John 1.43-51: The calling of Philip and Nathanael

Calling is one of the more mysterious things we talk about in Christianity.

I’ve always envied people who say they know their callings with absolute certainty. For me – and I suspect for a lot of people – calling is a much murkier subject.

Although there have been times in my life when I thought I knew my calling, those moments never last. Before long, I find myself wandering in a spiritual fog, full of doubt and struggling to discern who I am or what God wants me to do with my life.

In this week’s lectionary reading (John 1.43-51), we have a front-row seat to the callings of two people: Philip and Nathanael. When Jesus calls Philip, Philip follows. There are no questions. No whys or what ifs. No doubt.

But when Philip extends the same call to Nathanael, Nathanael hesitates. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael asks. It’s only after Nathanael receives answers to his questions that he accepts the calling to follow Christ.

In the traditional interpretation of this passage, Philip shines as an example of virtue and faith, while Nathanael is portrayed as wishy-washy — a waffler who doesn’t have the spiritual wherewithal to recognize a good thing when he sees it.

But Nathanael’s story is comforting for misfits like me. It also raises important questions about the concept of calling: Is it wrong to question our calling? How does doubt figure into the discernment process? And maybe most importantly, what is a “calling” in the first place?

Calling is invitation

The concept of calling appears throughout scripture. Abram was called to travel to an unknown land. Moses was called to free the Israelites. Saul was called to stop persecuting Christians and become Paul the apostle.

These days, calling is usually connected to vocation. When we talk about discerning our calling, we’re actually talking about discerning our career path or our role in the church. But biblically and theologically, calling and career aren’t necessarily connected.

At its most basic level, a calling is just a divine invitation. Although it might involve an invitation to pursue a vocation, it frequently doesn’t. When Jesus called Philip and Nathanael, he didn’t provide job offers. Instead, he extended a simple invitation: Follow me.

When we re-imagine calling as invitation, we quickly realize that the process of our discerning our calling never ends. Every day, we’re faced with the same choice: Will we accept the invitation (calling) to follow Jesus and all that it entails or will we choose a different path?

Doubt and calling go hand in hand

Doubt gets a bad rap in Christianity. It’s typically seen as a sign of weakness or spiritual defect. But if you think about it, doubt is the flip side of faith. Without uncertainty, we wouldn’t need or value the gift of faith because our spiritual lives would be filled with facts and absolutes.

If we can learn anything from Nathanael’s story, it’s that doubt and calling go hand in hand. Since calling is an invitation, we need to ask questions before we decide whether to refuse or accept. If we don’t thoughtfully consider the invitation, our acceptance rings hollow. It lacks depth and meaning.

The relationship between doubt and calling is biblical. In the gospel of Luke, it’s called “counting the cost.” People who blindly accept divine invitations without considering the consequences are destined to fail. Whether you’re building a tower or deciding whether or not to accept God’s latest invitation, doubting the inevitably of the outcome isn’t a lack of faith – it’s a prerequisite for faith.

The takeaway from this week’s lectionary is to doubt your calling every single day. Ask questions. Consider consequences. Express uncertainty. And when you finally discern God’s invitation, accept it and rely on faith to carry you the rest of the way.