When my children were younger and my son wanted to annoy his older sisters he would do so simply by following them around the house! “I’m following you; I’m following you” he’d chant as they tried to evade him by running round the house and eventually into their bedrooms where they would firmly shut the door and lean against it to prevent him forcing his way in. He would play this game partly because he knew it would wind them up but I think mainly because he genuinely wanted to spend time with them. Sometimes they would relent and let him in but if they were not in quite such a benevolent mood, they would simply shout at him to go away in that tone of voice that only a big sister can use!
Of course those days have long gone and there is nothing that the three of them would love more than to be able to spend time together in the same room – a real room that is, not a virtual one and I have no doubt that is the same for millions of people throughout the country who have been separated from their loved ones over these past months.
This season of longing to be with the ones we love has reminded us how much we value those relationships and how much we have previously taken for granted the ability to simply extend an invitation to someone to spend time together. Gone are the days of just suggesting meeting up for a cuppa and a chat. Gone but not forgotten and alongside those fond memories of the hospitality we have all shared in the past, is a growing hope that we will share those times again, in the not-too-distant future.
This change in the way we naturally pursue relationships has caused me reflect in a very different way than I have in the past on the message of today’s Gospel reading with its focus on offering and accepting invitations.
The scene is set for us as Jesus decides to head for Galilee, and he encounters Philip – the fact that it is Jesus who finds Philip rather than Philip seeking out Jesus is an important point.
We often hear about people who spend years trying to find something that they feel is missing from their lives. I have had many people tell me that they are spiritual but not religious, that they believed in God, or a creator,
or an external force of some kind but they didn’t go to church or any other place of faith. Yet they were clearly searching for something or someone to believe in, to fill the void in their lives that they were aware of but uncertain how to deal with.
We need only look at the evidence of how many people are engaging with online worship to know that that hunger to fill that void is perhaps even more prevalent than ever before. One parish locally was telling me the other day that engagement with their Facebook page has risen by 70% which is wonderful!
But back to our scripture passage. Jesus finds Philip – Philip doesn’t go looking for Jesus. Jesus invites Philip to follow him. Philip doesn’t ask Jesus if he can follow him. And that is the same for each of us. We might think that we have made the decision to be Christians but actually God has already made that decision for us before we were even born.
Jeremiah 1 verse 5 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.”
Isaiah 43 verse 1 – “Fear not for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine”
God has made that decision; he has sent us the invitation to follow Him – the question is how do we respond? And that is the continuous narrative that runs throughout the Bible – that it is God who constantly seeks out his people. And this is important because the knowledge that God has sought us out, rather than vice versa, is crucial in keeping us humble before God. Even our own faith is not our own decision!
And once Jesus finds Philip, he issues a single command: “Follow me”. Philip is compelled to follow Jesus – and leaves all else behind: his work, his family, his possessions, his ambitions. It all has to go when we follow Christ. We can’t hold anything back, some part of our lives, for ourselves – and that is the challenge. Following Jesus is a radical commitment that demands every aspect of our being. Of course, we get it wrong from time to time and fall short of the ideal – but the intention of radical discipleship should always be before us. And then there is Philip’s first action after taking on this commitment. He goes to find his brother Nathanael and tell him about Jesus! He does what we all do when something good happens – we go to those that we love and care for and we share our joy, and not only do we share it we invite those people to be part of it.
And that is one of the fundamental yet very simple rules of being a disciple of Jesus – tell other people about Him, share what he has done in our lives, invite them to be experience that for themselves.
Philip didn’t have any great learning and yet he was really effective in being an evangelist for Jesus. So often, we think we can’t tell other people about Jesus because we don’t know enough or we don’t know our Bibles well enough…but none of that matters. We don’t need to be theologians to be effective. We just need to be passionate for Jesus, and God will do the rest!
