We are into the season of Epiphany, which seems to be distinguished principally by falling between the two great Christian feasts of Christmas and Easter! Epiphany is about revelation – who Jesus is, and what his significance is. Neither the crib nor the cross alone do this. We discover the meaning of these – and of Jesus – through his life and mission. His life unfolds the meaning of the manger and the cross and resurrection discloses the significance of his life.
If Epiphany is a voyage of discovery about Jesus, it is also a voyage of self-discovery. Christian faith is about following, not about observing. To “do” Epiphany is self-involving and life-transforming. Jesus discloses not only the truth about himself, and not only the truth about God, but, precisely because of who he is, he discloses the truth about our world and about ourselves. In Jesus, we learn that to be human is to be known by God. Our identity resides in the fact that we are created, known and loved by God. And, as we find in today’s readings, in the fact that we are called by God to be disciples of Jesus Christ. It is these twin themes of being known by God and called by Jesus that link this week’s texts.
Called by name (1 Samuel 3: 1-10; 11-20)
God is about to do something new and vital through Samuel. Apart from anything else, God is about to start speaking again! Look at verse 1. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread”. Eli’s eyes had grown dim, so that he could not see. There’s symbolic significance in that, following as it does immediately upon the statement that visions were uncommon. People’s experience was that God was distant, uninvolved, unapproachable and unreachable. Maybe even uninterested in what was happening in the world. People had grown used to silence. They had stopped looking out for God.
There’s symbolic significance, too, in the fact that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out” in Samuel’s room (v2). It was a nightlight – dim, but still alight. The priest is lying in darkness, in a different room. Samuel is lying in the temple, where the ark of God is (v3). Samuel is in God’s presence – and God is about to do something new and marvellous through Samuel. God is about to speak again – and go on speaking through Samuel. And God begins by calling Samuel’s name. God reveals God’s self to Samuel by “the word of the Lord” (v21) – and the first word God speaks is Samuel’s own name. God knows Samuel – has known him since before his birth – and now calls him by name.
The inescapable God (Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18)
The theme of God’s intimate knowledge of us – a knowledge that precedes even our own knowledge of ourselves – is picked up by the psalmist. Here is Yahweh, the dangerously inescapable God! Inescapable because Yahweh is God and knows us intimately, so that there is no hiding place from Yahweh, and dangerously inescapable because Yahweh will not let us go. To be human is to be created by God in God’s own image. That is the glory of humanity, from a theological point of view. But the destiny of humanity is to be in relationship to the God in whose image we are created. We are not creatures but children – beloved children. And God does not give up on us. Love drives God continually to seek us and woo us and call us.
What does it mean to be so intimately and completely known by God? Having nowhere to hide is a terrifying thought. We spend so much of our time and energy hiding ourselves from ourselves and others. We spend years cultivating masks and personae because one of our deepest difficulties is self-acceptance and our deepest fear that, if people really knew what we were like, we would be hated and rejected, rather than loved and accepted.
Here is the glorious, liberating Truth about us: God does indeed know us. This is the “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden”. God knows absolutely everything about us – everything! And God’s verdict, in the light of such searingly intimate knowledge, is that we are infinitely loved – just as we are! God’s knowledge of us does not lead God to abandon us, but to woo us and call us into relationship – the relationship of a child to an all-loving parent. As the psalmist says: “I come to the end – I am still with you!” (v18). That amazement is the proper response to the grace and love of God.
Bodies matter! (1 Corinthians 6: 12-20)
We often behave and think as though “spiritual” life was the opposite of “body” life. It’s as though we are spiritual to the extent that we escape from our embodiedness – our humanity. The opposite is the case. The salvation that God has for us in Jesus Christ is salvation for this world. It is for human beings in all their bodily-ness. It is something that is to touch, heal, liberate and transform our existence as human beings in this world. It affects our eating and our lovemaking as much as our prayer and worship, says Paul to the Corinthians.
The Corinthians were very confused about the relationship between body and spirit, God and the world, heaven and earth. One thing is clear: they ran a dangerous divorce between the two, so that what they thought of as their “spiritual lives” seemed to have no necessary tie-up with their day-to-day living. They thought that everything to do with the physical was anti-God and would finally be done away with. Therefore, it didn’t matter what they did with their bodies. As a result, it was fine to gorge themselves at the pre-Communion church lunch while others starved, or to visit prostitutes. The body apparently had no spiritual or necessary significance. “I am not my body!” might have been their slogan.
This is not true. We are our bodies. We were made by God as embodied people – however inconvenient and regrettable we sometimes find that! Our bodies give us our identities. The notion that the real “me” is something incorporeal, and my body merely a husk that will ultimately be discarded, may be good Greek or Eastern philosophy, but it is not Christian. Our bodies are the means by which we relate. We eat together, we love together, we touch, we fight, we kiss, we oppress, we reject, we liberate, we suffer, we worship and we follow by our bodies. Both sin and salvation have to do with the body. There may be more to being human than being a body; there is certainly not less!
Bodies are important because it is as embodied creatures that we are declared to be in the image of God. Bodies are important because they are the means by which we “love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and neighbour as self”. Bodies are important because Jesus came, not just to appear, or even just to die and rise, but to live among us. His life – his epiphany – shows us how we ought to live. And, most significantly for Paul, salvation is effected by what happened to Jesus’ body in crucifixion and resurrection – hence his glorious chapter on the resurrection of the body in 1 Corinthians 15.
Bodies, Paul reminds us, are temples of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus was filled with the Spirit, so we are. And just as God’s call to Jesus was to live in the body, so we are called – to live and act and transform the world by what we do.
“I saw you under the tree” (John 1: 43-51)
The first chapter of John’s gospel is like the overture to an opera or a musical. All the major themes are rehearsed. Almost all of the christological titles appear. This is John’s Christmas, as it were. The rest of the gospel will be an unfolding of the meaning of who Jesus is. Jesus’ ministry begins with calling disciples – and significantly, disciples who will immediately go off and call others, saying, “Come and see! We’ve found him!” So Andrew calls his brother, Simon (v40), and in today’s passage, Philip goes off to find Nathaniel.
John’s point about the story of Nathaniel’s call is that Jesus knows Nathaniel; Nathaniel is called to come and get to know Jesus. Look at Nathaniel’s question (v48): “Where did you get to know me?” In other words, he says, “We’re not acquainted, are we?” One could almost believe that John has modelled this story on the movement of Psalm 139! Nathaniel is sitting under a fig tree, and gets up to come to Jesus. “You know when I sit down, and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away… you are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:2).
This is an epiphany. Nathaniel makes the connection that John intends us to make: only God could know these things. Only God has such intimate knowledge of us. Distance is no escape! So look at Nathaniel’s epiphany journey: from “What good thing can possibly come out of Nazareth?” to “Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel”. Whew! Quite a journey! In one short encounter, he discovers that all that he had initially been told about Jesus is actually wrong. He is not Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth, but Jesus, Son of God, from Above. And, says Jesus, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Epiphany is always to be travelled first-hand. We cannot rely on what we have been told, or believed, or thought. Epiphany is the time of surprises. It’s the time to expect new and astonishing, earth-shaking things that we hadn’t known or realised before – about ourselves, our world, our communities, and about Jesus, and the God he reveals – the God who knows us, loves us and calls us.