Sermon: Second Sunday of Epiphany
The Reverend Martin Kitchen
Preached on 18th January 2004
(Second Sunday of Epiphany)
by The Reverend Martin Kitchen
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling.
Ephesians 4 (v 4)
On the one hand, we could start this sermon like this:
Can you recall the motif of the side of BT vans around the country? You know the one featuring the strange figure with his - or her - body and head turned backwards, the hand up to the ear, giving the impression of listening; but also with front part of the body facing forwards, with a herald's trumpet, giving the impression of sounding forth what has been heard?
That can stand as a marvellous example of the story of the calling of Samuel, for it emphasises the principle of listening.
A memory that goes way back early in my life is that of learning by heart in the Authorized Version this story of the calling of Samuel, by reciting it responsively it at the start of Sunday School: And the Lord came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak, for thy servant heareth.
And it was high time someone listened!
Samuel is one of the most significant characters in the Old Testament. He is the successor to Eli, the last of the judges. He is associated with the priesthood by virtue of his residence at Shiloh with Eli and in his assuming the priestly functions of Eli as the latter becomes old and blind and falls from favour with God. And Samuel is also the means by which the monarchy is established, for he selects and anoints both Saul, the first king, and David, the second.
The twilight in which the story begins is a metaphor for the moral and spiritual twilight of the nation. Visions were not widespread, we are told. In the story there is only the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the day; Eli the priest is blind, and his blindness is more than physical, for it mirrors the lack of prophetic vision in the nation. The only hope focuses upon the about-to-be-enlightened Samuel.
The threefold repetition of God's calling of Samuel awakens our expectancy as, with the moral support of old Eli - who for all his faults remains wise and courageous - Samuel responds to the voice of God. Speak, Lord, for your servant is ready to hear, he says, and thus begins a lifetime's conversation with the Almighty. Samuel learns to listen, and Israel's fortunes take a turn for the better. The story plays a part in the nation's saving narrative, for here is a prophet who will see the word and hear the vision.
What Samuel hears is enough to make the ears tingle; it is a story of infidelity and of the withdrawal of God's forgiveness from Eli's house. And the events unfold: the ark of the covenant is captured; Hophni and Phinehas, Eli's sons, are killed; Eli hears the news and falls down dead; and Phinehas's wife, expecting a child, goes into labour. Someone attending the birth says at this point, Don't panic! - like some early-day Corporal Jones in Dad's Army; but the woman fails to respond, and the child taken from her womb is called Ichabod - the glory is departed.
And, according to 1 Samuel 2.25, it is all due to a failure to listen: But they would not listen to the voice of their father; for it was the will of the LORD to kill them. Eli failed to listen, and his sons failed to listen. Samuel, the son of Hannah and Elkanah, whose birth was thanks to God's having listened to his mother's prayer (cf. 1 Samuel 1), did listen, and the gift of listening marked his life. Prophets are God's gift to the church, according to Ephesians 4.11, and what characterizes their calling - like the BT motif - is not so much the ability to talk but the capacity for listening.
That's one way to begin the sermon. Or on the other hand, we could start like this:
Argument weak; shout here and thump pulpit: There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Most of us, mercifully, are now accustomed to saying, whenever we read such a passage or observe such behaviour, What is the problem here? Is there some doubt about this 'oneness'? Why does he have to bang on about it, as though he is unsure of the truth of his claim? Is this much vaunted 'unity' in dispute? Is he trying to persuade us of something that might be urged by emotion, but which cannot be demonstrated by argument?
And you would not be wrong to be suspicious. It is most likely that the Letter to the Ephesians dates from after the time of Paul himself. A loyal disciple has seen that Paul's preaching has been vindicated by the historical event of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and the writer is urging that Paul is the prince of all the apostles. What is now required is that the church should value its oneness, acknowledge Paul's authority and continue to live within the tradition that he instigated.
Unfortunately, things were not so straightforward. The traditions of Christian belief in the first century varied from place to place and between the emphases of the different apostles. We know that from Paul's own lifetime; and Clement of Rome, later in the first century, said that the apostles Peter and Paul both died 'as a result of jealousy and strife' (1 Clement 5.2). Professor Kingsley Barrett, of this university, suggested that Ephesians was written while the church in Jerusalem was still sponsoring an 'anti-Pauline' mission.
