Follow me, said Jesus. Today’s theme is the call of God. We heard how he called Samuel, and then how Jesus called Philip and Nathaniel to be his disciples.
D’you remember the story of Samuel? His father was Elkanah, and he had two wives, Peninnah, who had children, and Hannah, who was childless. Peninnah constantly mocked and tormented Hannah because she was barren. So Hannah, weeping bitterly, prayed to the Lord for a child while she was at the shrine at Shiloh. Eli, the priest there who was watching her, thought she was drunk and reprimanded her, but she assured him that she wasn’t and promised that if she did have a son she would bring him to Shiloh and present him to the Lord for the Lord’s service.
This is how the boy Samuel, as we heard in the first lesson, was there with Eli and came to hear the calling of the Lord. He answered that call, and so later became one the great prophets and leaders of Israel.
God’s calling of individuals is a constant theme throughout the Old Testament, and it was those who answered his call who were able to do great things for him and for his chosen people.
And in the New Testament it is again those who answer the call of Jesus who come to establish the church and cause the Christian faith to spread through the Mediterranean world.
From St John’sGospel we heard how Jesus called Philip. Follow me, he said, and Philip then went to find Nathanial and brought him to Jesus. As so often happens in John, the account of the meeting between Jesus and Nathaniel seems strange to us, the conversation improbable. But John, writing a long time after the events and with the more straightforward accounts in the other gospels being known, wanted to bring out the extra significance, as he, no doubt inspired, saw it. In the verses we heard he’s saying that those who follow Jesus will see heaven opened and a direct link between heaven and earth, a link that is Jesus himself. It’s like, he says, the ladder in Jacob’s dream connecting heaven and earth.
In St Mark’s Gospel the account is much more straightforward. Come with me, said Jesus to Simon and Andrew. Come with me, he said to James and John. And at once they left their nets and their boats and followed him.
They left everything behind, not only their jobs and their livelihood, but also their possessions, their homes, their security and even their families. These four, together with Philip - Nathaniel didn’t become an apostle - and the other seven to be called later, abandoned everything to follow Jesus. It shows what a marvellously attractive personality he must have had.
It’s most likely, of course, that when Jesus said to them: Follow me, they weren’t seeing him for the first time. They’d probably already heard his preaching - and what a compelling message that must have been: The time has come; the kingdomof Godis upon you; repent and believe this good news. Some of them may have already been baptized by John the Baptist, even been his disciples. And they might well have heard John say: There’s someone coming after me, much greater than me, whose sandals I’m not worthy of bending down to unfasten.
Anyway, however it was, when the call came there was no hesitation, no half-hearted response. Immediately they left everything and went with him.
And so Jesus, shortly after his own baptism in the Jordan by John, which had marked the change from him being a carpenter of Nazareth to becoming a wandering preacher, so Jesus gathered around him his team of twelve. The number of course was significant. The people of God, the Israelites, had been formed from twelve tribes. Jesus had come to re-new the people of God, to create a new Israel; and so he chose twelve to be apostles.
And the very fact that he bothered to form a group is itself significant. Unlike John the Baptist, he didn’t want to go it alone, just doing his own thing, working in isolation.
These men were to be the nucleus of his church. For Jesus must have had an eye to the future. I’m sure that, just like us, he did not know precisely what was to happen to him in the days and months that lay ahead, but he was surely able to foresee that if he exclusively followed God’s way, he was likely to come to an early and murderous end. So it was necessary to leave behind him a small number of people who knew him through and through, who’d been his friends and companions day after day, who’d heard his preaching and teaching about God, who’d seen his healing work, who’d observed the way he dealt with people - all sorts of people, good and bad, the self-important and those in distress.
They were his disciples, and though we normally think that the word disciples means followers, more than that, it means learners. They were his trainees, his apprentices, being prepared to carry on his mission after he’d gone, at least physically gone.
So what sort of people did Jesus choose for this most important of jobs? It’s not unfair, I think, to say that by and large they were average men. By the standards of the day they were neither rich nor poor, neither dunces nor great intellects. They were ordinary working people with no great background, and certainly at that time no great future either. They were, of course, individuals with individual characters. That comes out in the gospel accounts and in the nicknames that Jesus chose for some of them. They certainly weren’t especially holy or other-worldly.
In fact, in St Mark’s Gospel, the first to be written, they’re not painted in a good light at all. It’s one of the puzzles of the gospel. Mark obviously thought they were important: at the time of his writing they were held in great regard, but almost every time they are mentioned we’re told how inadequate they were, how lacking in faith and understanding, how hard-hearted, how concerned for themselves.
It is, I think, Mark’s way of getting across the point that these great and famous apostles we’re just like us - and us like them. How little faith we have! How often we fail to understand! How hard our hearts are, and how much in the end do we care most of all for ourselves! They did marvellous things for God: so could we, if we answer his call and put our trust in him.
When Jesus called the fishermen, he said: Come with me and I will make you fishers of men. It was not that they should catch people against their will. It was to gather them into the net of salvation; to bring them from outer darkness into the light, or - another biblical idea - to gather the lost sheep into the safety of the fold, which is the church.
How can we do any of this? We have answered God’s call: otherwise we wouldn’t be here this morning worshipping him. We are Jesus’ disciples - learners in his school of living. We’ve got our L-plates on, and though we may not yet have passed the test, there is something we can do, something active, something positive, something that can make a difference.
By the way we live and by what we say to others, by the example of our own lives, we can help people to see that ladder between heaven and earth. We can help them to be aware of that direct link connecting the things of God with our things, with our daily lives. Heaven will, so to speak, be opened, and we and they shall be tinged with the holiness of God, enriching our oh-so-ordinary lives, giving them an extra-ordinary quality.
Today Jesus says to us: Follow me. Let us do so, and let us, for him, also become fishers of men and of women, bringing others into the joyful sphere of God’ love.