Sunday, January 18th, 2015 – The Second Sunday of the Epiphany
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Psalm 139:1-6, I Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51
Hymns: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “To God Be the Glory”
“Come, and Follow Me”
You know, I sometimes wonder if Jesus had trouble at the start of his ministry career. If you think about it, he had to be more than just a traveling preacher – he had to be a salesman and a recruiter as well. He had to convince people that not only were his ideas the ones that they needed to live their lives by, but that they should actually leave behind their old lives and professions and follow him.
To put it in perspective, what Jesus was doing would be like me getting up here on a Sunday and saying that all of you should not only live your lives based on the principles I’m preaching, but you should also quit doing whatever it is you do now and come work for the church on a completely volunteer basis. If I had to guess, I’d say that I’d have about as much chance of success with that as I would if I declared myself Emperor of the World this afternoon.
And while we might stop and think about the fact that Jesus was the Son of God and had certain talents and powers far beyond what I have as the son of Jim Gawne, we must also remember that Jesus did not use those talents and powers for coercion. The choice to follow Jesus was one that each individual had to make of their own volition. Jesus did not force anybody to leave their old lives behind for the sake of one in his service.
Nonetheless, if Jesus did struggle with assembling the apostles, we don’t know about it (although I have to think that the inclusion of such an outstanding example of moral pulchritude as Judas Iscariot should be a sign that he might’ve had trouble filling the roster). It certainly never would’ve made it into the Gospel of John – while Matthew, Mark, and Luke, commonly referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels, have records of times Jesus failed, such as when he was rejected by the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, John has a far greater focus on the divine nature of Jesus. This is, after all, the Gospel that begins not with a birth story, not with a baptism story, but by outright declaring that Jesus is God, and He was present in the beginning, when all things were created. As such, for John to even consider focusing on the failures of Jesus’ ministry would be to detract from the overarching Gospel message of the divinity of Christ.
However, if there is a point in the Gospel of John where Jesus comes close to failure, it is undoubtedly found in today’s text. For a bit of context, you have to understand that Jesus’ ministry is about a week old at this point. Just prior to this text, he was baptized and called his first two disciples – Andrew, the very apostle whose cross adorns the logo of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Andrew’s brother, a guy by the name of Simon who may have done a few important things under the alias “Cephas”, the Aramaic version of “Peter”.
Now, according to the Gospel of John, Andrew and Peter were already disciples of John the Baptist. As I mentioned last week, it is likely that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist as well. Therefore, he would already have known Andrew and Peter. They would have traveled together with John as he preached the coming of the Messiah, and they would have been present on the day of Jesus’ baptism, when John declared him the Lamb of God, upon whom the Spirit of God descended like a dove. They would have been witness to the divine anointing of Jesus, and so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them to have decided he was the one to follow – especially if John the Baptist gave his blessing.
The third apostle to be called is the one we see at the beginning of today’s reading – Phillip. Now, it is unknown to us whether, when called upon to light candles for some holy observance or another, he produced a blowtorch with which to do so – like certain Phillips we know here at Gower!. What we do know is that he was from the town of Bethsaida, in Galilee, just as were Andrew and Peter. He had probably known them for a while, and trusted their judgment when they told him that this Jesus was the promised Messiah. So, when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Phillip said, “Sure thing, boss,” and did so.
This, then, is where it gets interesting.
After his call, Phillip goes and finds his friend Nathanael. We don’t know very much about Nathanael. He doesn’t appear in the other three Gospels. Rather, in those three Gospels, we see Bartholomew, a name which in Hebrew would have meant only “Son of Tholomew”. It’s entirely possible that Nathanael was Bartholomew, but we don’t know for sure. Truth be told, we don’t even know how Phillip knew Nathanael, whether they were old friends who had grown up together, whether they worked on the same fishing boat, whether Nathanael had dated Phillip’s sister for a while – John doesn’t tell us.
What we do know is that Phillip knew Nathanael well enough to say to himself, “I bet if I go tell Nathanael that we’ve found the Messiah, he’ll come and follow.” And that is exactly what Phillip did.
