On the Feast of Pentecost the Eastern Diocese will observe Vocations Day: a day to reflect on how God might be calling us along a certain road in life. The Gospel of John devotes special attention to the idea of the Christian “calling” (the literal meaning of “vocation”). The lesson percolates through the entire gospel, beginning in the earliest moments of our Lord’s ministry, just after his baptism.
With the words of John the Baptist—“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”—still ringing in their ears, two of John’s followers, inspired by the announcement, go after Jesus as he departs from the River Jordan.
“They followed Jesus,” the gospel reports, “and Jesus turned to them and saw they were following. And he said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ The other two replied to him: ‘Master, where do you live?’ Then Jesus said to them: ‘Come and see’” (Jn 1:37-39).
This short scene occurs in the very first chapter of John’s gospel. Unlike the other evangelists, John does not tell us the story of Christ’s birth. We learn nothing in John of our Lord’s early life and upbringing. After the famous theological prologue about the Word of God, the story picks right up with John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus—and this short scene, where Jesus calls his first two disciples.
It’s as if John the Evangelist is telling us that the idea of a “calling”—what we would call a “vocation”—is something we need to understand from the very beginning, if we are to understand the full meaning of Christ’s life and ministry.
The way John portrays this calling—again, in contrast to the other gospel writers—is to show its personal dimension. It is a dimension that speaks to us, as well, with a larger meaning for our own seeking after God. And a clue to this personal dimension of the calling can be found in those simple words: “Come and see.”
What do those words tell us?
A Personal Touch
The scene presents us with two young people who are attracted to the ministry of Jesus, but seem afraid to approach him directly. They follow at a distance; it is Jesus who turns to them, and initiates the conversation, with the deeply meaningful question: “What are you seeking?”
The youths reply with a question of their own: “Where do you live?” It’s almost a comical reply. One has the impression that the two young men are still afraid to say what’s really on their minds. And yet, this question—“Where do you live?”—itself has many meanings, and many possible answers: not simply the directions to a house, but at a deeper level, a testimony of where a person resides in his heart.
The answer Jesus gives is something else altogether. He does not give directions, or a testimony. He barely uses words at all. He only tells the seekers, “Come and see.” That is: “Come with me, walk beside me, and witness for yourselves.”
The phrase is an invitation to walk with our Lord: to view the world through his eyes, experience it as he does. And more than this, it is an invitation to friendship, to a warm, generous welcome. Having been called, the two new disciples spend the day with Jesus; they even receive his hospitality, as guests in his home.
The experience portrayed here might be familiar to anyone who has heard the call of God in their life: a sense of seeking—but also of being timid, even afraid, to follow up on the call. It is at such moments that the church—the Body of Christ—must turn around, encourage the seekers to come forward, lead them along the path Jesus walked, and welcome them warmly into the community of faithful. It’s the same “personal touch” Jesus offered when he invited those two timid followers to “Come and see.”
The same words appear again a little further on in the same chapter. This time, the invitation is repeated by one of those new disciples, Philip. And it leads to another scene of Christ’s calling.
Having met Jesus, Philip seeks out his friend Nathaniel. “We have found him!” Philip says. “The one whom Moses and the prophets spoke about: Jesus of Nazareth!”
Nathaniel is not impressed, and replies with a cynical joke: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Philip does not waste words to convince his friend. He tugs at him and says: “Come and see” (Jn 1:44-46).
Nathaniel does come, and he does see. He meets Jesus, talks with him. And in this interaction with our Lord, it suddenly dawns on Nathaniel that he is in the presence of the Son of God. It is this interaction, this experience, this “seeing,” that convinces Nathaniel to answer Christ’s call to become a disciple.
Something about this story often speaks powerfully to those who have answered God’s call through ordination. When clergymen talk about what most encouraged them to take up their vocation, they often cite the decisive influence of a godly pastor: the kind of priest who exemplifies Christ’s presence on earth; one perhaps who sees the truth about a young person’s calling, even when the youth is still unaware.
So here is another lesson St. John gives us about God’s calling: that the godly, caring example of a pastor can dispel the doubts, fears, and even cynicism of young, searching souls, and reveal their true vocation in life. But that revelation will not occur, unless we first “come and see.”
Among the People
The phrase “Come and see” appears one final time in St. John’s gospel, in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Once again, it holds a lesson about the meaning of God’s call.
In the eleventh chapter, we find Jesus arriving at the house of his friend Lazarus. But his friend’s sister, Mary, comes out to greet Jesus with terrible news: her brother is dead.
We read: “Jesus saw her weeping; and the mourners who came with her were weeping also. He groaned within himself, and was troubled, and he asked: ‘Where have you laid him?’
“They said to Jesus: ‘Lord, come and see” (Jn 11:33-34).
This time, the invitation is not spoken by our Lord or his disciples, but instead is directed at Jesus, by the people. “Come and see, Lord, what we have already seen,” they are saying. “Share with us the source of our sorrow.”
And he does share it, for we read in the very next verse: “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35).
This may be the most touching—and most important—lesson of all. For this time, the words “come and see” remind us that the pastor’s calling takes him among the people. His calling is to share with his people their deepest cares, their heaviest burdens, their most painful sorrows. Like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, pastors are called to be so close to the people that they feel what their people feel; they weep when their people weep.
But God’s call means something else, as well. Even as a pastor stands among the people, he is called to remind them of something greater. The pastor must break the darkness of despair with the light of hope. He must overturn the fear of death with Christ’s promise of resurrection.
Words of explanation may not be helpful to our understanding in such times. What we must be willing to do, as pastors and laypeople, is to come when we feel our Lord calling us, and to see: to open our eyes, and open our hearts, to what our Lord wants to show us.
By Christopher H. Zakian