January 15, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”
The call to follow Jesus is the central focus of His early ministry. It begins soon after Jesus’ Baptism and His forty-day stay in the wilderness. At His return to the region around Bethany—where John the Baptizer had been preaching and baptizing—Jesus takes the baton from His forerunner. The Baptizer’s job was to prepare the way for Jesus. With Jesus’ appearance, that duty is fulfilled. So John directs his disciples to Jesus. It happened for Andrew, the first of Jesus’ followers. Andrew, in turn, brings his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, telling him: “Come and see.”
Today, you heard how the movement of Jesus continues. Jesus determines to leave Bethany beyond the Jordan and go to His home region: “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee.” But before He reaches Galilee, Jesus calls others to be His disciples. He calls some who had come from Galilee to hear John’s preaching and receive John’s baptism and takes them back to Galilee. This is what the Gospel Writer records for us: “He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow Me.’” The detail about Philip’s background is given: “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” And so Philip is added to the group of those who had followed John the Baptizer and who have seen the fulfillment of his message: the arrival of Jesus, the Christ.
This experience for Philip leads him to action. He is led to bring another to know Jesus, just as Andrew brought Simon Peter once he had been told by John the Baptizer that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world…the Son of God.” Back in Galilee as a disciple of Jesus, Philip speaks to someone he knew: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip wants Nathanael to have the same knowledge about Jesus, to welcome the Promised Christ. Philip desires Nathanael—whose name means “gift of God”—to receive the true gift that comes from above.
But how does Nathanael react? What is his reply to Philip’s statement? It is negative: “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” Nathanael shows disbelief at what Philip has told him. Nazareth is no place from which the Messiah should come. It’s an insignificant town in an insignificant region. The venue is completely wrong. But Philip is insistent. He draws Nathanael to Jesus by simply stating: “Come and see.” Philip’s actions will not bring Nathanael to belief. But the encounter with Jesus will. Hearing Jesus will. Seeing Jesus will. That is what must happen. And so Philip plays the role that he must: “Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”
As you heard John’s account of this, you saw how Nathanael is brought to faith in Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the Promised Messiah: “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do You know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’” Jesus’ statements to Nathanael display His power and ability. Divine action is taking place. That is how Nathanael becomes a believer in Jesus, despite all the earthly appearances that are all wrong: “Nathanael answered Him, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, “I saw you under the fig tree,” do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’” Jesus’ exercise of divine ability brings Nathanael to faith. But that is not the limit to what Nathanael is meant to experience. He is meant for greater things: “And [Jesus] said to him, ‘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 record of Philip and Nathanael’s calls to follow Jesus resembles what He does for you. It is what takes place in the Church today. In the Church, the call to discipleship is made. People are brought into fellowship and communion with Jesus in order to receive the benefits of His work. They are led to the confession of truth about Jesus’ identity: that He is the One foretold by the prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures; that He is the Son of God, the King of Israel; that He is the Redeemer of sinful humanity who brings forgiveness, life, and salvation to them by dying and rising from the dead. The end result of this confession of Jesus’ identity is the ability to see heaven opened and the full glory of the Son of Man that occurs at the end of the age.
But how does this call to discipleship unfold in this world? There are those who simply have the call to discipleship bounce right off of them and receive none of it. However, we can speak about those who are brought to faith. Some are like Philip: they hear the Gospel of Jesus and the call to follow, and they do. It’s simple, almost automatic. That has happened often in the Church. So it is for many of you who have been disciples of Jesus for years. And yet, there can be no doubting that divine action has taken place. It is the divine voice that calls you to follow. The Lord is acting, even if there is no external appearance of greatness. The Lord’s actions lead to the confession of faith that is made: “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
But others are like Nathanael. Believers speak to them. They tell these people that they know the Son of God, that they know where salvation is found. But then the reaction comes: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, maybe not those words now, but some like them: “Can anything good come out of the Church? It’s not impressive. It’s full of scandal and hypocrisy. The Church is an oppressor throughout history. The Church claims to be special and holy, but it’s not. It’s nothing but a social group or club or a political entity like others in society. In the past the Church was important, but not now.” Maybe that was the case for some of you here today. Those “Nathanael reactions” take place. And yet, like Philip, someone said to you: “Come and see.”
But what is meant to be seen in the Church? Occasionally, there are some spectacular and dramatic happenings. Perhaps it’s the radical transformation of life that some Christians experience, such as people taken from lives of fully manifest sin and brought to discipleship. Or maybe it’s the miraculous that touches earthly life, such as healing of illness being given. These are analogous to what Nathanael experienced when Jesus said: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
And yet, that isn’t really the end goal of being called to follow Jesus. Remember how 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.” Even experiencing the spectacular and dramatic in this life is not a true purpose in itself. The end goal is greater. The point is to lead people to the confession of Jesus’ identity, to be brought to the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, that He is the One spoken of in the Scriptures who brings redemption. That is what both Philip and Nathanael received, despite the different external appearances of their being called to discipleship.
The end goal of being called as a disciple of Jesus is to receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He has earned that comes with the true confession of His identity. Whether this is accompanied with dramatic and spectacular events or by ways that seem more mundane, the end goal needs to be reached. Ultimately, one must be made a disciple as He has prescribed: baptizing in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that He commanded. That is what brings knowledge of the Lord and His Word. That is what makes a person the Lord’s possession. That is what makes them a temple of the Holy Spirit. That is what the Church invites people to “come and see.”
This is what has been given to you. You have been brought the confession of faith about Jesus’ identity that leads to eternal life. You have the merits of Jesus’ death and resurrection applied to you, so that you are “bought with a price.” You are made participants in the truly spectacular and dramatic that has already taken place and is yet to happen: “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by His power.” It is accomplished through means, as the Holy Spirit works through the Church’s baptizing, through the Church’s preaching and teaching, through the Church’s confessing the true identity of Jesus and all His works.
By receiving the divine work done through the Church, you have received the call from Jesus that Philip received: “Follow Me.” By receiving the divine work done through the Church, you have received the invitation made to Nathanael: “Come and see.” And for all you who have received it, you will see what Jesus promises to His disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” So it is promised to you who have come and seen and have been led to make the true confession of Jesus’ identity: “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.