sermon preached at St. Margaret Newlands
The Greek work ekklesia, which in the New Testament is generally translated “church” means more generally “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” Because of that, it is sometimes said that the church is the community of those who are called. And in different ways, all of our readings today explore what it means to be called by Christ and to respond to that call. That call – the fact that each of us is called by Christ – is ultimately the reason we are gathered here today, and it seems to me worth spending time reflecting on these stories of calling, and seeing how – or whether – they relate to our own stories.
Our gospel reading, from John perhaps addresses the theme of calling most explicitly: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” The shepherd calls the sheep; they know the shepherd’s voice and they respond. Back when my mother still had her own sheep, I remember how she would stand at the gate in the winter at feeding time and call: “Sheep, sheep!” And the flock would come running across the field at the sound of her voice. In the Palestine at the time of Christ, shepherds would call their sheep together to separate them from the sheep that looked to other shepherds. Jesus’s voice is like that for his disciples: Jesus calls and they respond. He calls them to be his followers.
We may need to be careful here that we don’t see Jesus’s call as a call into factionalism. I’m reminded of Paul’s words: it is not about being a follower of Paul, or a follower of Apollos, but a follower of Christ. This is not a closed group. Our reading from Revelation reminds us that the community of those who are called is inclusive. It is indeed radically inclusive:
there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes
and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in
white, with palm branches in their hands.
This was one of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s favourite passages of scripture for its vision of people “from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathered before God’s throne. He saw this a complete counter to the apartheid system in South Africa. He describes the first democratic election in South Africa with joy:
People of all races were standing in the same queues, perhaps for the very first
time in their lives. Professionals, domestic workers, cleaners and their madams – all
were standing in those lines that were snaking their way slowly to the polling booth. …
People shared newspapers, sandwiches, umbrellas, and the scales began to fall from
their eyes. … [T]hey realised … that they shared a common humanity; that race,
ethnicity, skin colour were really irrelevancies.
There is a welcome sign that you find in some churches that emphasises this radical inclusivity. Here’s part of the version from St Saviour’s Riga:
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced,
gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying
new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds. … You’re
welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t
care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury,
or haven’t been in church since Christmas 10 years ago. …
As Lionel Blue used to say, “We are commanded to love our neighbours and what a jumbled and unlikely lot they are.” Hearing Jesus’s voice is not about joining an exclusive club, but about becoming part of the radically inclusive community made up of all whom Jesus calls.
Elsewhere in the gospels we see some of the other voices Jesus thinks might call people to follow them: the voices of power, or of money, or voices that in the gospels are sometimes presented as possession by demons. What voices do we hear, I wonder, that sometimes drown out the voice of Jesus’ call? Power and money continue to be such voices; perhaps also for me such voices might be busy-ness, or tiredness, or the seduction of word games. But there might also be voices telling us that we are not good enough, or that we don’t need faith, or that it doesn’t much matter anyway because nothing we do can make any difference. There are myriad voices calling us. Perhaps part of what we need to do is to stop and just listen: to listen to the ways that Jesus speaks to us, hear the ways that he calls us.
Over the past couple of years I have been undertaking a course in spiritual accompaniment with the Ignatian Spirituality Centre here in Glasgow, and I also was privileged to go on a thirty-day retreat last summer. Looking back I suspect that part of me was rather hoping for some radical call like Tabitha’s (or Dorcas’s) rising from death to life that we heard about in this morning’s reading from Acts. But actually what I have discovered is that it is the small daily disciplines of listening to God that keep me alert to God’s presence with me and in my life. Morning prayer said online with others from St Margaret’s is such a space, and recently I’ve being saying evening prayer online with a friend from the course from another parish. Another friend on the course introduced me to an app called “one minute pause” which invites me to stop for a minute, or three minutes, or five, or even ten (though not often ten for me) and commend everything that I am doing and all that I am thinking to God.
