Audio of this sermon is available at the foot of this page.
I met Claire, my wife, on February 16th 2008. I was visiting Katie, a friend from university, who lives in Belfast. Katie, who I suspect may have been match making, invited Claire to join us for dinner in the evening. I was blown away by Claire’s beauty the moment I saw her. By the time I left Belfast, I knew I wanted to be with her. Unfortunately, though, Claire lived in Belfast and worked very long hours as a hospital doctor. I lived in Sussex and worked long hours and six or seven day weeks as a teacher in a boarding school. No matter what I wanted, it just seemed impossible that it could work out. Finding time to meet up would be incredibly difficult. Flying backwards and forwards between Gatwick and Belfast would be incredibly expensive. There was no way it could work. I pondered it long and hard but ultimately decided that it would not work, so it was pointless thinking about it.
Of course, in the end, it did all work out, but that’s another story!
Why am I telling you this? Well, sometimes we meet a person who has the potential to transform our lives. In order for that transformation to take place, though, we usually have lots of considerations to make. Do we make time in our busy lives for this person? Do we allow them to disrupt our regular routine? Or do we turn our back and just carry on as we are.
In today’s reading we witnessed two people who encountered someone who radically changed their lives the moment they met him. Philip and Nathanael both encountered Christ, and, whilst both ultimately decided to follow him, the way they reached their decision to give up their own lives and follow Christ was markedly different.
Today we will consider the way in which Philip and Nathanael responded to their encounter with Christ. We will reflect on whether we see anything of ourselves in Philip and Nathanael. And we’ll reflect on what a life following Christ might mean. We’ll do so under three headings – follow me, come and see, and finally, a question: what will we see?
So to our first point, then: follow me.
The first person we witnessed encounter Christ in our gospel reading today was Philip. What is noticeable straight away is how John describes their encounter. Today we often speak of “seekers,” people who have not committed their lives to following Jesus, but are looking for him with the possibility that if they find him, they will follow him. Looking at this encounter in our reading, however, it seems that when we speak in this way we might have got things the wrong way round. Take a look at John 1:43. It is not Philip who was seeking. It was not Philip who found Jesus. No, John is very clear in his writing that it is Jesus who found Philip.
It is worth remembering in our faith lives that it is not true that it is we who are seeking Jesus, it is not us who is looking for God. Rather, God is seeking us out. He loves all his people and is desperate to have a relationship with us, to get to know us. The question is – will we be open to his approach?
Philip was most definitely open to Jesus’ approach.
Without any introduction whatsoever, Jesus said to Philip, “follow me.”
Jesus’ command hit Philip right between the eyes. For Philip there was no question about what to do. He immediately dropped everything to follow a man that he had only just met.
For Philip this single moment represents a life changing decision, yet his response was instantaneous. He could justifiably have said, hang on, this is a rather big step you’re asking me to take. Do you really want me to follow you? Do I really have to decide now?
Philip could have responded by replying, “but I don’t know anything about you!”
He didn’t, though.
Philip could have come up with hundreds of different reasons why he shouldn’t follow Jesus.
He didn’t though.
Jesus commanded him to follow, and he did.
There was something so powerful about the very presence of Jesus that Philip unquestionably dropped everything to follow Jesus.
I wonder if you can identify with Philip here? We all have our own conversion stories. I wonder if yours is like Philip’s? Was there something about Jesus that struck you instantly that meant you had to drop everything and follow him?
Philip’s particular conversion is magnificent because there is something truly supernatural about it. There is nothing that we, as mere humans, could do to effect an experience like Philip’s. Philip encounters Christ and is immediately transformed. His life is immediately changed.
Did you hear Jesus’ call, “follow me,” and surrender your whole life to him?
Perhaps you’re here today as a non-Christian, trying to find out more about this Jesus that we worship. Maybe you would describe yourself as a seeker. If that’s you, then reflect on the way in which Philip came to follow Jesus. Philip was not looking for Jesus. Philip did not set out to find Jesus. Instead, Jesus set out to look for Philip and found him. In the same way, Jesus is out looking for each of us. If we’re open to him, as Philip was, he will find us, and he will ask us to follow him.
Are we following Jesus? Have we responded to his call of “follow me?” Like Philip, have we dropped everything and surrendered our lives to respond to his call?
Let’s move on to our second point: come and see.
Whilst Philip’s response to Christ was immediate and unquestioning, not everyone’s response is quite so dramatic. The second person we met in our reading was Nathanael. His decision to follow Christ was rather different to Philip’s, because his conversion did not start with Jesus, but with a friend.
