(Revelation 5,1-10; John 1, 43-51)
In the early 1980s, I was doing a job that was making me very unhappy. It was only part time, but it was stressful; my immediate superior was frequently unwell and I had to help covering her job as well as my own; I didn’t feel my colleagues and the senior staff were supportive of my particular job; and I didn’t think I was achieving much by doing it. So, when I’d had yet another day which ended with me in tears and unable to cope with my own small children, I went to see my Vicar, to ask him “Do you really think God wants me to carry on with this?”
He not only reassured me that he didn’t think God wanted me to carry on, he gave me an alternative. “You know I’m not good with paperwork,” he said. “The churchwardens think I ought to have a secretary. Why don’t you come and set up a Parish Office and become the Parish Secretary. I think I could work with you”.
So I did, and it was very fulfilling. I learnt lots and lots about the Church of England and its rules and regulations, I was able to have pastoral contact with many of the congregation and to get to know the local clergy and diocesan officials, and was very happy doing the job. Then, as time went on, my Vicar asked me to research and draft first courses and then addresses for him. I remember doing one about Nelson for a Trafalgar Day Service at the local Sea Scouts!
But one Lent I prepared a course of sermons on the Eucharist for him– and my Vicar lost his voice on the Sunday the last one was due to be preached, so I had to do it. I had already given informal addresses at Family Services, but I’d never spoken at the Eucharist. So at this point I decided I needed to be properly authorised. I applied for training as a Reader (women were not allowed to be ordained at that time), was accepted, and after a couple of years was admitted and licensed; and this particular ministry has felt right for me ever since.
I am not the sort of person who has visions or who hears voices from God in my head or in dreams. There was never a particular moment when I can say I was converted or ‘gave my life to Christ’. I was baptised as a baby, taken to church and sent to Sunday school from time to time as a child, was confirmed when I was about 12 or 13, and have never given up on church as others in my family did.
Was that series of events 34 years ago my call to the vocation of Reader? Prosaic and undramatic as it was, I think so.
Our readings today, in their different ways, explore the idea of being called by God.
The first, from the Book of Revelation, is a vision of the call of the Lamb (who is obviously identified by the writer as Jesus) to open the seals of the scroll held by God, which reveal what is to come – the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, bringing plagues and persecution to the earth, and the ultimate triumph of God’s servants. It is very obviously written in the strange language and symbolism of apocalyptic literature, and requires a lot of study to work out what it was saying to the people for whom it was originally written; and even more study to decide whether it has anything useful to say to us today!
In the Gospel passage we hear John’s description of the calling of two disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Previously (according to John) Andrew has been called from being a disciple of John the Baptist, and has brought along his brother, Peter. Now, having returned from the Jordan to Galilee, Jesus calls Philip, possibly a Gentile, who in turn brings along his friend Nathanael.
The passage seems to reflect a certain amount of rivalry between the towns of Galilee. Philip, Peter and Andrew are natives of Bethsaida (which means ‘house of fishing’) and Nathanael is from Cana, where the first of the seven signs which John describes takes place. Nathanael clearly doesn’t think anything worthwhile can come from Nazareth, and particularly not the expected Messiah! Since Nazareth was located right on the border with Samaria, you can understand why those from other parts of Galilee might consider it a dodgy place!
Since this is John’s Gospel, the simple story is full of hidden meanings. It’s not obviously in code, like Revelation, but it is telling its readers more than it seems to be doing on the surface. Jesus describes Nathanael as an Israelite, a son of Israel. The former name of Israel was Jacob, and Jacob means ‘trickster’ or ‘deceiver’. But Jesus says Nathanael, a son of Jacob, is not a deceiver, not a trickster.
Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. The fig tree is often a symbol of peace and prosperity, and is also a symbol of the Jewish nation. Was Jesus then calling Nathanael from his old life as a faithful Israelite to a new life as a disciple of the Messiah?
Nathanael certainly thought so. He acclaimed Jesus with the Messianic titles, ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’.
But then Jesus immediately refers back to Jacob again, with his reference to a ladder along which angels pass from heaven to earth, a ladder which connects the human and the divine. Jesus’ ministry will be one where heaven and earth are open to each other, where God and human beings are connected. But whereas, when Jacob saw the ladder, it marked a holy place, Bethel, where God was encountered, now it marks a person where God is encountered, Jesus.
None of the Gospels tells us much more about Philip or Nathanael. In this story of their call, they seem to represent the disciples in the post-resurrection church. They have seen the miracles of Jesus; they are aware of his supernatural knowledge. The only proper response to this person’s invitation to follow him, is to do just that.
That invitation comes to us too. It may come through a vision or a dream. It may come through a friend or a church leader, or a series of circumstances, as it did for me. It could come through someone extremely unlikely, as it did for Nathanael, someone from a place or a community we don’t think much of. It could come through something we read in the pew sheet, or in the parish magazine; or in the newspapers, or online. It is a call to go deeper into God. We just have to be alert to the call whenever and however it comes.
But that is not the end of the story. The disciples are to follow Jesus, and to believe. But disciples are also to extend the invitation to others to “Come and see”.
This section of John’s Gospel emphasises the important role of personal connections in the making of new disciples. It is an invitation to us, as well as to those first disciples. We who have witnessed the Epiphany of Jesus, who have seen the Word made flesh, we who have heard the Word of the Lord, are not supposed to keep it to ourselves. We are to go and invite others to come, and to see, and to hear for themselves.
That may mean a call to full time ordained stipendiary ministry. It may mean a call to voluntary licensed 2ministry within the church, as it did for me. Or it may mean a call to use your God-given skills and talents in mission: whether that be within the church, or within the community, or within your workplace. It may mean learning new skills, going into places which are out of your comfort zone, unfamiliar and maybe even frightening. It may even be a call to follow Jesus on the path of rejection and suffering and sacrifice, as it did for those first disciples.
You won’t know until you open your ears, your hearts and your minds to hear the call, to see God’s glory revealed in the most unlikely of people and places, and respond.
Who’s calling? God is! Come and see!