Sunday, August 24, 2008

St. Bartholomew's Day Sermon -- John 1:43-51

August 24, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Nathanael said: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip answered: “Come and see.”

On this day, we commemorate the Apostle Bartholomew, one of the Twelve whom Jesus called to be a witness of His ministry, death, and resurrection. Bartholomew is named in the lists of apostles given by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In each of these lists, Bartholomew is connected to Philip, following him in order. But as was heard in today’s Gospel, there is this man Nathanael connected to Philip. In St. John’s record of Christ’s ministry, there is no listing of a Bartholomew, but the implication is that Bartholomew and Nathanael are one and the same, with Nathanael being a first name and Bartholomew a last name.

Now what is much more important than first and last names is the incident that involves this Nathanael Bartholomew. You heard first the call of Philip to be a disciple: “Jesus found Philip and said to him: ‘Follow Me.’” Just like many of the other Twelve, Philip was made a disciple as Jesus encountered him. Jesus is the actor; He makes the selection. Philip is the object of Christ’s call; he is chosen and then follows. St. John also includes the factoid about Philip: “He was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” This new disciple was from the same, little circle of Galileans who had their lives turned upside down by Jesus.

But what about Nathanael? How does he become part of the Twelve? He is brought to Jesus: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him: ‘We have found Him of whom Moses wrote in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph!’” It is almost exactly what Philip’s fellow citizen Andrew said to Simon Peter: “We have found the Messiah!” The importance of this knowledge of Christ and His call to discipleship drove both Philip and Andrew to act.

So after being told about Jesus by Philip, Nathanael immediately got up and eagerly went with him to see this remarkable figure from Nazareth . . . or not. The Gospel record is just the opposite: “Nathanael said to him: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” The One of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote would come from . . . Nazareth? It’s not even an important town. Sure it’s Galilean, but it’s not even close to the sea. And just why would the Promised Messiah come from there instead of Jerusalem, or at least Caesarea or Capernaum?

Nathanael can’t believe it. He doubts the veracity of what Philip says. But Philip answers in the only way he can: “Come and see.” Just see the Man. Hear what He has to say. Andrew and Peter are already following Him, and they’re from Bethsaida. And these other two brothers, James and John, have left their dad’s fishing business to follow Jesus. “Come and see.”

As the Gospel reading recorded, Nathanael did go and see. And when Jesus identifies him as “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” and says: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” Nathanael is convinced about Jesus’ identity. He is made a disciple through the confession: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Through Philip’s invitation that carried the call of Christ, Nathanael is made an apostle. No more doubt, no more scoffing; just belief and true confession. In fact, such belief and confession was seen in Nathanael’s life that he was martyred for it. As Church Tradition says, he was flayed, crucified, and beheaded for his witness about Jesus, the good thing that came from Nazareth.

The call of Nathanael Bartholomew to discipleship really is not very different than what happens among you. You don’t have Jesus-in-the-flesh walking and finding people to make His disciples. Yet, He does continue His work and calls new people to be believers and witnesses to His ministry, death, and resurrection through means that He chooses. There are many “come and see” events taking place around the world and even here, just like Bethsaida.

But very often, the reaction is exactly like Nathanael’s: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” There is doubt in both the message and the message’s packaging. Nathanael believed that there would be a coming Messiah, the promised Savior would arrive. But he doubted that He would come from a minor, rural village. As the Magi did decades before, Nathanael expected a different package surrounding the Messiah, not a Babe in Bethlehem or a Man from Nazareth.

Today, there is similar doubt. But it goes to both the message and the packaging. Most Americans say they believe in a god or Supreme Being. But to say that Jesus is God and the only way to salvation, and that His message and work are only found in the Church that baptizes, confesses sins, communes, and teaches all that He commanded: then we won’t see 9 out of 10 say they believe that sort of God. The question is often asked: “Can anything good come out of that place?”

These are the questions that sin-corrupted minds ask, questions that exhibit unbelief. Can anything good come out of teaching about millennia-old commandments and sin and depravity and corruption of humanity? Can anything good come out of denying the full freedom of thought and self-determination? Can anything good come out of a group that clings to the rituals and myths of the past and doesn’t exhibit a miraculous, dazzling power and ability? Can anything good come out of humbling yourself and confessing a need for a Savior and even when you do follow Him, your life isn’t great and perfect?

Aren’t these the thoughts asked by those around you, perhaps even the thoughts that you have asked with your own minds and tongues? Can anything good come out of Mechanicsburg and what goes on at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church? And to those questions, there is just one reply: “Come and see.” Come and see, because this is how the Lord God has chosen to act.

The packaging of Christ’s message may not be grand. In fact, His disciples are told that it won’t be. That’s what the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, as you heard: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Can anything good come out of that?

Certainly it can. For in such things is your salvation found. In such things, which Jesus Himself endured, you find eternal deliverance. This is what Moses and the Prophets wrote. “Come and see.” See Him who was persecuted like Jeremiah, sold like Joseph, who suffered and died just as Isaiah described, but was buried and resurrected like Jonah. “Come and see” if anything good can come out of that humbleness and then exaltation: for that is the way the Serpent’s head is crushed and death is swallowed up and the gates to Paradise are opened.

Remember what Jesus told Nathanael: “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. . . .Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. This is promised to Christ’s disciples, those who “come and see” and believe. It is promised to Nathanael Bartholomew who goes beyond the doubting thought “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and follows Jesus. And it is promised to you.

You are called to see what is enclosed in the “jars of clay,” to look beyond the packaging with the eyes of faith. Jesus grants you the ability to see and believe what is beyond the veil. He is the Suffering Savior who dies and yet delivers from death. Christ places His authority to forgive sins in sinful humans. He veils His words with resurrecting power for body and soul in tap water. Jesus places eternal life in bread and wine what would not even feed someone for a day. Your Lord makes divine declarations that no human ear should ever hear into simple English words. None of it is impressive to the eye. The packaging doesn’t dazzle or amaze. It all suffers from the Nazareth complex: “Can anything good come from this?”

But the answer is yes. That is what Philip was given to know and believe. And it was extended to Nathanael as the invitation was given to him: “Come and see.” Jesus grants Bartholomew faith as He calls him to apostleship. Where doubt once ruled, belief was given its place. Faith saw the heavenly veiled within the earthly, the grand hidden in the humble. For this is how the Lord God chooses to work, as you can see in Jesus’ life and throughout the Scriptures. It is what He chooses to make you partakers of. And He even gives you the privilege to say: “Come and see.” Through such invitation given to those you encounter, whether your family or fellow townspeople, the Holy Spirit may bring others into discipleship. “Come and see” is the invitation for others to become part of the good thing that your Lord Jesus Christ has here in Mechanicsburg.

The promise is meant for all whom Christ calls by the Holy Spirit through the Church. You have the heavenly here “in jars of clay,” so that “the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies.” It will be manifested imperfectly and in part by what you do, by your acts of service in your vocations. But what you also know and believe is that this “life of Jesus” will be revealed for all to see as it truly is. Like Nathanael Bartholomew, “you will see greater things than these,” on the day when “heaven is opened, and the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. The martyred apostle we commemorate today has already witnessed this. And with all of Christ’s disciples, you will also see it because of what you have already received in “jars of clay” from Jesus, the truly good thing that came from Nazareth.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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