That friend was Philip.
Philip was so excited about finding Jesus that he immediately had to go and find his friend Nathanael. Philip’s excitement was bubbling over, and there was nothing that he could do to contain it. He just had to share his faith.
I wonder if we feel the same way? If we know and love Jesus, does our excitement at finding our saviour lead us to seek out our friends to tell them about Jesus? Does our passion for Christ bubble over when we’re with our friends to the extent that we cannot help talking about him?
If it doesn’t, why is that? Do we truly know Christ? Do we honestly follow him? Have we really surrendered our whole lives to him?
Let’s look at the kind of guy Nathanael was. It quickly becomes apparent that he was rather different to Philip.
Nathanael was a devout Jew who took his faith very seriously. He knew his scripture, and had previously been spotted by Jesus sitting beneath a fig tree, a common place for Jewish people to sit, ponder the scriptures and pray.
He was also clearly an intellectual sceptic.
Philip began his introduction to Jesus by stating that “we have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets wrote.” Philip knew that the way to share Jesus with his friend, the devout Jew, was by appealing to Jewish scripture.
On hearing Philip’s introduction, though, Nathanael remained sceptical. On hearing that Jesus comes from Nazareth, he responded, “can anything good come from there?”
Perhaps this was first century inter-town rivalry. Or perhaps Nathanael, as a scholar, knew that the prophecies of the Old Testament point to the Messiah hailing from Bethlehem.
Perhaps he would have responded differently if he had known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Philip’s enthusiasm was not diminished by Nathanael’s cynicism. Far from it. Instead, he urged his friend to “come and see!”
He knew that if Nathanael encountered Jesus for himself, he could not help but be transformed. He knew that if Nathanael was to encounter Christ and experience the passion and excitement of knowing Jesus, just as he had done just moments before, Nathanael would have to leave his intellectual comfort zone and place himself before Christ. If he was to know Christ, Nathanael would have to meet Christ and experience Christ.
I wonder if you have ever attempted to bring someone to faith, perhaps a friend or a family member, who has responded in the same negative, cynical way that Nathanael did initially. Nathanael sneeringly responded to Philip that no good could possibly come from Nazareth. At that point, Philip could have argued and debated with Nathanael, telling him that he was wrong, that Jesus is good, that Jesus is worth following. Instead, Philip instinctively knew that they only way that Nathanael would come to know Christ for himself would be by encountering him face to face, so he invited him to “come and see.”
Rather than engaging in fierce arguments and debates with our non- Christian family and friends, we would be much better off inviting them to “come and see,” to come and meet Jesus for themselves.
How do we enable someone to meet Christ for themselves today, though? How do we emulate Philip’s invitation to “come and see?”
Since Christ dwells in all who truly believe, if we are true Christians then we can introduce people to Jesus through the way that we live, the things that we do, the words that we say. We can also invite our friends to groups like Alpha or Christianity Explored where they can have the opportunity to encounter Christ in his word and to ask questions.
Nathanael deserves credit, because he took Philip up on his invitation to “come and see.” Nathanael was an honest sceptic who was willing to follow the truth, wherever it might lead him, so he did go with Philip to meet Jesus.
Philip was absolutely right to invite his friend Nathanael to come and see. Nathanael does encounter Jesus, and as Philip suspected, he immediately dropped everything to follow Jesus.
What immediately hit Nathanael about Jesus was that Jesus already seemed to know him. Nathanael was stunned by Jesus knowledge of him.
On seeing Nathanael approach, Jesus commented, in verse 47, “here truly is an Israelite in who there is no deceit.”
Nathanael was shocked, because Jesus seemed to know him already. This was more than a casual, “haven’t I met you somewhere before?” Jesus did not just recognise Nathanael’s face. He knew what was on his heart. Unfortunately, from reading the Gospel account we don’t really know what it is about Jesus’ greeting that so shocked Nathanael, but clearly there was something. Some have speculated that Nathanael, whilst he had been studying God’s word under the fig tree, may have been reading about Jacob’s encounter with God in the desert. Jacob could have been said to have been deceitful, since when he encountered God in the desert he had left his home after deceiving his father and cheating his brother out of his birth right.
When Nathanael first met Jesus, he was shocked because by Jesus’ reference to him being “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” by which Jesus could be making a direct comparison between Jacob and Nathanael. Clearly if Jesus did know exactly which text Nathanael had been studying, be would have been a little surprised!
