Expectation or Invitation?

Address Marlborough College Chapel
Second Sunday of Epiphany, John 1.43-51

invitationOne of the things I dislike is when someone tells me what to do, and I am sure that I am not the only one. Here at school there are quite a lot of things you are told to do, and I suspect that some of you feel the same about those things as I, when I am told that I have to do something. There are quite a few things in life you will just have to do. Not only when you’re at school, but also when you embark on your next stage of life and even beyond. Fortunately, there are also a lot of things you are invited to do, and often they have a very different feel to it.

For example, when I was in the last year of my Master’s course in physics, I was invited to go to an annual conference to present the research that I had been doing. It was a real honour to go and to be part of the ‘grown-up’ scientific community and I very much enjoyed the couple of days full of lectures and talks. The next year, when I had started my PhD research in the same field, attending the same conference was no longer an invitation, but an expectation. As soon as my supervisor told me to go, the conference lost its appeal, and I did no longer want to. Although my interests hadn’t changed, nor the topic and format of the conference itself, the fact that I was told to go, spoilt it for me altogether.

That’s maybe why I rather like the reading from John’s Gospel this morning. Just after his Baptism and the start of his public ministry, Jesus goes to Galilee. There he encounters some of his first disciples, his first followers, and amongst them are Philip and Nathanael. For neither of them, there is any obligation to follow Jesus, but it is an invitation. To Philip, Jesus says “follow me”; to Nathanael he says “come and see”.

I appreciate that for many of you Chapel is one of those things you have to do at school that is an expectation rather than an invitation – a much discussed topic in some of my lessons. Although I agree with many of you that religion is a choice, I also see the value in coming together as a community in the way we do here on a Sunday. There are things the value of which you only discover later, sometimes even much later.

But that’s not the message with which I would like to leave you this morning, as I think that there is something much more positive and significant to say about today’s reading. It is that we should feel encouraged to try new things, to push ourselves beyond what we know we can do, of course within the limits of reason.

To give an example, one of the New Court girls who was dedicated to her athletics was invited by her coach to just give bobsleigh a go. She did, and this morning she is representing the UK in the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics. That’s how far accepting an invitation can go! And this is true not just for what we do, but also for what we believe. For me, the best conversations are those in which you learn to see something in a new way; when you learn to appreciate someone else’s point of view. Again, you can only do this when you’re willing to open to new things, to listen to what you don’t know yet.

So I don’t get stuck in your own beliefs or routines to early, but be open to the new, the unexpected and the things you don’t know yet. Come and see, and you will be surprised.

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