18 January 2012

To see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending

The call of Philip and Nathanael … how do we keep fresh and alive our enthusiasm for the call from Christ?

Patrick Comerford

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Wednesday 18 January 2012,

5 p.m., The Community Eucharist:

The Collect and readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany:

I Samuel 3: 1-10;
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18;
Revelation 5: 1-10;
John 1: 43-51.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen,

In any theological college, it might have been easier this evening to opt to preach on the Old Testament reading and the story of the call of Samuel. But I figure if you have not hear this time-and-again at the ordination of each other as deacon last year, you are going to hear sermons on this passage time-and-again at the ordination of each other as priest this year.

So, unaccustomed as I am to preaching, I might have gone for another easy option: after all, last weekend we were led in a series of meditations and reflection by [Dr] Katie[ Heffelfinger]’s tutorial group on the Psalm, which opens with those words: “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me” (Psalm 139: 1).

But then, if you do not know already that God has searched you out and knows you in intimate detail, you are now wondering what you have been doing here for these past few years.

Or, perhaps, I could choose the New Testament reading. There we are reminded that Christ, the Lamb on the Throne, has made us “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God” (Revelation 5: 10), preparing the world for the Kingdom of God, inviting the world into the Kingdom of God. That would allow an opportunity to develop some of the themes I introduced in Monday morning’s reflection on Patristic Spirituality.

But, as you all know, I love Saint John’s Gospel, and I could hardly miss out on our Gospel reading (John 1: 43-51).

These are all appropriate readings for the beginning of a new semester, and particularly good reminders to us as staff of why we are here, even in the midst of a very busy week.

We had the part-time MTh students back last weekend, and we too have to prepare for lectures, tutorials and dissertation supervision. But please, don’t get me wrong – each and every one of us loves this work, and we share your anxieties and your joys as tell us about the “curacy round.”

But we are also aware that some of you as Year III students are being asked to be seen by rectors of parishes that you never even considered going to. Others of you are finding you are being interviewed by a rector only to realise that a parish you once thought very attractive and appealing is now one that you have second thoughts about.

And when the curacies are finally agreed, some rectors and some students may be disappointed, and some may be surprised.

Whether you have spent the best part of one, two or three years here so far training for ordained ministry, you know that the call to ministry came many, many years before you arrived here and knocked on that blue front door.

Now within the next few weeks, the Year III students must start to think about leaving a place that for some has been like a second home for almost three years. You may also have to leave old family homes you have lived in. You are about to start a new job, to move to a new house, to a new town, to an unknown and unfamiliar part of the island.

Any one of these changes is stressful in itself.

Some of you must have been stressed-out for the past few weeks. Some of you may have surprised the interviewing rectors who met you. And some of you will be surprised by the offers you are going to receive in the coming weeks, where you are called to serve Christ in his Church.

God’s call comes to a variety of people, in surprising ways ... and to surprising places.

Our Gospel reading is the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael, and it comes immediately after the story of the call of Andrew and Peter.

Andrew and Peter are brothers but their names indicate the early differences and divisions in the Church, held together in unity by Christ. Andrew’s name is Greek ('Ανδρέας, Andreas), meaning “manly” or “valorous,” while Peter’s original name, Simon (שמעון‎, Shimon), meaning “hearing,” is so obviously Jewish.

And the same contrast is emphasised again with the names of Philip and Nathanael: Philip is a strong Greek name – everyone in the region knew Philip of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great; while Nathanael’s name is a Hebrew compound meaning “the Gift of God.”

So, from the very beginning of the story of the call of the disciples, the diversity and divisions with the Church are represented, even in the names that show they are Jews and Greeks, the Hebrew-speakers and those who are culturally Hellenised.

In reacting to those false divisions in the early Church, the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28; see Colossians 3: 11).

The ordained ministry of the Church should reflect the diversity of skills and talents and personalities that God has given to the Church as gifts and as blessings.

The call to ordained ministry that has come to you as a very diverse group of students in many ways reflects how the call that came to the first disciples as a diverse group of people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, often – as with Philip and Nathanael – when they were least expecting that call. But they responded to that call faithfully. Andrew went and fetched Simon Peter. Philip found Nathanael.

Nathanael must have thought there were great things ahead of him. Imagine if you were told by Christ himself: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Did that ever happen to Nathanael?

Quite honestly, we do not know.

After this story in Saint John’s Gospel, he disappears completely from the Bible.

But whether others saw Nathanael as cynical or sceptical, as he presents himself in this story, Christ sees his potential and promise, and sees him as someone without guile. In Christ, Nathanael finds all things are made new, Christ transform the poverty of his nature by the riches of his grace, and in the renewal of Nathanael’s life, God’s heavenly glory is made known.

This is a promise to you and me too, to each and every one of us in our ministry. The call to follow Christ holds out great promise.

But in responding to that call, and in being faithful to that call, we may find ourselves called to the most unexpected tasks and places, but called to the most mundane and ordinary places and tasks – all for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

We may see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – but without anyone knowing it.

We are not called to fame and glory.

And if our Gospel reading is a challenge to you as students, then it offers us, as staff members, a few challenges too, for it is not fame and glory that we are called to either:

How do we continue to encourage you to move beyond the tolerance of diversity to the respect for diversity and then on to the point of speaking up for diversity as a gift in the Church, so that truly, as the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

How do we continue to encourage you not to be afraid of questions from others who may turn out to be like Nathanael, asking direct questions, even without guile and in all innocence, but nevertheless blunt and direct, apparently cynical, questions about Christ and faith?

How do we continue to inspire you with enough infectious enthusiasm to want to go back like Andrew to call Peter, to go back like Philip to fetch Nathanael?

How do we continue to help you as students to keep that call to follow Christ so fresh in your minds that it still inspires infectious enthusiasm in you after your three years here?

And I say this – without guile or cynicism – that this alone should be enough fame and glory, for in that alone we shall see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending.”

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of glory,
you nourish us with bread from heaven.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that through us the light of your glory
may shine in all the world.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist on Wednesday 18 January 2012.

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