Whatever it was about Jesus’ statement to Nathanael, it clearly stunned him because Jesus displayed knowledge of Nathanael’s thoughts which, if Jesus was an ordinary human, there was no way he could know.
Nathanael, in a state of some shock, asked Jesus, “how do you know me?”
Jesus replied, in verse 48, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Nathanael was absolutely gobsmacked by this response. Jesus seems to have not only seen him whilst he was under the fig tree, but seen into him, seen what he was thinking, seen what was on his heart.
At this, Nathanael’s scepticism withered away. He now knew that this man Jesus was special. How else could he have known so much about him? He recognised that Jesus had supernatural knowledge. It was the only way that Jesus could know what he had been thinking.
In response, Nathanael immediately declared, “rabbi, teacher, you are the Son of God; the king of Israel.” His thinking was immediately changed. Indeed, Nathanael’s very world was changed by the recognition that Jesus was the Son of God.
If we will only “come and see” Jesus for ourselves, he will transform our lives too. If we recognise that Jesus is the son of God, our thinking will be changed, and our world transformed.
If we encourage our friends to “come and see” too, the same will be true for them. If they genuinely encounter Christ they will respond in the same way that Nathanael did.
What is it that makes following Christ such an exciting proposition, though? What is the reward that awaits Philip, Nathanael, the rest of the disciples, and us too, if we follow Jesus?
The answer to that lies in Jesus’ response to Nathanael’s declaration of faith, and it is that answer to which we will now turn our attention in our third point.
It is in the next part of our reading that Jesus addresses the question we may ask, if we come and see, what is it was shall see?
After Nathanael’s recognition that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel, Jesus told his new disciples that they would see incredible things if they stick with him.
Jesus took Nathanael and the others back to the passage in Genesis that Nathanael may have been studying whilst sitting under the fig tree. In that passage Jacob, who had been forced to leave home, lies down to sleep and sees a vision. In that vision, he saw a ladder, with its foot on the ground and the top reaching heaven. On the ladder he saw angels of God going up and down it. Above it he saw God, who promised him that he would give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he was lying. All people, God promised Jacob, would be blessed through his offspring.
In his promise to Jacob, God once more demonstrated his love for his people. Previously, people had tried to reach up to God at the Tower of Babel, and been punished by God. Now, though, God was himself reaching out once more to his people in the hope that they would come to know him and establish a positive relationship with him.
A ladder, though, is temporary. When a new house is built a ladder is used temporarily to link two floors. Once the house has been completed, the ladder is removed, and is replaced with a permanent staircase.
Here, in our gospel reading, we see Jacob’s ladder replaced with something much more permanent; the Son of Man himself, Jesus, the Messiah, the promised one of God. Through Jesus, God’s blessing has been opened up to all peoples, made permanent and everlasting. Jesus pioneers the new way in which the living God will be present and with his people. Jesus is the Son of Man who opens heaven to all who believe and trust in him.
This is the message, then, that Jesus had for his first disciples, and that he has for us today. As he turns to Nathanael and says, “you will see greater things” than merely Jesus’ supernatural reading of his hopes and fears, he is saying to Nathanael, his disciples and to us, that if we follow him, we will see truly astonishing things. Jesus’ power stretches beyond mere insight. What we will see with Jesus is the reality to which Jacob’s ladder and the Jewish scripture that Nathanael knew so well had been pointing.
Jesus shows us what happens when heaven and earth are bridged.
He shows us what it is like to be in God’s kingdom.
Because if we follow his example and live to serve, to love and to hope, we will see God’s kingdom built here on earth.
Jesus’ reading of Nathanael’s thoughts pales into insignificance against the true wonders of God’s heavenly kingdom.
If we follow Jesus, we too will see God’s kingdom. We too will see the greater things that Jesus promised his disciples.
No matter how we respond to Jesus’ call on our lives, we will witness miracles in our own lives, in those around us, and in the world in which we live.
No matter whether we respond as Philip did, unquestionably accepting Jesus’ call, trusting instantly in his word, or whether, like Nathanael, we have questions that can only be answered by an encounter with Christ, we are a part of God’s new kingdom.
The question today is, will you respond to God’s call? When Jesus asks us to follow him, will we do so? Will we accept that call on our lives?
And if we will, how will we respond to that call?
Will we be eager to rush out and tell our friends about Jesus?
Will we want to bring them to Jesus so that they can have an encounter with him for themselves?
Will we urge our friends to come and see Christ for themselves, as Philip did Nathanael?
Whatever we do, let’s ensure that we respond to that call and play our part in building God’s kingdom here on earth in the here and now.