The idea that God calls us to do something is unsettling. Most often the phrase is used by people who worry that they are being called to ministry. The metaphor of calling in this circumstance is ancient. The Latin-derived word “vocation” means a calling. We all want to have a calling. But we are nervous when we think it might be God who calls us to do something, especially to minister. I mean “ministry” here in the broad sense that Protestants use in referring to the priesthood of all believers. Next Sunday I’ll talk about ordained ministry.
The story of Eli and Samuel is particularly instructive here. Eli was the judge of Israel who, according to those times, ruled Israel as the viceroy of God. God was the official King of Israel. Eli’s job mainly had to do with judging legal cases and maintaining the Ark of the Covenant, which was the Israelite talisman for God. Although the text mentions the Ark being in the temple, in fact this was long before Solomon built the first temple. Eli made his home base at the town of Shiloh and the Ark was housed in a tent. As judge, Eli also mustered the troops when Israel went to war, but by the time of our story he was very old. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, were presumed to be his heirs and they did accompany the Ark into battle. But they were corrupt and not at all respected. Samuel was raised in Eli’s house, with Eli treating him like a son; later he did become Eli’s heir as judge of Israel.
In our text, Samuel is about twelve years old, according to ancient commentaries, and is sleeping by the Ark when he hears a voice. He thinks it is Eli, but in fact it is God. Eli figures out who it is and he sends Samuel back to await God. God comes into Samuel’s room in person and stands by him, calling his name. Samuel answers with the classic expression of a prophet’s obedience: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Would it not be great piety on our part always to be attentive to God, saying in effect, “Speak, for your servant is listening”? But, alas, we rarely have such extraordinary epiphanies. In fact, when we think about Samuel’s story with our modern understanding of the dynamics of the psyche, we are a bit suspicious about voices that come to us when we are asleep. The fact that God’s voice sounded so much like Eli’s makes us suspect a bit of projection on Samuel’s part. Then the message God goes on to give to Samuel, which we did not read, is a nasty bit of retribution against Eli for not controlling the actions of his sons. Wouldn’t we suspect a little bit of Oedipal by-play here on Samuel’s part, unconsciously willing Eli’s natural sons out of the way so that he himself could supplant Eli? None of this takes away from the true piety of Samuel’s obedience. But it does force the question of how we know when God is calling, and what God is calling us to do.
Perhaps we can find help from John’s version of how Jesus called his disciples. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you remember, tell the fetching story of Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John by the Sea of Galilee where they were working as fishermen; Jesus tells them he will make them “fishers of men.” That’s in our text for next week. John’s version is very different and I’ll begin by recounting events that lead up to our text for today. When Jesus goes to be baptized by John the Baptist, John does not know him until the actual baptism and he sees the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus. According to the other evangelists, you know, John the Baptist and Jesus are second cousins. John the Baptist already has a number of disciples of his own. The day after Jesus was baptized, while Jesus was still with the crowd, John points out Jesus to two of them, saying “Look, here is the lamb of God.” One of those disciples of John the Baptist was Andrew. We don’t know who the other was, but it might have been the one who became Jesus’ Beloved Disciple, who is present throughout John’s gospel but never named. Those two disciples of the Baptist follow after Jesus, that is, they stalk him. He turns and asked them, “What are you looking for?” They respond by asking him where he is staying, and he takes them to his room. The Evangelist remarks that this occurs at about 4 in the afternoon. None of the other Evangelists records anything like this much detail of personal interaction. We don’t know what happens late that afternoon, but by the end of it Andrew and his friend become disciples of Jesus, leaving John the Baptist. Andrew dashes out and finds his brother, Simon, who apparently also has been with John the Baptist as a disciple. Andrew tells him, “We have found the messiah.” When Andrew brings Simon to Jesus, Jesus calls him by name, “Simon son of John,” and renames him Cephas, or Peter.
Our text picks up the next day when Jesus heads north to Galilee with his three new disciples, Peter, Andrew, and the unnamed one. They go to Bethsaida, Peter and Andrew’s hometown, where Jesus finds Philip and says to him, “follow me.” Philip accepts the invitation, apparently, perhaps because he was a friend of Andrew and Simon Peter. Philip goes to his friend, Nathanael, who lives in Cana, and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” This is the only time in the New Testament when Jesus is referred to with the title, Jesus son of Joseph. Our text today, you notice, also calls him Son of God and Son of Man. Cana was near Nazareth, and Nathanael perhaps knew Joseph and his family. (Parenthetically, you remember that the very next day Mary will take Jesus and his disciples to a wedding in Cana where he makes a name for himself as a winemaker.) Nathanael snorts, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” So when Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus, Jesus has a hard sell. He tells Nathanael that he, Nathanael, is “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” This flattery works. Nathanael says, proudly we might imagine, “Where did you get to know me?” Of course Jesus might have known him from the neighborhood, but what he says is about the character of Nathanael’s heart. Jesus responds with a bit of clairvoyance about where Nathanael was sitting before Philip called him. Nathanael is completely won over and responds with the enthusiastic confession of discipleship: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus then brings him down hard, chiding him for believing because of the fig tree vision, and saying that he will see much greater things than this, “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Now there is a lot of symbolic stuff going on in the text, as happens throughout John; nothing ever means only one thing. For instance, the image of angels ascending and descending is a reference to Jacob’s vision back in Genesis, and Jacob was a notoriously deceitful man, quite the opposite of Nathanael. But I want to call attention to the detailed web of personal interactions involved in the calling of these disciples. These people knew one another. They had a history together. They had a common background of knowing the Hebrew scriptures that formed their expectations. We know from the rest of the Gospel that the disciples required a long time fully to understand their discipleship, and the true identity of Jesus. But for them it was all very concrete and the quality of the calling proved itself in the end.
