When was the last time that you just had to tell the world? When you got so enthusiastic about something – a new car that you couldn’t wait to demonstrate to a friend? A grandchild’s winning sprint posted on Facebook? Or even just boasting about the Jamie Oliver puddings you picked up for £2.50 in the post-Christmas sales?
In this reading from John’s gospel, Chapter 1 verses 43 to 51 the first disciples get so enthusiastic about meeting Jesus that they just have to tell someone. It invites us to think about how we meet Jesus today, what he means to us personally, and how we might invite others to him.
This church season of Epiphany focusses on Jesus being revealed, people discovering who he is. So several of the gospel accounts we read come from the beginning of his ministry. Here Jesus returns from the desert regions to Galilee and chooses his disciples. He’s already called Andrew and Peter, and in verse 43 he says to Philip ‘Follow me’.
And then something important happens. Philip finds Nathanael and says to him ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Philip has found Jesus. He searches out his friend Nathanael and full of enthusiasm, he shares his discovery, in his own words. Philip is the first ordinary person to tell someone else about Jesus. He does something so important – for if people everywhere will become part of the Kingdom of God, then one must tell another. We too can share our faith – it is a duty and a joy to do so.
But Philip’s efforts don’t meet with a warm response. ‘Nazareth? Can anything good from there?’ The place was totally unremarkable. About ten acres in size, with a population of 200 to 400 peasant farmers. They lived in houses which were half building, half cave burrowed into the soft rock. Can anything good come from there? But isn’t that the point? Precisely the place where God enters humanity at its humblest, identifies most closely with us by sharing human hardships. That’s what the incarnation is about – the dump is where God is most likely to be.
Rather wisely, Philip just replies ‘Come and see’. Give Jesus a chance, try him out and make up your own mind. Philip says ‘Come and find out for yourself. Experience and find out if it’s true.’
At Christmas we got given a board game – it was one of those that has complex symbols printed on a board, hundreds of little plastic shapes, piles of cards that all mean different things, and tiny tokens to punch out and lose. The instructions ran to a small booklet – two whole pages on just setting the game up!
Did we sit down and read the manual aloud to the assembled players? Did we work it through in our minds before we began to play? Of course not! We just started playing and found out the rules as we went. ‘Now it’s your turn. Move your token. Roll the dice. 7. What’s that mean? The plague – what are the rules for the plague?’ And so on.
Now there were some complaints that Daddy was finding new rules at times which suited him. Yet overall, it worked really well, and it was a fun, well designed game. Ok, for the first time we were a bit confused. But when we played it again, and again, we really got the hang of it.
It can often be the same when people encounter Jesus today. There is a proverb that people belong before they believe. In other words people appreciate the friendship of a Christian community, they are drawn to the joy and mystery of worship, they take part, even get stuck in – and then something of faith stirs and grows into understanding. People come and see, experience the living Christ, and then believe.
Even before someone comes through those doors, they will have seen the Kingdom of God at work in the world. Maybe the church’s work in a food bank or a Romanian orphanage, or a kind friend, will lead someone to take faith seriously, will help them realise that those words mean something. The Christian faith is experienced, desired, caught, which generates the willingness to learn and understand.
So for Christians, when we seek to share our faith, let’s remember that explanation is important – and it is made real by genuine experience of God’s love. It is fine to issue an invitation – which will be effective when it is backed up by a faith that making a difference in the world. Neither words nor actions are enough on their own. We must have both.
And then Jesus will do his own thing. I have learnt not to try and control people’s path to faith. For Jesus has his own way of dealing with each person. He knows them far more intimately than I do. So it is my place to watch and listen for what he is doing – speak the word in season, invite when the Holy Spirit prompts, challenge when appropriate, all the while trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus works his own particular way. The conversation in 47 onwards is rather odd. Jesus greets Philip with the words ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ In effect ‘Here’s a genuine bloke, there’s no messing about with this man. He’s an honest seeker.’
Nathanael seems to recognise this is fair, but he is surprised: ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus replies ‘I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.’ Apparently this is enough to convince Nathanael who immediately jumps to the astonishing conclusion ‘Rabbi you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!’
What’s going on here? V.50 suggests that Jesus had seen Nathanael by some kind of prophetic insight. A supernatural ability which combines with Philip’s words and the presence of Christ to convince Nathanael.
Probably also Nathanael is meant to be an example. He’s the open minded, fair, faith-filled and hopeful Jewish person waiting for the Messiah. Perhaps there were such people among the first recipients of the gospel. Perhaps they themselves were puzzled as to why so many of their fellow-Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Indeed the Christians had been expelled from the synagogues. Perhaps Nathanael is an example to them of what ought, what could be.
For us too, Nathanael reminds us that some people will get it. Jesus meets them and wham! Perhaps we may know people whose initial scepticism has been replaced by faith. Suddenly the Holy Spirit surprises us by what he can do in someone’s life. Meeting Jesus in worship, acts of service, prayer, stillness is incredibly powerful.
We have to face up to the fact that many Christians today, myself included, often have a negative assumption about how people will react when we speak about faith. We assume they won’t be interested. Or we give up at the first sign of reluctance, when maybe the invitation to come and see might be effective. Perhaps we are conditioned by the secular society around us not to share our faith or to be shy in doing so. In reality, folks are curious to find out about other people’s lives – if we share humbly and don’t lecture we often get an interested hearing.
Perhaps also we think that the people around us know about Christianity. We’ve all been brought up with it, we heard it all at school. What can I tell them that’s new? For starters, you’d be surprised what people don’t know! And for those who feel they’ve been there and done that, a radical servant Christianity brings them up short and makes them realise that the Kingdom of God changes lives.
Perhaps faith seems too big a thing to convey – after all it’s easy enough to enthuse about a bottle of wine – but faith is so life changing and so big it’s hard to sum up adequately. So maybe the answer is to try and convey a bit at a time. To respond to ‘how do you cope?’ with a personal explanation of the real difference faith makes in that situation. To be ready to explain the particular life choices we make due to faith. And to be ready to say ‘Come and see’ – not try and fix it with our explanations but invite people onto their own journey of discovery.
Bringing people to encounter Jesus, giving birth to faith is ultimately the Spirit’s work. Our role is to pray, listen, serve, speak, invite and accompany. For when we make space for the Spirit to work, he can do amazing things through us. Very soon the person we have taught will be teaching us things!
If there hadn’t been Nathanael, there wouldn’t have been v.51. Maybe it is a bit obscure: ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’
But for those who were brought up with the Hebrew Bible, they would have instantly thought of Jacob. This Old Testament patriarch was running away from home. While sleeping rough, with a stone as a pillow, he dreamt he saw heaven open and a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Angels were ascending and descending on the ladder. Jacob took it as a sign that God was with him. In the morning he set up his stone pillow as a pillar to remember that God is here.
Jesus says that the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. On himself. He takes the place of the ladder linking heaven and earth. This one is the fully human, fully divine, son of man. In him God’s eternity and creation come together. In his body – perhaps hinting at the cross – he bridges the gap.
We do not climb a stairway to heaven by being good or keeping all the rules. It is Jesus himself who brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven. This is what is unique about him. Jesus does not point to a code to follow, nor a culture. The centre of Christianity is Jesus himself. That is why we say ‘Come and See’. Come and experience the life of the community in which Christ lives. Come and join the worship, come and receive the word and sacrament in which Christ is known. Come and serve, build the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Come and see.