Sermon preached at Enmore, Feast of St.Michael and All Angels, Sunday 25th September 2016. Reading: John 1.43–51
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” John’s Gospel is structured around encounters with Jesus. Again and again from the calling of the first disciples, to the Pharisee, Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman at the well, to the crippled man by the pool, to the man born blind, to Mary and Martha and Lazarus, to Pilate and to Thomas and Peter, characters throughout John’s story are encountered by Jesus. John is clearly fascinated by the diverse nature of the people Jesus meets and the variety of their responses to Jesus. And to all of these people, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, righteous and unrighteous, Jesus issues the same invitation, “Follow me.”
In today’s reading we are told that Jesus moves from Bethany in the south to Galilee in the north and meets Philip in the town of Bethsaida. Most of our knowledge about Philip comes from John’s Gospel. The evangelist portrays him as a rather ordinary man who often seems to be out of his depth. Apart from our initial introduction to Philip, John gives us three vignettes involving Philip showing us his character. On the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, Philip is the disciple asked the question by Jesus: “Where will we buy bread so that these people can eat?” Philip’s response is to state the obvious, “If we had two hundred denarii and we were to spend it all on bread we would still have only enough to give all of them a little taste.” It was not the most imaginative reply. The next time we meet Philip is on the occasion when some Greek pilgrims come to him at Passover time in Jerusalem and ask him “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” They were wanting to meet the man everyone in Jerusalem was talking about but Philip was perplexed by this request and was obviously unsure what his attitude to these Gentiles ought to be. In the end he passed the matter on to his friend Andrew who went straight to Jesus.
The final glimpse we have of Philip is on the night before Jesus’ betrayal when the disciples are together in the upper room. Jesus tells his followers that he is about to leave them but they are not to be troubled or afraid because he is going to prepare a place for them so that where he is they can be also. Jesus then says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.” Philip’s response this time is to say, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” To which Jesus replies rather sadly, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In Philip’s defence, on each of these occasions, he was merely expressing the thoughts and attitudes of most of the disciples so we should not be too harsh in our judgement. But it is also heartening to know that this less than brilliant disciple was called by Jesus and considered worthy to be part of his team.
We can also notice that when Philip was first invited to follow Jesus he responded with alacrity and went immediately to his friend Nathanael to share the good news. He informs Nathanael that they have found the one prophesised throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and identifies him as Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t know if Philip had been a disciple of John the Baptist but he was clearly an Israelite who studied the Scriptures carefully and was looking for the coming of the promised Messiah. Nathanael did not share Philip’s enthusiasm especially when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth. Nathanael came from Cana, another Galilean town up the road from Nazareth but a town he obviously felt was far superior: “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is his rejoinder. I grew up in Seaforth and attended Balgowlah Public School. It was a pretty average school but none the less we believed it to be on a different level from the other nearest public school, Manly West. Our contempt for Manly West was extreme and build on a foundation of pure prejudice. The rivalry between Nazareth and Cana may have been equally ill founded. Philip’s response to Nathanael’s negative attitude was the wise and winsome invitation, “Come and see.”
“Come and see” is in many ways the heart of John’s Gospel and indeed the heart of Christian evangelism. We are not asked to ram our faith down the throat of our friends or to threaten them with hell fire but instead to invite them to come and see what God is still doing in and through Jesus and the community of his followers who have heard his call to follow him. But the difficulty is that we even find that difficult. We are often timid creatures, afraid to offend or challenge the thinking of our family or friends who don’t share our faith. The number one reason people give for coming to church for the first time is a personal invitation. Most of us in church today are here because at some time in our lives somewhere invited us or persuaded us to come and see — a parent, a friend or a relative.
Nathanael was persuaded to come with Philip and meet Jesus. Jesus welcomed him with the rather startling comment: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” This was a compliment. Every Israelite knew about the guile, or deceit of their forefather, Jacob who stole his brother, Esau’s blessing. He did so by disguising himself as his brother and deceiving his almost blind father. Nathanael is even more surprised when Jesus informs him that even before Nathanael appeared Jesus had seen him sitting under a fig tree. Sitting under a fig tree was an image the prophets sometimes used of the peace promised in the Messianic age to come. Consequently Rabbi’s often liked to teach under fig trees. Years later, St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that he was sitting under a fig tree when he heard the call of Jesus to pick up and read the New Testament.
Nathanael is impressed and moves quickly from his initial scepticism to a declaration of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, with the words: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” Jesus’ slightly amused response to Nathanael’s statement could be roughly translated as, ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ Nathaneal will learn that following Jesus is not about being impressed by his superior knowledge or even his power to heal the sick but rather discovering that Jesus is the one who brings heaven and earth together. Jesus’ words: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” are another reference to the patriarch, Jacob. When Jacob was fleeing from his brother after his deception, he camped for the night at a place called Bethel where he had a dream. In his dream he saw a ladder with its foot on the ground and its top reaching to heaven and angels going up and down on it. (You knew we were going to get angels in somewhere this morning!) For Jacob the point of the dream was that despite his perfidy God had not given up on him but would continue to bless him if he would only trust and serve God. He learnt that even in that lonely place God was present. Nathanael and the other followers of Jesus were to learn that in the person of Jesus, God was present with them. Jesus is the one who brings heaven and earth into unity. Jesus is the one mediator between God and his wayward creation. He brings the realities of God to us and lifts us up to God. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of us being raised with Christ and seated in the heavenly places with him. So on this morning when we remember the angelic host who worship God we are reminded that in the person of Jesus, heaven has been brought to us and that God is not distant but closer to us than we can ever imagine.