On the Second Sunday After the Epiphany, the Old Testament reading was 1 Samuel 3:1-10, and the gospel was John 1:43-51. Thus we read two stories of a person being called by God. The word “vocation” originally means just this, calling (from the Latin: voco, vocare). Samuel was called before he was even conceived; his mother Hannah dedicated him to God and brought him to be raised by the priest Eli in the tabernacle. One night the boy Samuel heard a voice calling his name, but he thought it was Eli. After three times, Eli realized God was calling and told Samuel how to answer. God gave Samuel a difficult commission to speak to Eli and then to all of Israel, but he accepted that call and spent the rest of his life listening to and obeying God’s commands as a prophet.
The hymn by Dan Schutte that we often sing expresses this aspect of vocation: a personal call from God to speak for him for the sake of the people of God:
Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
We believe that God calls each of us, his creatures who are made in his image, and we all have that longing in our hearts which can be satisfied only by God, as St. Augustine put it. But most of us do not hear a voice in the night with a message for us. We are called in a more “everyday” way. Someone tells us about Jesus; our call is “second-hand,” like Nathaniel’s.
In the gospel account, Jesus has called Philip in person to be his disciple, and he joins Simon and Andrew to follow him. But he immediately goes and tells his friend Nathaniel that he has found the Messiah they have been looking for. Nathaniel’s comment is skeptical, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip does not try to persuade his friend with arguments about where the Messiah is supposed to come from; that is what the Pharisees do — vaunting their knowledge of their Scriptures — “search and you will see that no prophet is to come out of Nazareth!” Instead, Philip invites him to have the same chance that he did to see for himself! “Come and see,” is his reply — an invitation. Come meet Jesus and see for yourself! When they get there, Nathaniel discovers that Jesus already knows all about him. “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile,” Jesus remarks, playing off the name Israel that the patriarch Jacob, who was full of guile, was given by the angel with whom he struggled. Once Nathaniel talks with Jesus, he realizes the truth of Philip’s words, and exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the son of God, you are the King of Israel!” Jesus promises him that he will see much more: “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of Man,” a reference to Jacob’s ladder with Jesus now as the ladder — the bridge between heaven and earth. It is interesting that it is Nathaniel to whom the Greeks turn with their request, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” He must look like someone who had seen the light, the truth about his Lord.
With a few notable exceptions, ever since the Ascension of our Lord, “second-hand” is how the gospel is spread. People like us, who know the living Christ, tell our friends what we have found to be true. Some are given the charisma to preach to crowds of people with great success like Billy Graham, to perform amazing deeds of charity like Mother Theresa, to write about the Christian faith like C.S. Lewis in words that have brought thousands to believe in Christ, or to work miracles in Jesus’ name. But the gospel is chiefly proclaimed, year in and year out, in highways and byways and homes and schools and stores and offices, one-on-one by someone, anyone, who, having a life-giving relationship with the living Christ, wants to spread the good news that Jesus came not “to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.”
We do not have to agree with our friends, family, or neighbors about political philosophy or worldview to want them to share our joy in knowing Jesus. And they do not have to come around to our or anyone else’s way of thinking to join the band of followers of Jesus. As St. Paul reminds the first Christians, we come together as the different parts of the body of Christ, each unique, and with our own gifts to share, not as conforming automatons who must agree on everything and act exactly alike.
Some of us learned about Jesus in our childhood from our parents and we give thanks for what they did for us when they brought us to be baptized. And some of us also grew up in a church family, and not only learned the Bible but got to know many Christians of varied ages who were steadfast in their faith. But, sooner or later, we have to seek the Lord ourselves and find and be found by him — maybe as a child, like Samuel, maybe as a student, or as we became a parent, maybe during a mid-life crisis, or when we’re desperately ill, but always because someone else, in writing or in person, asked us to come and see.
When historians call our modern times the “post-Christian era,” it is because they do not understand what the Christian faith is all about. It is not about having the government “on our side” any more than Jesus, St. Paul, Simon Peter, or St. Francis had the government on their side. To be a follower of Jesus the Christ is to have made the decision to answer his call to have a personal relationship with him every day of our life, to believe his promises, and to seek to follow his example in all that we do.
Thus every Christian is a first generation Christian! And if we who know the love and guidance of the living Christ do not seek to convey that to our friends and to other people we may meet by our manner of life, our speech and actions, and especially today, with what we write on social media, then we have forgotten that Jesus has no Plan B. The motley crew of disciples were Plan A for preaching and teaching the good news after Jesus ascended; if they failed, Jesus’ mission was over, a footnote in history. Instead, they turned the world upside down, and ever since, those who have come to know Jesus as Christ the Lord have “stepped up to the plate” and done their best in their place and time. Now it’s up to us, right now in the “post-Christian era.” If we do not fulfill our calling here and now, there’s a gap in God’s plan for the world. We can either be a guide or a stumbling block to our sisters and brothers. And we get to choose which.
As St. Theresa of Ávila reminds us, Jesus has no hands, no feet, no mouths, but ours. And as the old camp song puts it:
It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing.
That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it,
you spread that love to everyone, you want to pass it on!
Pass it on — tell your world to come and see!
The Rev. Jean McCurdy Meade, Ph.D. is a priest of the Diocese of Louisiana, now retired.