I Samuel 3: 1-10
John 1: 43-51
Remember, when you were about to learn how to drive and you had to get that Learner’s Permit, which meant studying a book of rules for the road. Before you get a driver’s license, you must pass not only a road test, but also a written test. All states have driving rules, and sometimes the rules differ with particular localities. For example, though New York State allows right turns on red, the city of New York does not, and woe to the one who does not know that rule.
Some states and cities have other rules. For example, in Little Rock, Arkansas, “no person shall sound the horn on a vehicle any place where cold drinks or sandwiches are served after 9 P.M. In Montana anyone who is driving a truck with a sheep in it is not allowed to leave the sheep unattended, so if you stop to use the bathroom, you had better find someone to watch the sheep while you are inside. In Oregon, you are allowed to make a left hand turn on a red light, if you are turning into a one way street and Tennessee has a rule, which says it is illegal to shoot at any animal from a car, unless the animal happens to be a whale!
Knowledge of the rules matters, but when it comes to Christian discipleship, let’s face it, the rules are a bit fuzzy, not at all black and white. Some people will tell you that to be a Christian means you must consent to a list of beliefs, such as, Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins. But what do those statements really mean? Does calling Jesus the Son of God literally mean that he received half of his 46 chromosomes from God, rather than from a human father? When it comes to Christian beliefs, there is a tremendous amount of interpretation that goes on. And Christians interpret beliefs quite differently. Furthermore, when we consider this morning’s text from John, what strikes me is that Christian discipleship here seems to be more about following than believing.
Andrew had been a follower of John the Baptist, but when he heard John say that Jesus was the Lamb of God, he decided to follow Jesus, and he told his brother, Simon, that the Messiah had been found. With no hesitation at all, Simon too became a follower, now with a new name given to him by Jesus, Cephus or Peter. Admittedly, in our more skeptical age, we might be unnerved by the rapidity of their response. No struggle, no doubts, no questions. In fact, Jesus was the one who asked the question, “What are you looking for?” He did not ask for whom are you looking, but rather for what are you looking. It is an existential question whose answer is not exhausted by saying, “We are looking for the Messiah.” After all, what is it that the Messiah can actually do? What difference can the Messiah make? How can the Messiah actually change lives? And those questions can only be answered by following, which is what Jesus commanded Philip to do. Follow, and you will see what changes come.
John’s gospel then tells us that Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And that bit of geographical information is important, because Galilee was an ethnically diverse region, removed from the stricter religious demands of Jerusalem. It was also home to a great deal of anti-Roman sentiment, the site of much political turmoil, so Jesus’ journey there signaled him as someone, willing to move outside the mainstream circles. And this is where Jesus found Philip to whom he gave the command, “Follow me.” He did not offer Philip a suggestion or make a request, but he issued a command, “Follow me.” Jesus did not say, “Believe in me, or consider me, or think about me.” No, it was follow me. Where I go, you go too. And, of course, no one had any idea where such following would take them. Neither Andrew, nor Peter, nor Philip was offered any guarantees or promises or projections about the future. Jesus simply issued a command, “Follow me.”
Now according to the text, Philip immediately recognized Jesus as the one predicted by the Hebrew Scriptures, and so, exactly as Andrew had done, Philip went and got his brother, Nathaniel. Notice how suspicious Nathaniel was. When he learned that Jesus was from the no-count town of Nazareth, he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a backwater town, a boring place. Even little Bethlehem, nine miles south of Jerusalem, had more to offer in terms of trade and diversity. But still Nathaniel went. Maybe it was because Philip did not try to argue or coerce his brother into going. He did not try to change Nathaniel’s mind about Nazareth by offering counter-examples. He simply issued an invitation “Come and see.” This was apparently one of Philip’s great strengths as a disciple, at least according to the Book of Acts. He was good at inviting people without pressuring them.
And so Nathaniel came and was mightily impressed, especially when Jesus recognized Nathaniel as an Israelite without deceit. Now the term Israelite is important, because John’s gospel never uses that term, except here. Elsewhere he says Jew or Jews. The word Israelite is supposed to prod our memory of the Old Testament character, Jacob, who after gallantly wrestling with the angel of God, had his name changed to Israel, which means “one who strives with God.” But whatever credit we want to give to Jacob for brains, courage and perseverance, we also have to acknowledge that he was a trickster, full of deceit. He had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and his father’s blessing by pretending to be Esau. But here in John’s gospel we are shown one who strives with God and is yet without deceit. That is what discipleship is supposed to look like: Strive with God; argue with God, if you must, but do so without guile or deceit. The reference, by the way, to Jesus seeing Nathaniel under a fig tree most likely comes from the rabbinic tradition, where the Torah is compared to a fig tree and searching for figs is a metaphor for the study of Torah. So if you do these things, or try to, you will see. As Jesus promised to Nathaniel, “You will see greater things than this.” These three words: follow, come and see are the essence of Christian discipleship.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, when we remember the life and legacy of this great man. Oh, he had his limitations and failings, yet no one can deny that his leadership changed the consciousness and the laws of our nation. Raised in a Christian home, both his grandfather and father were Baptist ministers, King had his own struggles with the faith, intellectually as well as spiritually. Like many people, he wanted a good life, which included a successful career. He earned a PhD at Boston School of Theology with a thesis on the theologies of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and his plan was to become a professor at a seminary. He never wanted to lead the Civil Rights movement, and after he was drafted to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he tried to resign when death threats came his way, but his resignation was refused. While the gospel shows us a Nathaniel who was invited to come and see without pressure, King felt tremendous pressure. He felt pushed and pulled and prodded to follow, to come and to see Christ in so many different places----Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Washington, Chicago, Memphis.
Late, one winter evening, King, overwhelmed by fear after receiving another death threat, sat in his kitchen and bowed his head, calling on the one who could make a way out of no way. In the darkness of that night, King said that Jesus came calling, and King was never the same. Oh fear never completely left him, and he, along with his wife, Coretta, had to come to terms with the hard truth that he would one day be assassinated, but still, he said that he knew he was to follow. He was called to take up his cross and follow Jesus, and though there were certainly times he wondered if a particular tactic or campaign was the right way to follow, he knew what his call was: follow, come and see. And so we remember his journey, not because it was always successful, but because it was faithful. King was not a perfect man, but he did try to follow Jesus. He did come and see. We too are invited to follow, to come and to see, and how we do that is the gift of freedom and the challenge of destiny.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!