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Sunday, January 15, 2012

The call to prayer


Texts:  1 Sam 3.1-10; Psalm 139; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51

Although it is the year of Mark’s Gospel in the three-year cycle of the lectionary, between now and Easter we can expect to read quite a lot from the gospel of John.  The reason for this both historical and spiritual.  Historically, the period between Epiphany and Easter, including Lent, arose out of the 2nd century church’s approach to baptism.  In the early church it was predominantly adults who were baptised, and these adults were only called to baptism after a long period of study and spiritual practise known as the ‘catechumenate’.  The catechumenate was so named because of its root meaning in the Greek word ‘echo’, for the purpose of the catechumenate was to teach enquirers how to imitate or ‘echo’ the faith, hope and love of Jesus Christ.  The period between Epiphany and Easter became particularly important as the final stage in this pilgrimage of formation.  Here the catechumens would consolidate both their theology and their spiritual practise, with a particular focus on prayer and worship as the place where ‘right belief’ and ‘right practise’ communicated with each other.  The gospel of John was often used as the main textbook for this endeavour because of its strong insistence on the need for Christians to live in an intimate communion with God in Christ, a communion that I will today call ‘prayer’.  So let’s now turn to John’s writing to see what we may learn about these things.

 In the passage we read a moment ago, Jesus issues the well-known call to discipleship, ‘Follow me’.  The person invited, in this instance, is a fellow named Phillip, a colleague of Andrew and Peter, who were already followers of Jesus.  The text tells us very little about Phillip, except that, having heard the invitation, he goes straight away to pass on the invitation to his friend Nathaniel.  ‘Come Nathaniel,’ he says, ‘We have found the one that Moses and the prophets wrote about, Jesus Ben-Joseph, who comes from Nazareth’.  Nathaniel, a man ‘without deceit’ we are told, is properly wary of messianic claims (for there were many messianic pretenders in first-century Judah).  ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ he asks, with appropriate scepticism.  ‘Come and see for yourself,’ is Phillip’s reply.

Now, before we go on with the story, I want you to understand that John is not writing as a historian when he tells this story.  John isn’t particularly interested in historical details about when things happened or how.  John is writing, rather, as a theologian, which means that everything he reports as an ‘event’ or ‘happening’ signifies something other than it’s plain, everyday, meaning.  The word ‘see’, for example, does not (in John’s gospel) mean ‘seeing’ with your eyes.  It means wholehearted belief or trust.  We know this because of that wonderful dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in chapter 9, where Jesus accuses them of being spiritually blind.  That meaning is reinforced by Jesus’ words to Thomas in chapter 20.  ‘Blessed are those who have not seen [in the ordinary sense] and yet have come to believe.’  So, to make a long story rather shorter, when Phillip invites Nathaniel to ‘come and see for yourself,’ he is inviting him not simply to meet Jesus and watch what he does, but to go far beyond ordinary sight and believe.  ‘Come, learn to believe and trust Jesus as I do’, says Phillip.  That is the call to every inquirer into our faith, today as much as in the first and second centuries.

But now we get down to brass tacks.  How is it that we learn this faith?  How is it that we move from being interested but wary inquirers to people who believe and trust in Christ without reserve?  Well, let us return to the story.  When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming towards him, we are told, he cries out ‘Now here is an Israelite in which there is no deceit!’, or, to put that into a more contemporary idiom, ‘How wonderful to meet a man who doesn’t pretend to be something that he is not.  How wonderful to meet a man who tells the truth about himself, as well as others’.  Nathaniel is staggered, it seems, that Jesus knows what kind of man he is already, without the benefit of having conversed with him before.  ‘Where did you get to know me?’ he says.  Jesus’ answer is very enigmatic:  ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you.’  This is John’s way of saying that Jesus knows the truth of who we are even before we experience the call to know the truth of who he is.  Having discovered that, Nathaniel then makes the most profound confession of faith in the whole of John’s gospel:  ‘Teacher, you are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!’  Now, my friends, note this please.  Nathaniel does not know who Jesus is simply because he has done his theological study.  He certainly has done his theological study, otherwise he would have neither the language nor conceptual base to name Jesus in the way he does.  Theological understanding is therefore very important.  Still, that is not, in the end, why Nathaniel comes to faith.  He comes to faith, we are told, because he comes to see that Jesus sees him . . .  or, if we take John’s own lexicon seriously, Nathaniel comes to faith because he suddenly knows and believes than Jesus already knows, and believes in, him.  ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?’ is Jesus’ rhetorical response?  The answer, of course, is ‘yes’.  That is exactly why Nathaniel believes.

