Second Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 17 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

In most of the Gospels, call stories follow one basic pattern, the one we see with Philip here. Jesus sees someone, walks up to them and says simply, “Follow me,” and that person does so, immediately, decisively, and with complete commitment, leaving nets and counting tables and family behind. It is dramatic and clear, the course of a life determined in a moment.

But one of the things I appreciate about John’s gospel—which we see in part, though not fully, in today’s reading—is that there are many different kinds of call stories. There’s the story of Andrew and a second, unnamed disciple, which comes just before today’s story—you can barely refer to it as a call story at all, in fact, since Jesus makes no effort at all to call these very first disciples, but just hangs around the Jordan for a while, until they become curious and start to follow him at a distance. Then, after walking for a while, he turns around and asks them what they’re up to, and they have a somewhat awkward and cryptic conversation which ends with the same invitation we see in today’s reading: “Come and see.” So they do. And then Andrew goes to find his brother Simon, and invites him along as well, and the story begins to unfold.

And then there’s Nathanael, in today’s reading, not directly called by Jesus, but summoned, like Simon, by someone else, in this case Philip. He’s initially not especially impressed by the story of this itinerant rabbi from Nowheresville. Nazareth really does seem to have been a backwater town, off the main road, poor, and his comment might as well be paraphrased for our context as “Can any good thing come out of Oshawa?” But Philip says to him what Jesus has earlier said to Andrew: “Come and see.” And Nathanael is willing, at least, to take that chance, if only as a favour to a friend. It isn’t about a complete and immediate commitment; not initially about any kind of commitment at all. It isn’t about being suddenly sure that this is real and true. It is about being willing to have the experience. Being just a little bit open to possibility. Willing to come and see, maybe stay for a while, to find out what might happen.

We do not come to commitments in an instant, most of the time. Rarely, with any serious choice, is a clear decision made quickly with absolute certainty—even in the simpler narrative of the child Samuel we see this, the repetitions of call and uncertainty, the development of response, and indeed, Samuel’s sense of what he was called to do would grow quite gradually, and with notable reversals, over the course of his life. Often, we aren’t really aware that we are deciding anything at all. A call may come to us as something more like a vague and confusing curiosity, it may first be explored with cautious distance or with sardonic doubt. A call may come as a suggestion from someone else, which sounds like a pretty bad suggestion at first. It may seem pointless, or embarrassing, or terrifying, or impossible. But we take that one step. Come and see. Live it out for just a little while, and learn what it means by living it.

Simon, who became Peter, was one of the ones who didn’t even come of his own accord at first. The unnamed disciple with Andrew, who followed Jesus at a distance out of a whisper of curiosity, may even be the Beloved Disciple, the one who would follow all the way to the foot of the cross. Even Nicodemus, that interesting character who will turn up in the next chapter, the one who leaves without making any commitment, but keeps coming back, creeping his way towards risk and faith, even he.

And so we too make our way through our lives, stepping out into unknown possibilities, trying to learn who we are meant to be, how we are meant to live out our calling in, and to, this world. Our commitments to persons can be lifelong, and yet what those commitments mean will change as persons change, as children become the particular individuals they are, as parents age and need new kinds of care, as bodies fail. Our commitments to our faith will also, necessarily, unfold and change over time, as we step into new demands, new circumstances, new understanding.
The pandemic came, to all of us who are not infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists, as something sudden and unexpected; but I think we have all learned only over time, and with many false steps, what is demanded of each one of us in this crisis. The long, grinding crises of racism and white supremacist violence, of poverty and hunger, of climate change, these too ask us to respond in ways we can only slowly work out. And our own individual lives will call us to learn by living, to be ready to change over and over sometimes, to walk the slow path from passing curiosity to the devotion that stands at the foot of the cross. We go forward, and God is always meeting us as we come.

For God has searched us out and known us, knows us better than we can know ourselves, knows and holds us in every moment of despair and emptiness and loss, knows each dream and fear and longing, and we are finally called into nothing but the realization of that, the making real in our lives of that knowledge and that love, in all that we are and do.

It is extremely tempting simply to ignore the second reading. Paul’s dispute with the Gnostic-leaning Corinthians seems to have very little connection with the other texts for today. And yet, I think, there is something important going on here, and it does connect, if only by accident. I’m not going to get into the problems of interpreting the words loosely translated into English as “prostitute” and “fornication,” or the question of whether we even know, in this very different cultural context, what it is that Paul is condemning; and I’m also not going to get into the important, but complicated, question of how we, today, apply the values of the Gospel to work out a sexual ethic which is informed and genuinely respectful of human dignity and human diversity, and which also comprehends the serious disciplines of sacrifice and love. But the really central point which Paul is making, and which is in fact crucial to any discussion of vocation, is that we are bodies, we are known and called not as disembodied souls but as physical creatures, and what we do with our bodies, and with our whole lives, is immensely important.

Vocation is about us, all of us, our complete being, from the DNA helix on up. We are called as creatures of meat and desire, and we discover where we are meant to be, day by day and year by year, mostly through the actions of our bodies in their relationships with other bodies. When our bodies ache in the freezing wind, we must use that ache to understand the sufferings of other bodies in the cold; when we know warmth and love and care, we must learn from that how to bring love and care to others. It is all part of that call: the “come and see.” Come into the world, and see what it means to be bodies known and loved from before the beginning of time; see what choices we make about our connections with other bodies in that light. See what it means to choose, day after day, to walk, however hesitantly, and at however much of a distance, towards truth.

And what Paul says, too, is that we are called entirely; we can’t segment off a bit of our lives and say, that’s the religious bit, that’s the bit that belongs to God, and then there’s the other bits that belong to me. Every smallest corner of our selves and our lives is claimed. Every choice is a choice to live further into the divine life, or not. But there is no neutral zone, unclaimed by God’s love, where we can freely act in our own self-interest. As the psalm tells us, in light and darkness, in heaven and hell, in the trivial and the mundane and the practical details of every day, we are in the presence of the divine, and responsible to that presence. God is always calling us, inviting us, opening up the possibility of life, leading us into greater and more difficult love. And each choice we make can be, in some small way, the choice to come and see; the choice to find out what it might be like, to follow the living God in human flesh. To become—each one of us, bored or curious, doubtful, sarcastic, selfish and confused—a part, a particular and individual and irreplaceable part, of this great story.