So things were not entirely hunky-dory in those wonderful, far-off days! There were serious differences, and these were held with great passion, even enmity; the rhetoric of unity failed to take into account the realities of believing and behaving; and the possibility of unity was only conceived within the perspective of domination and destruction.
Well, having dug below the surface of Ephesians a little, it is interesting to note that 1 Samuel 3 is not so straightforward, either. In a recent paper which is principally about King Saul, no less an Old Testament scholar than our own Dean, Michael Sadgrove, has questioned the rose tinted glasses through which we tend to see the story of Samuel. For example, if Samuel is to be such a great prophet, why does it take him three goes to work out that it is God who is calling him? And why does he need corrupt old Eli to point out to him what is going on? And there is surely some significance in the fact that Samuel's own sons turn out to be just as profligate and useless as Eli's own!
And why does Samuel blame Saul for offering sacrifice in 1 Samuel 13, when he himself, not being a priest, is not supposed to offer sacrifices either? And why is Saul not provided with any access to the will of God independently of Samuel - whether in this incident of offering sacrifice, or in the case of his failure to slaughter all the Amalekites and their flocks, as Samuel has commanded him, in chapter 15?
Maybe it is the case that, far from that 'lifetime's conversation with the Almighty', of which I spoke earlier, what we have is a lifetime, not only of mis-hearing, but of talking himself, as if he had rolled God over and was usurping God's place himself!
Perhaps the problem for Samuel goes right back to his identity, back right to his conception and birth. The name, Samuel, according to his mother in 1 Samuel 1.20, means 'asked for', from the Lord; but in reality the name doesn't mean that; the name Samuel means 'his name is God'. Significantly, the verb 'to ask for' is Sa'al which is the root of the name 'Saul' - but to go into all that is far beyond both our time and our concern here.
Now isn't all this absolutely fascinating for the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? It suggests that both at the level of our own identity and at the level of our relationships, we are foolish to ignore the reality of profound difference: difference of identity, difference in aspiration, difference as to whose story is going to be paramount.
We know, both from history and from our own personal experience, that any attempt to impose unity fails unless it takes into account the real differences and contradictions which we embody, which characterize our lives and our communities and which go very deep down inside us indeed. So we may be content, neither with rosy views of our childhood or our vocation, nor with unreal or unrealistic fantasies of unity.
I remember hearing Rabbi Hugo Gryn on Desert Island Discs years ago. He and Sue Lawley talked about Auschwitz, about being a Jew, about religious pluralism. 'What you're talking about', said Sue Lawley, 'is religious toleration.' 'O no I'm not'; he replied, 'I'm talking about celebration.'
The last thing I want to imply is that the quest for unity among Christian churches is not worth the trouble, or that what has been achieved - not least in the Meissen and Porvoo Agreements - are of no account. Indeed I would suggest that the strength of those two achievements has been precisely in the degree to which they tolerate, indeed, celebrate, the differences between the Anglican and Lutheran traditions.
But they also highlight the fact that, to go much further, we shall have to learn and observe a much more fundamental principle. We must find ways of celebrating difference - about the theology of the Eucharist about bishops and about authority and pluralism - and then move on to those yet broader issues which now threaten the future of humankind: not only the fact of difference over religious divides, but also of all those other differences which human communities and institutions turn into barriers in the path of human unity.
The text, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, does not have to be shouted, nor does the pulpit have to thumped. Perhaps is does remind us that the calling is profoundly ambiguous; but talk of one body and one Spirit may recall Paul's own First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, where there is an emphasis on the difference of gifts which the Spirit gives to the community. It is this tradition, of noting, observing and celebrating difference, that we must learn to emulate. For the hope of our calling is that God will meet us in Christ as we move towards him in our growth as human beings and Christians, and that we shall become like Christ as we continue the journey, in company with one another, with all our differences.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in Life Together:
By sheer grace God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only the fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling.