Based on 1Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139, John 1:43-51
In the Prologue of his book, “Anam Cara” (which translates to soul friend), John O’Donohue writes, “…Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace…Friendship is the sweet grace that liberates us to approach, recognize and inhabit this adventure…Friendship is a creative and subversive force. It claims that intimacy is the secret law of life and universe. The human journey is a continuous act of transfiguration. If approached in friendship, the unknown, the anonymous, the negative, and the threatening gradually yield their secret affinity with us…The imagination is the great friend of the unknown. Endlessly, it invokes and releases the power of possibility. Friendship, then, is not to be reduced to an exclusive or sentimental relationship; it is a far more extensive and intensive force….” Our scripture readings point us to the source of all of our “soul friends”…the love of God developing and strengthening relationship with us through other believers.
Whether it is the Psalmist who sings about God examining and knowing all about us, to Paul reminding us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, Eli showing the way to God for his young protégé Samuel, or Nathanael being led to Jesus by his brother Philip, each text reinforces the need in our lives to both acknowledge that we are intimately known by God who created us, and that we long to be known by soul friends in the same way. Let us go to God now in prayer, thanking God for creating in us the desire to search for God through our soul friends…
The writer of the beautiful song that we know as Psalm 139 speaks eloquently about how intimately we are known by God. The writer says that we have been “searched” – but really the more correct translation would be “examined”, and all of who we are is known by our Creator. Like the most trusted and empathic friend we’ve ever known, God knows what we are going to say before we say it, knows where we will be at any point in our day, and where we are bound. This same God has created us in awesome and wonderful ways and should receive our praise because of this great act of love. Surely, we have been created to be in deep and abiding relationship with our God who created us to be temples of the Holy Spirit – as noted by the Apostle Paul.
The aging prophet Eli is mentoring his new protégé Samuel in the Temple of the LORD. This was at a time where the word and visions of the LORD were in short supply, especially to Eli. One night, Samuel was in the Temple near the Ark of the Covenant when God spoke. Mistaking the voice of God for the voice of his mentor, Samuel rushed to see what Eli wanted. This happened three times, and on the third time Eli understood that God was calling to the boy. Therefore, Eli instructed Samuel to stay, let God know that he was listening, and then hear the word of the LORD. Eli acted as a soul friend to Samuel to introduce him to the God that had led Eli during his life.
Jesus is calling disciples in our Gospel reading for today. He has called Philip and Philip is so taken with Jesus that he goes to enlist his brother Nathanael in the group. Philip tells Nathanael that Jesus of Nazareth is the real deal – and Nathanael retorts that nothing good has ever come from that town! Philip, undeterred, simply says, “Come and see”. Jesus amazes Nathanael by already knowing him before they were introduced. Jesus also tells Nathanael that he will see greater things than this, just like angels moving up and down Jacob’s Ladder.
The scriptures make a strong case that we all need people in our lives to help us on our journey toward salvation. It is easy for us to lose our way as individuals – we need someone who can listen deeply for how God is moving in us and our world. We also need people who can correct our misconceptions and get us back on the straight path with God. John O’Donohue explains the meaning behind the Celtic term anam cara. He writes, “…The anam cara was a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul….” This is, I think, what happened between Jesus and His disciples. I believe that this is why He could say to them “follow me” and they would give up everything they were doing and go wandering around with Him into an unknown future. Jesus’ divinity spoke deeply to that spot in each disciple – yes, even Judas Iscariot – that was searching for recognition and belonging. Something deeper and more real than the world could ever provide. It is what struck Nathanael when Jesus told him he had been “seen under the fig tree”. It wasn’t that he had just been spotted visually, rather it was that he had been recognized for who he was created to be by God – by someone who knew God intimately.
For those people who have no inclination to forming a relationship with God or learn about God, the interest in following God may seem strange. For those of us who want to develop a deep and abiding relationship with God, the yearning seems inevitable, like a default setting into which we were born. Rabbis, Christian spiritual teachers, and leaders have all said in one way or another that the reason God created us was so that we would come to choose to know God for ourselves. The reason that we have spiritual leaders, guides and soul friends is so that we can find out how to listen for and recognize God when God speaks to us. However, it is impossible to find these persons if all we do is attend worship now and then.
Worship is indeed important to our faith development however, it can only take us so far on our journey towards the mind and heart of Jesus. This is why active participation in small group ministries are so important to discipleship. Beyond the spiritual knowledge conferred, small group meetings allow for us to check-in with, develop deeper connections to, and support one another, to be vulnerable in a safe environment, to be able to ask questions of those who are at a different place on their spiritual journeys and to discover who we are in God. They give us a place where we might encounter a soul friend. Unfortunately, an exceedingly small fraction of this Charge has ever participated in a small group study of any kind. Only a very few participate in adult Sunday School at either church, even though they have been invited multiple times – there is a ZOOM group that meets at 10 a.m. every Sunday that has but three participants. Foundational groups like UMW and Lydia are dying out right now for lack of interest and participation by a critical mass of women. These groups and studies exist to help you on your exploration into how God has gifted and called you so that you can get involved with what God is doing in the world.
It is true that The United Methodist Church is nearing an inflection point in its life. Yet, the things that have always been important in local church life will continue, no matter what direction the Denomination decides to go. There will always be a need for everyday disciples to connect with each other to seek God’s face and God’s direction for their lives. Friends, discipleship is a team-oriented, contact sport – it cannot be done as individuals in a vacuum. Spiritual growth comes when we wrestle with other believers in community as to how the teachings of our faith manifest themselves in all aspects of our lives. Until we seek the face of God in each other’s lives, we will not find our way past our own self-interest, religious opinions, misconceptions and misunderstandings and idolatry. How is God calling you to be an active part of this church or Charge? If you don’t know, maybe it’s time that you got more involved with God’s word and with your brothers and sisters in Christ. You just might find a soul friend waiting for you as a gift from God. Amen and amen!