13 January 2012

Trying to inspire infectious enthusiasm

The call of Philip and Nathanael … a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

The lectionary readings for Sunday next [15 January 2012], the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, are: I Samuel 3: 1-10; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; Revelation 5: 1-10; John 1: 43-51.

In a theological college, it might have been easier for our reflection this afternoon to opt for the Old Testament reading and the story of the call of Samuel.

Or perhaps, the Psalm, which opens with those words: “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me” (Psalm 139: 1).

Or perhaps, the New Testament reading, where 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.

Instead, for our reflection this afternoon, I have chosen the Gospel reading, John 1: 43-51:

43 Τῇ ἐπαύριον ἠθέλησεν ἐξελθεῖν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν, καὶ εὑρίσκει Φίλιππον. καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀκολούθει μοι. 44 ἦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ Βηθσαϊδά, ἐκ τῆς πόλεως Ἀνδρέου καὶ Πέτρου. 45 εὑρίσκει Φίλιππος τὸν Ναθαναὴλ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ὃν ἔγραψεν Μωϋσῆς ἐν τῷ νόμῳ καὶ οἱ προφῆται εὑρήκαμεν, Ἰησοῦν υἱὸν τοῦ Ἰωσὴφ τὸν ἀπὸ Ναζαρέτ. 46 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ, Ἐκ Ναζαρὲτ δύναταί τι ἀγαθὸν εἶναι; λέγει αὐτῷ (ὁ) Φίλιππος, Ἔρχου καὶ ἴδε. 47 εἶδεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Ναθαναὴλ ἐρχόμενον πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ λέγει περὶ αὐτοῦ, Ἴδε ἀληθῶς Ἰσραηλίτης ἐν ᾧ δόλος οὐκ ἔστιν. 48 λέγει αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ, Πόθεν με γινώσκεις; ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Πρὸ τοῦ σε Φίλιππον φωνῆσαι ὄντα ὑπὸ τὴν συκῆν εἶδόν σε. 49 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ, Ῥαββί, σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, σὺ βασιλεὺς εἶ τοῦ Ἰσραήλ. 50 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Οτι εἶπόν σοι ὅτι εἶδόν σε ὑποκάτω τῆς συκῆς πιστεύεις; μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ. 51 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46 Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

I suppose these are very appropriate readings for the beginning of a new semester, and for what is going to be a very busy week for us at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute: we have the part-time MTh students back this weekend, we have all three years back on Monday morning, and doubtless there is going to be a lot to share and listen to as the Year III students go through with us and with each other what we call the “curacy round.”

Some of the students have been asked to be seen by rectors of parishes they never even considered going to. Others will find that having been interviewed by the rector, a parish they once thought very attractive and appealing is one they now no longer want to consider.

And when the placements are finally agreed, some rectors and students will be disappointed, and some will be surprised.

Most of the students have spent three years training for ordained ministry. But they know the call to ministry came many, many years before that.

Despite choices and preferences, the Year III students are sharing the same anxieties at the moment: there are dissertations to complete, they are leaving a place that for some has been like home for almost three years, they are leaving the old family homes they have lived in, they are starting a new job, moving to a new house and to a new town. Any one of these changes is stressful in itself.

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

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

The Gospel reading on Sunday morning 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. 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 again with 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.”

The ordained ministry of the Church should reflect the diversity of skills and talents and personalities that God has given to the Church as gift and blessing. The call to ordained ministry that has come to a very diverse group of students in many ways reflects how the call 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 it.

But they responded to that call faithfully. Andrew went and fetched Simon Peter. Philip found Nathanael.

It has been a challenging few weeks for those students. But Sunday’s Gospel reading also offers us, as staff members, a few challenges too:

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

How do inspire them with enough infectious enthusiasm to want to go back like Andrew to call Peter, to go back like Philip and Nathanael?

How do we encourage them not to be afraid of questions from others who may turn out to be like Nathanael?

How do we encourage them 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.”

Let us pray in the words of the Collect of the Day for Sunday next:

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.

Concluding Prayer:

In the words of the Post-Communion Prayer for Sunday next:

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. This reflection was shared at the opening of a faculty meeting on 13 January 2012.

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