When I was growing up in the Catholic Church we used to have something called “Vocation Sunday.” I don’t remember if it came around this time of year or if it was linked with the Gospels of the calling of the Disciples, although that would have made some kind of theological sense. But what I do remember is that the church would bring in some outside preacher for that Sunday. Usually a missionary from some exotic far-off land to entice the boys of the parish with the idea that answering a call to serve God in the priesthood would be a good thing. And then after church, there would be a sort of vocation fair held in the church hall where there would be equal time for the nuns to have at the girls and probably some other priests to talk to the boys as well. The idea of course was that “the call” to serve God came only to those “with vocations” to what was called in that time and place “the religious life.” This all has that slightly uncomfortable feel to me that I get when I think about that whole way that we understood the world and our relationship to “serving God” back then. It’s kind of humorous, but it’s also kind of sad. And I say that because I think of how limiting it was in terms of how we now understand this whole idea of the idea of a call by God. How we now, for example would read and reflect on every one of today’s scriptures, not being about a narrow call to one way of life, but about being called into relationship.
Isaiah understood this. He knew that he was called…called and named in his mother’s womb. Think about that. When someone calls you by your name, that is a sign that they know you, they know who you are as opposed to someone else. I know that it was one of the most important things to me as a teacher that I get to know my students names so that I could let each one of them know that he or she was important to me as an individual person, not just as another student in the class.
This morning’s Gospel is all about that personal call. It is, interestingly enough, John’s version of the calling of the first disciples. We will hear Matthew’s telling of the same story next week. There must be something about this story that is sufficiently compelling and important enough that the crafters of the lectionary felt we needed to hear it twice, told in two voices in quick succession. In John’s voice we hear the story with ambiguous statements and questions. We are left to draw some of our own conclusions.
John begins with John the Baptist’s testimony, his witnessing. The Baptizer, we might say, has already been called. Called to be in a unique relationship with Jesus. His baptizer, his proclaimer. And called also to release his own disciples and followers to Jesus. And he seems to be persistent about this telling, as the Gospel reports that on a second day as he does his proclaiming about Jesus being the lamb of God, the one who was to come, his two disciples walk by and hearing this, “they followed Jesus.” Wow! Just followed him. Doesn’t it make you wonder just what there was about him that they just….went? And at this point John the Gospeller has Jesus say to them,”What are you looking for?” This is where things in this Gospel start really getting interesting for me. Because instead of the answer you might expect, “the person John has been going on about” or something like that, they ask Jesus what seems like a really strange question, “Where are you staying?” What? They care where he’s staying? I was baffled by this until I did a little reading on the Greek and found that the Greek root word that is used for staying in this case is meno, which has the same root as words like remaining or abiding. So the disciples are perhaps asking Jesus something more like “where is it that you keep yourself… or perhaps what is it that defines you, who is the real you?” And Jesus, rather than telling them anything, simply says, “Come and see.” And again, a bit of Greek might be helpful. The word that is used for see means not so much a physical seeing as it means to experience or recognize, to have insight. Jesus is inviting them to come and “experience” something with him. So the two went with him and they had this experience of (again that meno root )remaining, simply abiding with him that day, and there must have been something that Andrew experienced, something that he saw, something powerfully, I would hazard to say relational, for we are relational beings, for he experiences conversion. He comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One. And after his conversion, the first thing he does, his first act of discipleship, of call, is to bring his brother to Jesus. The one who has been called now calls another. Whatever it is he has found in this person Jesus, he wants to share it with someone he loves. And immediately the circle was widened. This was how it began. The one who was transformed by abiding in relationship with Jesus shared that with another and a community was formed.
God called Isaiah into a special and unique relationship as a prophet to set a captive people free and speak God’s word to a nation, God has always been calling God’s people. The Old Testament is the Chronicle of God’s unending Covenant with God’s people and God’s promise of a savior. In Jesus, the Lamb of God, we come to a new chapter in the story, a new way in which we are called and enabled to be co-creators with this incarnated Jesus to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.
Jesus began by calling a community of disciples. He did not choose to do the redemptive work of salvation in isolation. And the first thing he asked of them was to “come and see,” “come and experience,” find out if there was something there that captured the heart and fed the soul enough to be in this relationship. Because he knew it was not going to be easy for them. In this liturgical cycle we have a very short journey from the joy of Christmas to the crucifixion. It can serve as a reminder that the cost of discipleship can be high for those who follow Jesus today as well. It can remind us of the importance of abiding and experiencing in our own relationship with Jesus. Of being conscious as a community of faith about our own discipleship with one another and in the larger community. About how we can widen the circle as well as being conscious about how we care for one another within our own community. Michael Kinman, the Director of Episcopalians for Global Relief and Development once said we need to be careful with those baptismal vows, when we offer our life to Christ in making or renewing them, God just may take us up on it. Are we prepared? Are we willing? Have we found the Messiah?
We have before us the witness of scripture and of all of those past and present whose lives attest to the reality of God’s transforming love. We have around us an ever-growing community of disciples who can continue to bring us back to Jesus and bring the love of Jesus to the world. Sometimes we simply need to slow down and remember to ask ourselves those important questions from this morning’s Gospel, “What are we looking for? Where is He abiding?” And then to listen closely for Jesus’ answer, “Come and see.”
Thanks to Jan Richardsonfor inspiration and a little Greek help. RDK