angels will ascend and descend upon Jesus, the Son of Man, who is himself the ladder that connects earth and heaven. Richard Hooker, a 16th-century Anglican theologian, interpreted this prophetic saying allegorically. The angels ascending represent our prayers; the angels descending represent divine doctrine. Similarly, William Temple, a 20th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, interpreted the ascending angels as prayer and the descending angels as God’s blessing and God’s judgment. As for me, I think the descending angels might very well represent God’s calling us to ministry.
Now, let me sum up. From St. Paul, we learn that what we do here in the material world with our material bodies has ultimate spiritual consequences. From God’s call to Samuel, we learn that we need to consult with our faith community to discern our call. From Nathanael’s call to discipleship, we learn that God’s call may come to us from a fellow human being with words as ordinary and prosaic as “Come and see.” Finally, from Jesus’ own lips, we learn that Jesus is, in ways we cannot fully comprehend, the world’s Mediator with the Divine. But the real take-home message for today is this: just as God invites you to “come and see,” so too must you, as God’s voice in the world, share that very same invitation with others. Now if you’ve been watching the news this week, you will have seen millions of people proclaiming, “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie,” to show their solidarity with the Parisian victims of terrorism. That is all very well and good. But I would rather you proclaimed your solidarity with St. Philip, a man who invited his friend to meet the Christ. To that end, I bid you proclaim, “Je suis Philippe. I am Philip.”
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Lectionary Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Epiphany/BEpi2_RCL.html