Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Only Connect

18 January 2015: Second Sunday after Epiphany
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
I Samuel 3. 1-10; John 1. 43-end

‘Only connect …(live) in fragments no longer’. These are the words of a character in E M Forster’s novel Howards End as she attempts to help her husband to understand the importance of bringing together, of integrating, the various aspects of his personality. ‘Only connect’ says Victoria Coren Mitchell to contestants on her BBC 2 quiz show, an invitation that some contestants find more intimidating than others. ‘Only connect’ said my friend, many years ago, when he tried to explain the deliberate and humorous parallels between the plot of the film Chicken Run, which we had just watched with our children, and the film The Great Escape. It might seem improbable, but I felt really inadequate for not picking up on the links between Rocky the rooster and Ginger the chicken leading an escape from a chicken farm, and Steve McQueen leading an escape from a German Prisoner of War camp. The trouble was I had never seen The Great Escape and I could not make the connections.

This experience of filmic inadequacy has taught me, not least as a preacher, never to assume that connections which might seem obvious necessarily are obvious. Which brings me to the final verse of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says to Nathanael: Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. The writer is indulging here in an ‘only connect’ moment.

How is this so? Well John wants his readers to connect Jesus’ words with a memorable story in the book of Genesis. It’s the story of Jacob, who has cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and is fleeing for his life to some relatives far to the east. On the way he spends the night in the desert and has a dream in which he sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Then he senses God standing beside him, assuring him of his presence always: Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

So what connections does the Gospel writer want us to make between Jesus’s words to Nathanael and the mysterious story of Jacob’s ladder? Well there’s the obvious one about angels ascending and descending; and then there’s the fact that heaven and earth are being connected in some way. But there is a twist to this connection as well. Jesus talks of angels ascending and descending not on a ladder, but on ‘the Son of man’. This phrase is one which refers to Jesus himself, and once we know this we immediately understand that the encounter between Jesus and Nathanael is all to do with the gradual unfolding of the significance of Jesus himself. John has already written about light coming into the world and about God’s word being made flesh. Now we begin to see what that light, what God’s word, looks like in the flesh. It looks like Jesus. So this is an ‘only connect’ moment in more ways than one. Not only is John through Jesus’s words, reminding us of a hugely significant Old Testament story. He’s also challenging us, partly through reflection on that story, to develop our understanding of God; to connect an idea of God – God as light, God as Word – with the fleshly reality of God as we see him in Jesus of Nazareth, as Nathanael saw him under the fig tree in Galilee. The rest of St John’s Gospel continues to help us to develop our understanding of God through making connections, beginning with the very next incident John describes – the turning of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana.

I’ve spent some time on this idea of connecting because of what I believe to be its deep and vital applicability to our life of discipleship. Mature discipleship requires us firstly to be attentive to God, to listen. The old priest Eli was being attentive to God when he perceived that it was God who was calling the boy Samuel in the temple at Shiloh; Jesus’s first disciples, among them Philip and Nathanael, were being attentive to God when they understood the significance of Jesus though they barely knew him. Mature discipleship secondly requires us to be obedient. Samuel’s obedience to God, mediated through Eli, enabled him to listen to God and to become someone whom the writer of I Samuel later describes as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord; Philip and Nathanael’s obedience prompted them to act upon Jesus’s words ‘follow me’ and to become his disciples. Mature discipleship, finally, requires us to be faithful, to continue to act in a way that is commensurate with, consistent with, our initial attentiveness and obedience to God. Samuel showed faithfulness much later in life when he confronted the powerful King Saul with the consequences of his neglect of God’s commands; Philip showed faithfulness when he took seriously Jesus’s command to preach and baptize among all nations: Luke tells us that Philip preached to the Samaritans, and baptised the Ethiopian official on the road to Gaza.

‘Only connect … (live) in fragments no longer.’ If we learn to connect and integrate our attentiveness, our obedience, and our faithfulness to God, we will be open to God enabling and strengthening our life of discipleship as we bring together the sometimes fragmentary nature of our commitment to him. Our worship here, or elsewhere, may well be our starting point as we encounter in word and sacrament the living God, the same God that Philip, and Nathanael, and Samuel encountered. But that worship is worth nothing unless, as we leave here, we commit ourselves, like Philip, and Nathanael, and Samuel, to be obedient to the call of the living God whom we have encountered; and unless we demonstrate our obedience through words and actions that are rooted in faithfulness to God – the God who, in Christ, is with us and will keep us wherever we go; to whom be glory now and to the ages of ages. Amen.