Come and See: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 2
1) Each year the lectionary takes one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as its basis, and weaves in passages from John at key points along the way. This week’s Gospel reading - in which Jesus calls his first disciples - is the first of those passages from John; we’ll hear Mark’s version of the same story next week. Likewise, this week’s reading from 1 Samuel is also on the theme of discerning God’s call.
2) It may be helpful to begin reading the passage from John a few verses earlier (say, at verse 35). This earlier start has at least three advantages: first, a better sense of the flow of the narrative; second, Andrew’s reaction helps fill out the range of responses to Jesus’ call; and third, in verse 39 we hear Jesus’ invitation, “Come and see” - the same one Philip echoes in verse 46.
3) The story of Samuel’s call is a classic, and alongside John’s story of Jesus calling his disciples, it opens up a lovely opportunity to reflect on the theme of “vocation” or “life purpose.” And what better time of year to do so than early January, with the air still full of new resolutions? What's more, since Mark's passage next week is on the same theme (and next week's OT reading is on Jonah's call), a two-week series on "calling" might work quite nicely.
1) Samuel’s a boy in this story (he’s traditionally imagined to be about twelve years old in this scene), a priest’s apprentice who sleeps in the temple near the “ark of God,” the most sacred object of all in Israelite worship. Four times God calls to Samuel, and the first three times he mistakes God’s voice for Eli’s, and so runs to the priest to see what’s the matter. Eli’s eventual advice - to stay put the fourth time and respond, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” - allows Samuel to hear the divine voice, and God’s opening line is magnificent: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (1 Sam 3:11).
2) As John tells it, Andrew decides to follow Jesus after both John the Baptist’s endorsement (v. 36) and spending a day with Jesus in his residence (v. 39). Philip’s decision, on the other hand, is a direct, immediate response to Jesus’ simple summons, “Follow me.” Nathanael is a skeptic at first, and decides to sign on only after Jesus impresses him with apparently preternatural knowledge about Nathanael himself. Thus John paints a portrait of discipleship arising in various circumstances, in various ways, among people with various temperaments.
3) Faced with Nathanael’s rather snide skepticism (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), Philip makes no arguments. Rather, he simply says, “Come and see” - echoing Jesus’ earlier invitation to Andrew (v. 39). The power of invitation and experience seem to supersede arguments and assurances. For both Jesus and Philip, “come and see” is their signature mode of evangelism, of spreading the good news and recruiting disciples.
4) Nathanael’s ultimate testimony that Jesus is “the King of Israel” foreshadows Pilate’s sign on the cross at the end of John’s Gospel, the scornful inscription pronouncing Jesus “the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The two titles function as thematic bookends in the overall narrative, and for listeners who know the end of the story, Nathanael’s words are an ambiguous mix of celebration and sorrow.
1) How do we discern and follow God’s calling? When we sense a prompting, an encouragement, or a tug in a particular direction, how do we recognize its source? From Samuel’s story, one mark of the divine summons is repetition, and so we might ask: Does the prompting persist, or is it fleeting? Another clue is in Eli’s advice to be still and deliberately, thoughtfully listen, making time and space for reflection (“Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening”). And a third potential sign is those “tingling ears” (v. 11): the Spirit’s work in our lives will challenge and stir us, and that inspiration can mean we are moving down the road God's calling us to follow.
2) Likewise, from John's story we can glean that God’s calling meets us where we are. Andrew gets a trusted recommendation and a day with Jesus; Philip jumps aboard right away; and Nathanael engages in skeptical debate. In short, there’s no one right way to respond to God’s call. There’s plenty of room under the tent of discipleship, both for those ready to take the plunge and for those who'd rather put a toe in first...
3) One of the most celebrated definitions of vocation is Frederick Buechner’s: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It’s a lovely definition - but it sometimes doesn’t seem to fit. Moses, for example, doesn’t demonstrate much “deep gladness” when God calls him at the burning bush (Moses sums up the discussion with, “O my Lord, please send someone else!” (Ex 4:13)); nor does Samuel when God calls him to deliver difficult news to Eli. In the Gospels, too, the disciples experience their calling as leading them toward difficulty, not away from it. In the end, Buechner’s formula is still a valuable discernment tool, but so is its photo-negative opposite: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep discomfort and the world’s deep blessings meet.”
4) Finally, Jesus’ words (and Philip’s echo of them) - “Come and see” - stand out this week as a witness and a challenge. For both Andrew and Nathanael, and for many of us besides, second-hand reports just won’t do. We want to come and see for ourselves. For John, this is the primary mode of spreading the good news and growing the community of disciples - and churches today are wise to do the same. Try this line of questions with your community: If we were to invite a friend to experience the best of our congregation’s life and work with this simple, three-word invitation, to what specifically would we invite them? A worship service, a meal, a service project, a prayer meeting? Where and when do we most vividly, experientially embody the Gospel we proclaim? What in particular might someone “come and see” in our community that would put them at risk of discerning a call to follow Jesus?