You may find that your space for listening to God comes through scripture, or through a practice such as the Jesus prayer. You may find it helpful to journal, or to go for a walk, or to gaze at a painting or an image, or to ponder a poem. Perhaps you particularly experience God’s presence when you are with your children or your grandchildren, or your friends. Perhaps you hear God’s voice when you work out. Jane Vennard talks about a whole range of spiritual practices, which are practices allowing us to listen more deeply: caring for your body, rest, silence, solitude, community, hospitality, service, and letting go. All of those are places where we may hear the voice of Jesus, where we may encounter God’s presence in our lives.
I use the language of “listening” and “hearing” here, but perhaps that is not quite accurate. Sometimes we may hear words, as Ivan Mann writes: “Maybe it will be a few words from Scripture of from some other spiritual reading. Maybe it will be a few words of a song or of a film or TV show.” But Jane Vennard offers a word of caution, seeking to manage expectations of what this voice might sound like:
If you expect to hear a clear message coming from beyond yourself, from God or
from the emptiness, I imagine you will be disappointed. Although a few people do hear
a divine voice, all I hear when I am silent is more silence. It has taken me a
long time to make peace with this reality. Expecting to hear something when
I finally discovered moments of inner quiet, I blamed myself for hearing
nothing. I was sure I was doing something wrong. Then I was sure that God
did not find me worthy of a response. At times I wondered if God had gone missing.
Hearing Jesus’s voice may sometimes be precisely about waiting in that quiet, in that nothingness, until something becomes clear, in a sort of deep sense of knowing.
There is no question that our responses to hearing Jesus’s voice may sometimes be quite dramatic. This morning’s reading from Acts does indeed show us one such extraordinary response. Dorcas – Tabitha – was lying dead with all the followers of Jesus, male and female (the saints and the widows mourning her), and Peter came in to her and said: “Get up.” And she did, and she was alive. That is the most dramatic call: the call from death into life. Calls can sometime be a complete change of direction. For me the call to ordination came as a complete surprise; I had thought I was headed for chartered accountancy or computer systems engineering. And then later there was another call, to the study and teaching of church history rather than to parish ministry. But a lot of the time, in my experience, Jesus’ calling of my name – of our names – is a lot more low key. It is more a recognition that God is with us in our lives, giving a different dimension to whatever we do, reminding us that there is always something more.
In many ways Psalm 23 speaks of this kind of calling in knowing God’s accompaniment of our lives:
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake. …
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in
the house of the Lord for ever.
That sense of being on the right path, of being not alone, of being surrounded by goodness and mercy: these are ways that we hear Jesus’s voice.
Psalm 23 reminds us that God’s call may also bring us the cup that is running over. But it says too that God’s voice can come to us and call us in times of sorrow, in those dark times in which we may feel and experience the presence of God despite everything:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
This may feel quite tentative or even fragile. Ivan Mann writes movingly about the time when his wife Jackie was dying of motor neuron disease:
For months during that period I found myself so exhausted by giving twenty-four hour
care that I could hardly pray. One word stands out – Emmanuel. “God-with-us.” It
seemed to be enough some days just to hold that word. It didn’t stop the anger,
frustration or exhaustion, but it gave a different texture to the day and made it
In this kind of listening, he emphasises, “What we hear from God is often fragile … the fragile voice at the heart of creation that says “I love you, come to me.” All of that is part of being called by Jesus, of being one of the sheep that hears his voice.
“Come to me,” says God to those who listen. And this surely is the promise that Jesus speaks in today’s gospel reading: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” What is Jesus saying to you just now? What do you hear? What do you need to hear?
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Following may not be dramatic. It may sometimes feel quite fragile. But it will lead us into eternal life.
 Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (London 1990), 4.
 Lionel Blue, Kitchen Blues (London 1986), 89.
 See the chapter headings in Jane Vennard, Fully Awake and Truly Alive: Spiritual Practices to Nurture your Soul (Nashville 2014).
 Ivan Mann, Breathing I Pray (London 2005), 17.
 Vennard, Fully Awake and Truly Alive, 34.
 Mann, Breathing I Pray, 16.
 Ibid., 17.