I Samuel 3:1-10
Call stories can be rather intimidating. We hear the stories over and over – and, we hear them through filters. Artists have portrayed call stories, with visual drama. More recently, films have given us the drama. So, we hear and read stories like the one from Samuel and think of God’s voice thundering in the temple – some deep, basso profundo. We would picture the young boy, overwhelmed by the presence of God.
The stories about the calling of the disciples are equally dramatic in the way that we think about them. Jesus calls and they leave everything to follow him. We picture them walking away from their lives – families and livelihood. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
“God has sent me.” That’s what the pastor of another local church – not Presbyterian – said to me one day when he came to talk with me. “I’m on a mission from God to oust Satan from the pulpit.” It was clear that, in his eyes, I was Satan in the pulpit – and he had received the message that I was to be ousted. He, and others who felt the same way, had already interfered in another colleague’s ministry, driving a wedge between him and the congregation. The colleague’s health was destroyed and he lost his job. I, apparently, was next on the list.
He was called. That was his proclamation to me – and, I guess, to those who agreed with his theological outlook or accepted his assertion that this mission was godly. I suppose I could have meekly accepted his assertion – after all, he was a minister! His word, therefore, was to be unquestioned!
I suspect that the assumptions and filters that we apply to our understanding of Biblical call stories have allowed for gross abuses of the notion of call. So, we need to rehear these stories, striving to let them speak to us in fresh ways.
If we take out the assumption that God called Samuel with a booming bass voice that shook the temple, we might see other things. Samuel heard the call – and thought it was an old, frail, man who was calling him. He ran to Eli and declared, “Here I am!” He did that three times. “Here I am.” “Here I am.” “Here I am, for you called me.” John’s gospel tells about Jesus calling disciples very differently from the other gospels. The call stories lack the dramatic, sudden impact of the synoptic gospel descriptions. Andrew and Peter weren’t encountered out of the blue and called. No. Andrew discovered Jesus because of John the Baptist’s testimony, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Two of his disciples heard this and followed Jesus. One of them was Andrew. He went, found Peter, and invited Peter to come and see Jesus.
That’s the lead into today’s gospel story. This story seems, at first reading, to be closer to the synoptic stories. “Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
What I think we need to begin to see is that others are always involved in hearing, discerning God’s call. Samuel didn’t understand the call until Eli was able to interpret Samuel’s experience. John the Baptist told Andrew. Andrews told his brother, Peter. Now, we might say, “Ah, but Jesus, the next day, called Philip!” That call seems much more in line with the stories we know from elsewhere. But the gospel writer is careful to tell us that “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” City is a very generous description. I think we should assume that Philip, too, had heard about Jesus – through the grapevine! – or even more directly. Perhaps Peter and Andrew told Philip about their encounters with Jesus.
What of the stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke? Well, maybe we need to let go of the notion that the gospels are newspaper type accounts. The gospels are theological documents, interpretations of the stories of Jesus. It may be that the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke wanted to stress the importance of God’s call, so they emphasized the immediacy of the disciples’ response. We don’t know if there had been previous contact. John’s gospel could indicate that there was. We do know that the inclination to believe that the disciples walked away from their lives to follow Jesus may be a misinterpretation. After Jesus’ death, those who were fishermen are portrayed as fishing once again. They were still connected to the life they had always had.
So, Samuel thought he was hearing an old man cry out. Eli told him that it was God who was speaking. Andrew heard Jesus from John the Baptist. Peter heard from Andrew. Philip may have heard something about Jesus. Then, Philip told Nathanael.
There is a very human component to these call stories. There is a communal component to these stories. Samuel could not understand what was happening until Eli helped him. Eli discerned that God was speaking and he shared that wisdom with the boy. John the Baptist fulfilled his role as one who would bear witness. He directed his disciples to recognize Jesus – and so, they followed him.
When we think that God’s call has to be some astounding, earth-shaking, temple-shaking event, we are likely to discount the way God calls us – through the voices of others. And, all of us are called. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the variety of gifts, spiritual gifts, and how important they are. Each gift is necessary for the health of the body of Christ. One of the sins of the institutional church has been that, too often, the church has lived with the notion that only those in the profession are called. That notion has done damage to the body. We forget that everyone’s gifts are needed to be the Body of Christ in the world.
I loved a periodical that is no longer in existence. It was titled “Faith at Work.” It emphasized the need to take one’s faith into the world. So, the phrase “faith at work” meant living in a way that demonstrated as fully as possible God’s grace and love. It also looked at ways to make faith a reality in work places. They wrote about companies that hired “chaplains” who were available to workers. They wrote about less formal ways that people made their faith accessible to those around them. It was a wonderful reminder that on Sundays we gather together, to nurture one another. Then we scatter to serve. There are churches that intentionally don’t call their pastors ministers. The congregation members are the ministers – the ones who take the good news into the world through their lives. The thing is, that doesn’t mean looking like some crazy street preacher. It means finding ways of using one’s own skills and talents and interests to bring God’s light into the world. All of us, each of us, is called. Peter, Andrew, James and John, the fishermen, were called to “fish” for people.
One of the roles of the church family is to be “Eli,” to look at those around us and see, identify, lift up and encourage the gifts that others have. “Listen, for God is calling you through this skill, this talent, this passion!” We also have to be Samuel, willing to hear those observations. Sometimes, that means we have to be stretched, nudged out of our comfort zones. I always think, looking back at my entry into ministry, that God has a sense of humor. This is the last place I expected to end up! I had thought I’d be working away in some lab, fiddling with numbers, not words! It was those around me who said, “We see something else.” I accepted that wisdom, grudgingly….and slowly. Yet, I don’t think God ever calls us to be something, someone, other than who we intrinsically are! We are God’s beloved children – created with various gifts, talents and interests. The body of Christ needs all of us, each of us, for it to be whole, for it to be effective in this world.
Now, there is one call story this morning that I didn’t really mention, the call of Nathanael. Philip called him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael did not jump up to go and see for himself. Instead he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a tiny town in the middle of nowhere! “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip invited him to “come and see.”
Nathanael tested the news he had received. He wasn’t going to jump in and believe what had been told him. He needed to confirm the good news with his own encounter.
One of the things I appreciate about the Presbyterian system is that it has a Nathanael bent to it! It “tests” faith; it “tests” call. Someone who senses a call to ministry must have that call confirmed by others – by the person’s session, then a presbytery committee, and then the presbytery. It is a process that involves education and a continuing conversation about that sense of call. Not everyone makes it through! Then, a call to serve a particular church is also tested. There must be a three way agreement that a relationship should exist – between pastor, congregation and presbytery. Our church rulers, elders, are chosen by the congregation – not the pastor. Through nominations and votes, we declare that “God is calling you!” Our denomination’s policies arise after questioning and debate. They are made and re-made, and, sometimes, rescinded. God’s voice, God’s call, is discerned in the midst of the community struggling to work things out, struggling to be faithful.
If we expect the thundering revelation, we will be, more often than not, disappointed. But, perhaps we can learn to listen to others and know that God is speaking through them. And, we can remember that God also uses us to help others hear God’s persistent voice. Eli said, “Listen.” John the Baptist said, “Here is the Lamb of God.” Andrew sought out his brother. Philip found Nathanael. They shared what they knew and what they had experienced. That was enough!