Or at least, he thought he knew Nathanael that well. As it turns out, when Phillip said that this guy was Jesus, the son of Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael scoffed at him. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I get where Nathanael is coming from. There is this town in the metro Phoenix area called El Mirage. There’s nothing WRONG with El Mirage except for the fact that it is the most boring, bland, cookie-cutter town on the face of the planet. Nobody wants to go to El Mirage. Nobody wants to be FROM El Mirage. And so, when I was in high school, my wiseacre friends and I, good Phoenix Christian High School students that we were, used to crack jokes about how “can anything good come from El Mirage?”
And that’s sort of the reputation that Nazareth had in this time. It was a boring, small town that meant virtually nothing in the grand scheme of things. It certainly wasn’t the town from whence the Messiah was meant to come – Nathanael would’ve known that the prophets called for the Messiah to come from Bethlehem. However, what Phillip didn’t tell him – likely because Phillip didn’t even know – was that Jesus had actually been born in Bethlehem, fulfilling that prophecy.
Thus, we have the closest that Jesus comes to failure in the Gospel of John. Skeptical Nathanael, rather than following his friend to go meet Jesus, instead scoffs, asking if anything good can come from Nazareth. Phillip, though, will not be rebuffed. “Come and see,” he tells his friend. “Come and see what you think, and then, if you’re still not convinced, you can carry on your merry way.”
Well, Nathanael decided to be a good friend and humor Phillip. So, he goes with Phillip to see Jesus, and as they’re approaching, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
Now, when I initially started studying this Scripture, my first thought here was simply that Nathanael was pretty easily impressed. Jesus really wasn’t going out on much of a limb here – either he was an Israelite or he wasn’t; either he was one with no deceit or he was a real dirtbag. But then, it occurred to me, he was actually very much putting his reputation on the line by saying this about Nathanael, having never before met him. Phillip knew him, and it’s possible that Andrew and Peter knew him as well. Had he said, “Here is truly a Samaritan who is the scum of the earth!”, the other three would have known that he was completely wrong, and that would’ve been the end of his ministry right there.
That said, this IS the Gospel of John, which focuses on the divinity of Jesus, so we know that Jesus DID know what he was talking about. But the apostles didn’t know that for sure, and Nathanael DEFINITELY didn’t know that. So he’s already pretty intrigued, and then, when Jesus says that he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before Phillip even located him, Nathanael is simply blown away – enough to say that Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel.
What happens next is a key part of the calling of Nathanael and really of ANY believer in Jesus Christ. “Did you believe me just because I said I saw you under the fig tree?” Jesus asks. Like his admonition of Thomas some three years later, Jesus here admonishes Nathanael for coming to faith simply because he was impressed by Jesus. Then he tells Nathanael that far, far greater things are yet to come if he continues on this path with him.
So let’s think about this in the context of modern faith. How many Christians, do you suppose, came to faith simply because they believed, and how many, do you suppose, came to faith because of their witness to something that they believe God did in their life? I would reckon there’s a fair number of the latter that can be counted among Christians today.
Let me be clear – I’m not saying that coming to faith because of what one believes to be God acting in their life is a bad thing. Indeed, it could be that those who come to faith in that way are even more likely to be accepting when even more incredible things come along.
What it comes down to, then, is that when Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see greater things yet to come, he is also telling that to Phillip, and Andrew, and Peter – all of them will see these greater things. And that, then, is a part of following in the ways of Jesus.
Consider that this call that almost failed because of Nathanael’s skepticism instead became a profession of faith, a confession of belief. Nathanael instead is an indicator that there is no skeptic too cynical. The fact that Jesus came from the sleepy town of Nazareth proved to Nathanael and in turn proves to us that there is no town too small.
The story of Nathanael and Jesus’ origins in Nazareth prove to us that greater things have yet to come and greater things are still to be done as we move in God’s time. But that… that is something we’ll discuss next week.
For now, though, remember that while your faith may have brought you to Christ, it is your continued life in Christ that will show you the kingdom of heaven. Just as the apostles were called, so too are we called to journey with Christ. As we carry on down the road which is set before us, may we remember our calling and prepare ourselves to witness the greater things.