Come and Follow Me -- Sermon for Epiphany 2B (John 1)
It’s been a while but you may remember our congregation-wide study of Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding the Gospel. She wrote the book because mainline Protestants seem uncomfortable with what she calls the “e-word.” That is, evangelism.
We talked a bit about this at a recent elders meeting in our discussion of Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn’s book on Disciple identity. They bring up Paul’s word about being ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5). They suggest that reconciliation isn’t a job entrusted to us, but “reconciliation is what Christians do as witnesses to God’s good news in Jesus Christ because reconciliation is who we are. Being in Christ has made us people of reconciliation, and being people of reconciliation is how we show the world we are in Christ.” [Kinnamon and Linn, Disciples, Kindle Edition].
There is great truth here. It’s important that we live out the message of reconciliation that God has implanted in us. This starts with the way we live our lives before God in the world. It also involves the words we use to describe our relationship with the covenant-making God. This discomfort we may experience with sharing our faith with others is often rooted in seeing others use manipulative and coercive tactics to convert people to their faith. So there’s a tendency among us to hide our lamp under a bushel basket. The fact is, we don’t have to denigrate the beliefs of others to share what we hold dear with them. So, in the spirit of Epiphany, may we shine the light of God implanted in our hearts with the world around us, both in word and in deed.
In our reading from John’s Gospel, Philip exemplifies this spirit. We pick up the story shortly after the scene pictured in the previous verses. Jesus was down by the Jordan River where John was baptizing. When John saw Jesus, he told his disciples that Jesus was the Lamb of God. When they heard this, two of John’s disciples decided to join up with Jesus. The one named Andrew went to get his brother Simon Peter, and the two of them joined Jesus’ small group of followers (Jn 1:35-42).
After this took place Jesus decided to head back to Galilee, where he found Philip who was from the same town as Andrew and Simon. He invited Philip to join the band of disciples, and Philip, like Andrew, brought a friend along. After answering Jesus' call, Philip went to find Nathanael and invited him to join their group. Philip tells Nathanael that he had encountered the one whom Moses and the prophets had spoken of. That is, he had found the Messiah, who was Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth.
Philip might have been an early adopter, but Nathanael was a bit skeptical. He asked Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I don’t know why Nathanael had such a negative view of Nazareth, but that didn’t deter Philip. He simply invited Nathanael to “come and see.” Yes, come and see for yourself what I’ve found to be true. That’s what evangelism is all about.
Evangelism is simply the act of sharing the good news with our friends and inviting them to come and see what we’ve discovered about God in our encounter with Jesus. We don’t have to argue points of doctrine. We simply share what Jesus means to us. What happens after that is in the hands of God.
As for Nathanael, he discovered that Jesus had an uncanny ability can see into people’s hearts. When they met for the first time, Jesus said to Nathanael: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Now Nathanael was surprised by Jesus' words, so he responded by asking: “how do you know me?” Jesus told Nathanael that he had seen him standing under a fig tree. For some reason, this revelation triggered a confession of faith in Nathanael, who declares Jesus to be the “Son of God” and “King of Israel.”
Jesus received this confession and in doing so Jesus recognizes and affirms our questions. Whether we’re early adopters like Philip or we come with our questions, Jesus welcomes us.
Jesus welcomes Nathanael’s confession, but then he shares another word with Nathanael. Jesus tells him that Nathanael will see even greater things than this. In fact, he will “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Just like Jacob who saw a ladder extending between heaven and earth on which the angels ascended and descended (Gen. 28:10-19), Nathanael will see a ladder. Only this time the ladder connects heaven with the Son of Man and in the Gospels, the title Son of Man is applied to Jesus. Jesus is the point of contact between heaven and earth. He is the one in whom we encounter the presence of God.
This message about Jesus being the point of contact between heaven and earth takes us back to John’s prologue. John proclaims that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might see his glory (Jn. 1:14). Having seen his glory, we now bear witness to that glory through our lives and our words. So, with Bruce Epperly, we can say that “Good news is embodied in the person of Jesus—his words, deeds, and presence. Good news is embodied in us—our words, deeds, and presence.” [Adventurous Lectionary]. As we encounter the presence of God in Jesus we can bear witness to the light that enlightens everyone (Jn. 1:8).
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 17, 2021
Nathaniel Under the Fig Tree, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56460 [retrieved January 16, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_Nathanael.jpg.