Brief synopsis of the readings: In the First Book of Samuel God calls Samuel who believes that it was Eli who called him. Eli assured him he didn’t call him and the suggested that if Samuel heard the voice again he should respond with: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” This began Samuel’s public ministry. In John’s Gospel John looked hard at Jesus and said: “Look, there is the lamb of God.” Some who heard this approached and asked to follow him. Two of them, Andrew and Simon Peter, were named as followers of Jesus.
Last week we read about Jesus’ baptism and I spoke about how our baptism begins our discipleship and here we can see how it began Jesus’ public ministry. And that began with the call of his first followers.
Before delving into this Gospel we need to talk a little about the words we use. We tend to use the terms “apostle” and “disciple” interchangeably and think of the 12 apostles as the first 12 who got to Jesus. It’s actually a good deal more complex and I learned a great deal from one of my seminary textbooks: Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church by Rev. Kenan B. Osborne OFM. I have to confess that most of what I read in seminary was pretty dry, but I found this book exceptionally good. In it he describes three different groups: The Twelve, Apostles, and Disciples. We’re familiar with the Twelve because they are called by name. They are also those who gathered with him for the Last Supper. An Apostle was someone who witnessed the Resurrected Jesus. The Twelve were all Apostles but there were many Apostles who were not part of the Twelve (e.g. Mary Magdalene). Finally, a Disciple is some who chooses for follow Jesus, and that includes all of us.
Given this model, becoming a disciple really depends on us, on our choice to follow Jesus. Becoming an apostle was partly a matter of proximity to Jesus, but it was also a matter of being in the right place. The accounts of the resurrected Jesus don’t give us the names of all those who witnessed him (see Luke, chapter 24) but they were “in the room where it happened.”
Other accounts of the call of the first followers are more explicit, but it appears that Jesus chose them. That may sound strange to us, but we see a hint of that in our first reading from Samuel. Here it’s obvious: God called Samuel, and called him by name. God saw (or created) something in Samuel that made Samuel worthy of God’s choice.
I don’t wish to diminish the importance of our choice to follow God, but this reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago, when I was a priest in South Carolina. Many Protestant churches don’t practice infant baptism. The insist that a person should not be baptized unless he or she can make the decision to become a disciple. Many, though not all, make that choice in adolescence. One of our parishioners suggested that we should do the same and that it didn’t make sense to baptize infants who couldn’t choose discipleship.
I understood his point but made this suggestion: when we baptize an infant he or she has no idea what is going on. But the parents do, and the congregation does. I suggested that we are saying to this infant: “Before you knew who we were, and before you knew who you were, we knew who you were and we chose you.” Obviously we hope that this infant will come to a knowledge of God, himself, and the rest of the Christian community but I like to think that we plant a seed.
My best other example of this lies with a process I’m well acquainted with: the decision to enter religious life. It’s a mutual discernment. The individual believes himself or herself to be called, much in the same way that Samuel felt called. And some are surprised by a call that they may have tried to avoid or even run from. They then enter a formation process where they, along with the formation team, determine if this call is valid.
It’s not a perfect process, but few steps in our journey as Christians is. I think we should recognize that there are times when we choose to be disciples, and there are other times when Jesus calls us to be one of the twelve. And it bears notice that one of the twelve, Judas, didn’t go as planned.
Nevertheless, let us be aware that there are times when we are called to a different direction by people who see something in us that we don’t see. Maybe it’s a promotion at work that we didn’t seek. Maybe it’s a political office when we didn’t see ourselves as a politician.
And we know very little about those Jesus called in today’s Gospel. We don’t know, but often speculate about those Jesus may have called who told him to get lost. Not all who are called will respond, and that’s OK. They walk their path too.
When we are discerning our call we can easily misunderstand why we’re being called. Many of us tend to give too much weight to our shortcomings and too little weight to our gifts. I know this was the case when I was discerning priesthood and it was the people around me, those I worked with, prayed with, and served with.
Why Samuel? Why Andrew and Simon Peter? Why any of us? Well, maybe that’s the fun of being a disciple. We don’t know why we are chosen, but that’s God’s call. And, ultimately ours.