Now, let’s pause for a moment to register the significance of what we have discovered so far.  In answer to the question ‘how is it that we move from being inquirers into the faith to disciples that live the faith?’ John would say this, I think:  by prayer.  Yes, by prayer.  For prayer does not begin with our own faith, you know.  Prayer does not begin because we decide, some day, on the basis of some pre-existing understanding of God, that we believe that God is real.  Prayer does not begin, in other words, with a human search or longing for God.  On the contrary!  According to the story we have read just now, prayer begins with God’s knowing us, warts and all, and with God’s belief in us, or in what we could be if we would only own who we are in God’s sight, rather than in our own.  For Nathaniel, it seems to me, was certainly not a man without deceit when Christ hailed him by the river Jordan that day.  What Christ saw in him, however, was what God sees in all of us—the selves we may become if we die to ourselves and live in the power of Christ, if we cast of the old self in baptism, and rise with Jesus to take on the garment of his faith, hope and love.  Prayer begins, then, not with our own words, but with the Gods word and call to us:  I know you already, I know you by name.  Come with me and I shall make you new.

There is something else we should note about the beginning of prayer however, and it is this.  That the call and voice of God does not come to us apart from the form and timbre of human voices.  John’s gospel was written in part, to discredit such claims.  For his opponents, the Gnostics, believed that God was a disembodied spirit whose voice could be heard directly, as it were, like an echo in the human heart.  No! said John, by way of response.  The word of God has become flesh in Jesus.  His call will always, therefore, come to us via the mediation of the church, that is, in the tone and timbre of people of faith, who call to us with the very voice of Christ.  ‘Come and see’ they say to us, like Phillip in the story.  But this very human call is, in the grace of God, already the call of God which is the beginning of prayer.  That pattern is beautifully illustrated in the story of Samuel, where a strange voice calls Samuel’s name three times, but Samuel does not know it is the Lord until his mentor, the priest Eli, discerns that it is so.  What occurs, in other words, is this:  that the Spirit who calls to us cannot become a personal word of address apart from the faith and discernment of God’s people.  That is why, in the baptismal catechumenate, the inquirer learns to respond to God, to say “Here I am, I am who I am only as I am available for your purposes’ by first learning to discern God’s voice with the help of a mentor, godparent or sponsor, whom the church appoints to direct the candidate’s progress.

The call of Jesus to follow is therefore a call to prayer, first of all.  In prayer we learn to listen for God’s word of personal address, to God’s call on our lives.  In the language of prayer we learn to respond to God, to say with Moses and Samuel and Mary and Jesus, “Here I am . . .  I am who I am, only insofar as I respond to your call.’  That is why disciples of Jesus are still called to be people of prayer.  We cannot honestly claim to be Christians if we do not pray, if we do not give over a significant portion of our day, our week, and our year to a listening for God’s voice and call.  It grieves me that much of the Uniting Church seems to have forgotten this basic discipline, which ancient believers were taught from the very beginnings of their enquiry into faith.  ‘You will never learn to be a Christian, they told inquirers, unless you learn to listen for God in prayer.  Indeed, it is by such listening that you will learn to believe yourself.’

So I say to you today, with all earnestness.  If you do not pray, why not?  It is by prayer that you learn to be a Christian, and it is by prayer that you continue to be a Christian.  How can you know how to live the life of Christ in your own time, place and circumstances, unless you pray?  Praying in public worship is very important, because there you learn how to listen for God’s word with others, and to address God with the words of the church, which is Christ’s community.  Still, weekly prayer is not enough.  Unless such prayer is built into the pattern of our days and our years as well, we shall never learn what God requires of us when we are not at public worship.  By prayer God guides us into the particular path he has ordained for you, and you alone.

So, if you do not pray in this way, please don’t be daunted.  Unfortunately the church has not been good at teaching the basic disciplines of the faith for many years.  We are only just beginning to learn that many of the things we put aside in the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ are actually very important.  So, come, talk to a respected minister or to others in the church who have a daily practise of prayer.  We can show you how to listen for God.  It will change your life, turning it upside down at times.  But it will also sustain your life.  It will make you whole in the joy of Christ.  Come and see for yourself.


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