For most people the idea of sharing their faith can be daunting, something best left to specialists, those with a calling to evangelism. What we learn from the story of the calling of Philip and Nathanael is that a simple invitation to ‘come and see’ is often enough. Then we need to make sure that what that person sees is authentic enough to speak to them of the Messiah.
The readings at the 2pm SLT service on Tuesday were Psalm 100, 1 John 3:11-21 and John 1:43-end. My reflection is given below:
There seems to be a huge attraction in an expanse of water like a pond or a lake. So often we see people throwing stones into the water, one after another. There may be some element of competition if a group of friends is present. Who can throw the stone the furthest? But there’s also some fascination with breaking that still surface and watching as a circle of ripples spreads out from the point of impact and heads in all directions, wider and wider circles, wider gaps between the ripples until they reach the shore as small rolling waves.
In the Gospel reading today we see the ripples of witnessing which were created when Jesus came to the surface of the Jordan after his baptism and which spread out wider and wider. John the Baptist recognised Jesus when the voice from heaven confirmed that he was indeed God’s beloved Son and the Holy Spirit rested on him. John had preached about the coming of one greater than he, and when he saw Jesus he had no hesitation in pointing him out. He told the people, ‘I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.’
The next day John said to two of his disciples, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples followed Jesus and asked where he was staying. Jesus said, ‘Come and see.’ We know that one disciple was Andrew. Before going to spend time with Jesus he went and found his brother Peter and said, ‘We’ve found the Messiah.’ In this way Peter was brought into the company of the disciples.
And so we come to the passage for today. Jesus found Philip who came from the same town as Peter and Andrew, Bethsaida and told him, ‘Follow me’. Philip seems to have rushed straight off to spread the ripples of witnessing to Nathanael who came from Cana, about four miles from Nazareth: ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.’ It feels a bit like we’re coming in part way through the conversation, as though Philip and Nathanael had talked about the coming of the Messiah many times, which could well have been the case.
Philip couldn’t wait to share his news but Nathanael very quickly puts a dampener on it. The people in Nazareth were thought of as country folk with a country accent, as well as being racially mixed which made pure Jews look down on them. It also had a garrison of the hated Romans stationed there. Hence the prejudice in Nathanael which caused him to exclaim, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip could have been stopped in his tracks or he could have argued with Nathanael. Instead, like Jesus to the two disciples of John, Philip said, ‘Come and see.’ He was so convinced that he really had found the Messiah that he knew if Nathanael would just meet Jesus he too would know the truth of the matter.
We don’t know if Nathanael went with Philip just to appease him or to prove him wrong but he had the most amazing encounter with Jesus, starting with an unexpected greeting: ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael was startled and asked how Jesus knew him to which Jesus replied, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ It seems to be an strange conversation until you unpack it. When Jesus called Nathanael ‘an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’, he was paying him a great compliment. He was quoting from scripture such as Isaiah: “He had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth.” Jesus was also crediting Nathanael with being a true Jew, a worthy successor to Jacob, renamed Israel by God, when he called him an Israelite.
The reference to the fig tree seems odd and rather random. In Israel the fig tree speaks of peace although we tend to think of the olive tree as doing this. Prophets talking of times of peace to come characterised them as times when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4) Fig trees have wonderful big leaves and spreading branches. They form excellent shade from the heat, a bit like a living umbrella. Houses for the ordinary people were often very cramped and noisy. People in Israel used to plant a fig tree by their door to form a sort of extension to their house where a person could sit to pray and think. It would not be possible to sit there unless it was a time of peace.
Jesus saw behind the prickly exterior of Nathanael an honest person who was seriously seeking after God – studying, meditating and praying – and he recognised Nathanael’s potential as a disciple. Nathanael in his turn recognised the one whom he had been seeking: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’
What can we learn from this story of the calling of Nathanael and Philip?
The ripples of witnessing to the Gospel to those who have not yet met Jesus should still be going on even now and we are part of that. Each of us has been found by Christ as Philip was and each of us should find others. Like Philip we have the responsibility to say to others, ‘Come and see.’ We don’t in that way ask anyone to make a commitment, we simply issue an invitation. I already see that happening as members of this community invite those they meet elsewhere or those they see visiting this sim to come to our services. This has been especially apparent in the daily offices we say in the chapel. In some ways it seems odd to be running a Fresh Expression of church in such a traditional way. The offices (Morning, Evening and Night Prayer) have been said for centuries by monks. You could say we are simply offering an old model of church in a new medium. Yet Mark Brown, our priest-in-charge until June, recognised when this ministry was just beginning that people are attracted by much of the traditional aspects of church, hence we have a traditional cathedral and now we have daily offices.
When Nathanael agreed to go with Philip he met the Messiah, the real thing, what he had been looking for. When people come here and join with us in anything we do they need to find something authentic. We need to heed John’s exhortation in his letter to love one another. This means loving those who are prickly and difficult, just as Jesus did for Nathanael. It means seeing past the exterior to the potential in every person that God has created. The welcome, the love, the lack of prejudice, have to be real, not fake. In order for us to offer that, we each need to keep growing, changing, allowing ourselves to be challenged by the Gospel to become more and more Christ-like.
That in turn has implications for our ministry here. What do we offer to members of the community? What should be our priorities? How do we help members to grow in their faith? These are issues that will come up time and again as the Leadership Team listens to God and listens to the community here.
Nathanael was surprised that anything good could come out of Nazareth. There will be those who would feel the same about anything good coming out of the Anglican Church at the moment. We seem to be torn apart by disagreements across the world, focused more on internal squabbles than reaching the lost. However, I have confidence that if we say to others, ‘Come and see’ they may well be surprised by what they find here. I hope and pray that, like Nathanael, they will find the Messiah and go on to serve him for the rest of their lives.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor