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The 2nd Sunday after Epiphany; 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51

In church language, we often speak of “vocation”, literally “calling”, using phrases like, “I feel called to this task, or ministry”. Clergy speak of themselves, as “called by God to ordained ministry.” I use it myself; but sometimes it feels presumptuous to me. Given the biblical readings on this Sunday, it feels like a good day to speak of this. But first, an anecdote!

In a conversation about some of the weirder experiences of parish ministry, Victoria Matthews, by then my bishop, told me about a man in one of her earlier parishes who suffered from a serious delusional disorder. Much of the time, as long as he took anti-psychotic drugs, he functioned normally, and held a very responsible position. But then, as often happens, he would become convinced that he no longer needed medication, stopped taking it, and would drift back into delusion until it was serious enough for him to be hospitalized. His delusion was that he was Jesus Christ, returned to earth, with a teaching mission to our society.

Victoria would visit him in hospital, and these visits always took a similar pattern. She’d walk into his room, say “Hello”, and that she’d come to visit. “Yes I know,” he would respond, “I summoned you!” He would then instruct, teach(?), talk to her about a theological, moral, or ethical issue of concern to him (and almost always to her also). He would do so rationally, and with the great intelligence that he possessed when functioning normally. And then, after he had finished, he would pray with her and bless her, and send her off with the instruction to go and tell others what he had taught her.

And always when she left, she said, she was reasonable sure that he was the demented one, and that she was sane; but, but(!), how could she be sure that the man she had visited was not really Jesus Christ? How would the encounter have been any different with the real Christ? And, she said, she could never come up with an answer that really convinced her!

Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work [of a Deacon, or a Priest, or a Bishop]?

That question is asked by the bishop presiding at an ordination of the ordinand. I’ve been asked it twice. And, each time I struggled with the answer, because I wasn’t (and still am not) sure that I could answer “Yes” fully truthfully.

“Called by the Church?” That’s not difficult to answer. For the call of the Church to ordained ministry there is objective evidence. One doesn’t get to stand in front of a bishop at an ordination without a great deal of being lectured at, reported on, interviewed and tested, all to confirm that the Church wants you ordained. But called by God? How do I know that I have been called by God; more specifically by the God whom the Church confesses and worships, the God whom we see revealed in Jesus Christ? How do I know that I am not called by my own ego, or my love of ritual, by a need for power, even by masochism!

But ordained ministry is neither the beginning nor the end of ministry. Christian ministry is the possession and duty of the whole people of God, not only those set apart for specific functions by ordination. Theologically, the call to the ministry of the laos (the laity – that, in fact, means all Christians, not just the not-ordained) comes in baptism. Practically, throughout life, that call is experienced through a whole series of nudgings and urgings, coming in many ways and forms, as we choose between alternatives and make decisions for ourselves and others. Ordination is just one of those alternatives towards which some are nudged and urged.

And so, the question of discerning the call of the one God from the call of our own ego needs is one that applies to all. All of us need to ask from time to time, as we negotiate the curves and turns of the road of life:

Do I believe that I am truly called by God to do this particular thing?

Both our Old Testament lesson and Gospel today deal with this notion of “call.” They are worth examining in detail, because from them we can obtain guidance for our own dealings with the call of God in our lives.

Let’s look first at God’s call to the boy, Samuel. He was born to the aged and barren Hannah, after her promise to dedicate any child God gave her to the Lord. Thus from the time he was weaned, Samuel had been serving with the priest Eli at Shiloh, a holy place, to which the people brought sacrifices and prayer; where they heard the word of God; where God was honoured. Samuel is now about twelve years old. Three times, as he is falling asleep, he hears a voice calling his name. Three times he gets up, goes to Eli, and twice Eli sends him back to bed. The third time Eli realizes it is the Lord calling the lad, and he instructs him to reply the next time he hears his name called.

It is in a holy place that the Lord finds Samuel; or perhaps the other way around, where Samuel finds the Lord. The Gospel story, in contrast is set in the world, and it tells of two different ways in which the call of God can come to us in the midst of our ordinary life. Jesus comes to Philip, and says to him, “Follow me.” The call is direct, Jesus simply and directly chooses his disciple. Then Philip, in turn, goes to Nathanael, and tells him that he has found the Christ. In response to Nathanael’s doubtful “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, Philip tells him, “Come and see.” This is more likely to be our own experience; the call of God comes to us through the invitation of a human agency, although we must not discount the ability of God to approach us directly.

What we can learn from both the Old Testament and the Gospel today is that God’s call can find us anywhere and by any means. It can find us in a holy place, or in the ordinary world, and it can come to us directly and immediately, or through the agency of others.

If these were normal times, we would be together in our particular holy place, a rather ordinary building on Mill St., to offer sacrifice and prayer, to hear the word of God, to honour God. But in these times, and for along time now, we have been meeting in various remote ways, electronically, by telephone, with very few in our building, with most of us limited to images on a screen, even just to voices. In these times it is worth reminding you, reminding ourselves, it is not that building that is the church, the holy place. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, reminds us that the truly holy place is our very own body. God dwells within us, Paul writes. In our bodies is God honoured; in our bodies is God’s Word heard. The holy place is our baptized body, and I would extent that to all our baptized bodies together. The holy place to which we come, seeking God’s will for us, is the whole community of faith, the Church, no building needed.

Thus perhaps my hesitation to believe the call of God to ordained ministry is somewhat presumptuous. I have accepted that the Church has called me, and so I must accept that my internal experience of God’s call is valid. Any call to ministry that is tested and validated and accepted within and by the community of the faithful (truly within the Body of Christ), may be acknowledged as the call of God. And conversely, any call so tested and not validated and not accepted within the Church ought to be seriously doubted! That is true for me, and it is true for you!

And then there is a further test of this call heard and tested within the community of the Church. Where does the call lead? As with Samuel, does it lead to a life of service for the faithful? As with Philip and Nathanael, does it lead to a life of ultimate sacrifice for the sake of Christ? Does the call lead to glory for self, or to a life lived for others?

There is an old story of four people coming upon a high wall. Intrigued, they build a ladder to see what was on the other side. The first person climbs to the top of the wall, cried out in delight, and jumps to the other side. The same with the second and third. The fourth climbs to the top, and looks down at a scene of lush, green gardens with every kind of fruit growing, streams full of fish, animals, wild and tame, in abundance. Thinking of friends, family, and neighbours – he climbs back down the ladder, and goes home to share the good news of his discovery!

This is the call of God; enticing, beautiful, wonderful, tempting, persistent. If genuine, it always leads to the good of others, not to the glory of self. The call of Jesus Christ always consists of two phrases. One is “Follow me,” the other is “Go and tell others!” The call to follow is always a call to go; the call to discipleship is always a call to mission.

It’s no use following, unless you go; and it’s no use going, unless you follow.

Copyright ©2021 by Gerry Mueller