Monday, January 19, 2009

Answering the Call of Discipleship

John 1:43-51


An ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the Rabbi.

The past week it has been just about as cold as it will get here in Wisconsin. That actually warms my heart, because as someone who has just moved here, it is good to know that this usually doesn’t occur too often – cold, but not -25 degrees cold. The cold of the past week has made the nights seem a bit longer and a bit harsher as we more often than not were trying to stay indoors where it is warm rather than be out in the cold too much. It has been a few nights where it doesn’t seem like it ever will change and it will certainly be this cold and dark. As Garrison Keillor usually laments at some point during winter in one of his News from Lake Woebegone, “spring is a distant memory, and winter and cold dark nights dominate our consciousness.”

It can be said that Epiphany is a season of darkness where we are given little flashes of light. It is a season in the church when we are given glimpses of who this Jesus is and what he has come into the world to do. We saw a flash of light illuminating who Jesus last week as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan after being baptized by John the Baptist. The heavens split open and the Spirit descends like dove upon Jesus a voice says from above, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” This is a moment where we see Jesus as the Father’s only begotten Son – a moment where Jesus’ divinity is revealed. And now this week we have a story from John’s gospel where Jesus himself gives not only Nathaniel, but also gives us a flash of who Jesus is as that which brings creation back into relationship with God.

However, it is all too easy to be concerned and maybe even consumed with all the worries of our present situations as we face questions of maintaining our buildings as the reality of repairs still stare at us in our face or questions of whether or not there will be a next generation who will fill these walls with all the emotions that come along with living our lives here on earth. How can we know when night has ended and day is on its way back?

Going back to our little story about this ancient Rabbi, another student inquired, “Could it be when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?”

“No,” the Rabbi replied.

Nathaniel, in this story from John, is described as someone who almost smirkingly quips to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The center of religious authority and power had long since been centered in and around Jerusalem as the northern kingdom of Israel had been lost in the Assyrian invasion leaving Judah to stand as the land and kingdom of God’s chosen people. If anyone was to be the one whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets spoke about, it surely was going to come from in or around the area where the temple was located. You might even say that Nathanael is described to be a good Israelite who would know something about this. Yet there is something that is very interesting in the exchange between Philip and Nathanael – despite his first reluctance to Philip’s invitation, he comes to see who this person that Philip is talking about is.

You may not recognize it, but Nathanael responding to Philip’s call is the very first step into a life of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship describes it this way, “The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience.” This single act of obedience is what begins that life lived in faith. Whatever Nathanael’s motives might be in coming along with Philip to see Jesus, his obedience, you might say his willingness to do what Philip called him to do put him in the place where his confession of faith can occur. He comes to see who Jesus is. He comes to hear what he has to say. In that, his faith is created. In that, he is called to live a life of discipleship. Now, before we get ahead of ourselves and start to think that this is something that Nathanael did for himself, we must remember that the life of discipleship is something we are always called by God to – not something that we create for ourselves. This is very important for us to remember, because it is because of this fact that the light shines in the darkness and the well spring of eternal life is a reality that we all can hope for.

The rabbi’s students soon grew weary of trying to guess at what the rabbi was getting at as they often did when he posed questions to them. Well, then, what is it?” his pupils demanded.

The wise old teacher responded with words of immense wisdom: “It is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”

This hope that we have of the coming light, the well spring of eternal occurs when we answer Jesus’ call to follow. Bonhoeffer calls this life of discipleship “grace and a commandment.” The call of Jesus is a call into an uncertain future where we paradoxically live in the certainty of God’s eternal love for us. Bonhoeffer writes:

The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of his relative sercurity into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality).

The life lived in discipleship is a life lived where the possibilities to witness in word and deed to all those who are around us. We should look at all the men and women that we meet as brothers and sisters who deserve our love, care and invitation to come and see and be a part of the body of Christ. This is what we are called to do even in the midst of everything that seems to be distracting us in our lives. That is when the dark, cold of night gives way to the hope and warmth of the hope we have in Christ.

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