Sermon - 19th August 2018
"Come and see"
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
“I have found the answer to my spiritual search” said Philip to his friend. “Not from that kind of background, you haven’t,” said the friend. “Come and see” said Philip.
Those three words - “Come and see” - could turn out to be a disciple’s most powerful means of evangelism.
I feel hugely encouraged by the number of new people who come through the doors of this church week by week. And I know that all of us here have a share in the invitation to engage with what this church is trying to do. As one of our captions says, we are all disciples who are “growing closer to God to each other”.
We may not even use the exact words, but our invitation to join us here is really an invitation to ‘come and see’. Many people are aware of us; many connect with us from a distance by social media; many wonder whether they would belong here; but until they ‘come and see’ for themselves, the reality of who we are doesn’t really take shape.
There are all kinds of subtleties beneath the surface of these few verses in today’s reading near the start of John’s Gospel. The reading tells us a little about Philip: he was from Bethsaida, he may have known Peter and Andrew, and so we can guess that he was probably involved in the fishing community in that lakeside village.
The text says that Jesus ‘found’ Philip; it doesn’t say he met him, or was introduced to him. Is there a hint there that Jesus already knew Philip from a previous encounter, possibly in the company of Peter or Andrew, or perhaps through Philip’s period as a disciple of John the Baptist? Was Jesus actively looking for Philip to invite him into his newly-forming community?
Jesus seems to immediately accept Nathaniel into his company purely on the basis of Philip’s friendship with him. We tend to assume that Jesus called all his disciples in person. But Philip is the one who actually called Nathaniel into discipleship.
So who is Nathaniel? We know that he lived in the Galilean village of Cana. We meet him again towards the very end of the Fourth Gospel when the resurrected Jesus greets his disciples who had been fishing on the lake by sharing a meal of fish with them on the lakeside. But none of the other gospels mention him.
Well perhaps they do, but in another guise.
There has been a tradition since the 9th century that while the Fourth Gospel calls this disciple by his personal name, the other gospels refer to him by his family name. Nathaniel is believed to be the son of a man called Tolmai; and the Jewish custom was to give a male child a family name derived from his father’s name, using the connecting word ‘Bar’ to create the family name.
So, tradition says that Nathaniel Bar-Tolmai is actually the Bartholomew who is consistently named as a disciple in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke by the time the Jewish family name had been filtered through the Greek language of the original gospel texts.
The tradition is further strengthened by the fact that Philip and Bartholomew are almost always encountered together as friends in the other gospels, in much the same way that the Fourth Gospel links them in today’s encounter.
And under the name Bartholomew, he is listed in the book of Acts as being among the apostles present when a replacement for Judas was being elected.
So, whatever it was that Nathaniel Bar-Tolmai experienced when his friend introduced him to Jesus, that experience certainly took root and shaped the life of a long-serving and dedicated apostle who was still around in the early church after the death of Jesus.
And then what about Jesus’s strange prediction that his disciples will see astounding things with their own eyes? What does a new recruit to the circle make of the claim that he “will see heaven open and God's angels going up and coming down on the Son of Man.”
Well, as words taken in isolation, it sounds like a very peculiar claim. But to Philip and Nathaniel, as good Jews, there would have been a clear reference to a tradition in Genesis (28:12) where Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder.
So, using this link to the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus seems to be saying that he is the new way in which heaven and earth will be joined together in God’s kingdom - and this is what his disciples are going to witness.
So, having opened up this rather coded language to reveal a few of the underlying ideas, how does this encounter between friends in Galilee inform our lives as today’s followers of Jesus?
Firstly, in the story we see personal discipleship in action. Philip showed enough confidence in his own belief in Jesus to be able to say to his rather cynical and disparaging friend, ‘Think what you want: say what you want - just come and see’.
The challenge for us is how and when we say to others ‘come and see’. Just as Philip called Nathaniel, we may need to give thought to whom we shall call because we have found answers to our spiritual search - even when we may get the response, ‘Can anything good come of it?’
And secondly, we learn that disciples who are truly in tune with the message of Jesus will be actively discerning God’s kingdom breaking into this world. Using the poetic language of the gospel, ‘heaven will be opening to them’.
Discipleship to Jesus means that we perceive what others so easily miss: that this world, deeply broken as it is, is something which God is restoring until earth and heaven are one and God’s kingdom has truly come. Discipleship always comes back round to the belief that God is in this with us,
Week by week we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven; and in today’s reading Jesus tells even the doubtful Nathaniel that this is both the challenge and the reward for his followers.
The challenge: “Come and see”, said the disciple.
The reward: “You will see much greater things than this. You will see heaven open”, said Jesus.
We are coming up to one of our year’s special events. On Saturday many of us will be out and proud in the streets of Manchester in the Pride parade, seen by around 50,000 people. I hope they will see - as it says in one of our hymns - that “the creed, and the colour, and the name won’t matter” because this is a house of prayer for all people.
And if the thought crosses their minds, ‘can anything good come out of this’, I hope they will recognise our message - on Pride weekend and on every other day of the year - ‘come and see’, because if you are looking for God in your life, we believe you will find God here.