I suggest that God calls us in concrete, testable, ways as well. Few people hear God’s voice, as Samuel thought he did, and the first thing to think when a person hears a divine voice is that the person is delusional; hearing voices is a well-documented symptom of mental illness, whatever else might cause it. At any rate, as is said with the spirits, we have to test them, for not every spirit is the Holy Spirit. The same is true with the promptings of spirit that we think might be God calling us to some special task or vocation. They need to be tested for their clarity and veracity.
The first test comes as we deepen ourselves consciously into an understanding of the shared religious culture that provides our expectations for God’s work. We are not in the same position as the people in John’s text, because we come after the Christ, and carry on his ministry in our time that he was only slowly working out with his disciples. We don’t feel the same urgency to the question of whether Jesus was the messiah because our tradition has gone on to define messiahship in far more complicated ways than anyone thought in the first century. Rather our urgency is with being contemporary disciples, with deepening our own spiritual lives, with learning to live with kindness for all, with finding justice in a world of economic competition and blind forces of investment, with being peacemakers in a world where even Christians pride themselves on fighting wars on terrorism and Evil Axis nations. There also is a need to carry the call of God across the world. Our urgency has to do with finding out what each of us in particular can do about these things. To do this, we need a profound Christian understanding of our situation, both as a community and as individuals. The Church can help here, as the worship life in Jesus’ time provided widespread scriptural literacy. But each of us needs to ponder over a lifetime what the Christian needs are that face us. An authentic call from God is to serve needs such as these.
The second test is finding and assessing the particular pointers that are directed at us, and usually this means particular people. The Church needs ordained ministers, but not everyone would be good at that. Jesus’ ministry needs those who can nourish the spirit, their own and the souls of others; not everyone would be good at that. Jesus’ ministry needs peacemakers; but not everyone has the skill to be a diplomat. Jesus’ ministry needs prophets and producers of justice, and this sometimes requires martyrdom; this is not for everyone. Jesus’ ministries need money, and sometimes people need to give more, to devote themselves to amassing wealth and giving it to charitable causes; but not everyone has this calling. Chances are, someone around you will suggest that you might fulfill this or that need. Chances are, the people around you will not suggest that you take up a calling to which you obviously are not fitted.
Sad to say, however, this neat fit of God’s needs with our own talent areas hardly ever happens. The crises of our time are not relevant only for the few with the talents to address them. They become crises for all of us, and many have to respond. When your neighbor is suffering, you are called to help even if you are clumsy and have a terrible bedside manner. In fact, the trajectories of our careers in Christian service that we project in our youth hardly ever turn out to be what happens. Accidents of fate demand responses from us that are not in our plans at all, and we end up doing jobs that others could do far better just because we are the ones on hand. Isn’t it one of the pleasant ironies of the Christian life that our careers are formed not so much by what we intend them to be but rather by what needs to be done when our hand is on the plow? This is one of the deepest meanings of providence.
The discernment of God’s call thus triangulates on our cumulative life decisions. The first angle is to understand what Christian needs exist in our world, nation, society, town, neighborhood, family, and circle of activities. This requires theological understanding. The second angle is to understand ourselves, our talents, resources, and interests. Whatever we do to respond to God’s call has to be true to ourselves. The third angle is to let the needs of ministry, sometimes ordained but far more generally the ministry of each of Jesus’ disciples, shape how we grow by engaging those needs with our talents. God’s call, you see, is not just to get things done that need to be done in order to carry out the ministry begun by Jesus. God’s call also creates us, makes us who we should be before God. In this sense, every one of us should be hearing God call our name. Discerning God’s call is how we become who we should be.
And so, my friends, perhaps this is a time when some of you are called into ordained ministry: obedience to that call will make you God’s person. Perhaps this is a time when some of you are called to be teachers, or social workers, or nurses, or physicians, or scientists, or singers, or poets: obedience to that call will make you God’s person. Perhaps this is a time when some of you are called to produce and acquire wealth so that it might be put to godly use: obedience to that call will make you God’s person. Perhaps this is a time when some of you are called to testify for Christ’s ministry at your job, in your neighborhood, in your family: obedience to that call will make you God’s person. Perhaps this is a time when you are called to sacrifice something important for the sake of the gospel: Jesus shows that this makes you God’s person.
The real test of a call from God, which quickly shows up the false callings and over time confirms and blesses the true ones, is how the call contributes to a community of loving friends. John’s Gospel is all about this. The story of Jesus gathering his first disciples shows him beginning a community of friends. The call in the other gospels to become “fishers of men” sounds a little like a CEO organizing his workers. In John’s version, which I like best, Jesus starts knitting them into a community of friends. John’s Gospel ends with Jesus cooking breakfast for his disciples and sending them on to take care of one another. He heals Peter’s broken heart of denial, and claims his special relationship with the Beloved Disciple. I would hope that our sense of ministry, individually and collectively, might have this intimacy that purifies our callings and blesses us in them, even when they are not successful in worldly ways. Jesus assured his friends at the end that he had overcome the world. That is the way God calls.