And in this season there are additional challenges – how do we have those conversations about Jesus when we aren’t able to spend time with people? How do we invite people to church when our buildings are closed? It all feels a bit impossible – but of course nothing is impossible for God! We are limited only by our imaginations and our adversity to taking risks! I am not of course talking about the risk taking that endangers others – it is absolutely our responsibility as people who love and care for others to ensure we do everything possible to keep people safe.
No, the risk in telling others about Jesus is purely a risk to our own pride!
After all they might just tell us in no uncertain terms to get lost! And no one likes rejection! Which is sort of what Nathanael does! His response to Philip is not particularly encouraging “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip had come running over to Nathanael, passionate about sharing this good news about Jesus, only to be met with a really cynical response.
Sometimes, when we tell people about Jesus, we are met with cynicism or rudeness or apathy and it can be really discouraging and it can knock our self-confidence. But when it happened to Philip, he didn’t get into an argument about the merits of Nazareth as a geographical region or its place within the salvation history of Israel, or anything like that…He just said to Nathanael, “Come and see!” And, when it comes to evangelism, that’s all we need to keep saying: “Come and see!” We don’t need to get involved in heavy theological debates. “Don’t take my word for it. Come and see!” – and let God do the rest. Now, there is a real challenge to us here as a Christian community, because there is a rhetorical question for us to answer: if people do “Come and see”, what will they find? And how, in this season, do they come and see? Can we still extend the warm welcome this parish is famed for when we can’t invite people to our buildings and extend to them the hospitality that has been at the core of our mission?
Being able to offer worship is a really positive option but will those that join us still have a sense of God changing lives? Are we able to offer a time of worship that gives provides access to God through the presence of the Holy Spirit? Will those that come want to return, to start exploring what a relationship with God really means? All very relevant questions and ones I am continually pondering and praying about.
If we go back to our reading, we can see how Jesus responds to Nathanael’s cynicism? When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ In other words, here is an honest person who won’t have the wool pulled over his eyes – there’s no fooling this one! Nathanael asked him, “Where did you come to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ And that is the game changer – Jesus knows who Nathanael is. He recognises him not just by his physical appearance but for who is within himself, Jesus sees into Nathanael’s soul and He loves him for being Nathanael as he loves us for being us, the good bits, the bad bits, the indifferent bits. Jesus sees into our hearts and recognises us as beloved and cherished children of God. He sees who we are and who we can become if we respond to the invitation. So from this relatively short encounter that Jesus has with these two brothers we can learn a huge amount about what it means to be called by Jesus to follow Him and what the blessings are if we are obedient to that call.
We learn that we did not choose God – he chose us from all eternity. That we are called by him to replicate that invitation through telling others about the good news of Jesus. That we should not to be discouraged by the response we may get from others but trust that an encounter with God will be life-changing for them too – everything we do in God’s name we can only do through His strength and He has His hand on all that we do.
Philippians 4 :13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me “
We are called into a life of peace and blessing with God: Jesus sees us, he knows everything about us and perceives our deepest needs. And if we follow him, we too will see heaven opened…” as Jesus promises Nathanael
Jesus Christ is, indeed, a Saviour to be followed – and it is a lifetime’s work for us to live out these two simple instructions: “Follow me!” and “Come and see!” Today, we follow. Today, we come – and we will see.
And so, it goes on regardless of closed buildings and limited opportunities for interaction – we continue to follow, we continue to have our eyes opened and to truly see the transformative power of our Saviour.
We need not worry that our ability to extend that invitation to others has been limited in this season. God has no limitations and if we put our trust in Him. He will guide us to serve Him as fully and completely as He has called us to do. I leave you with a poem by George MacDonald that has given me reassurance that our shared mission is vibrant and alive as ever it was, is and shall be.
What God may hereafter require of you,
you must not give yourself the least trouble about.
Everything He gives you to do,
you must do as well as ever you can.
That is the best possible preparation
for what He may want you to do next.
If people would but do what they have to do,
they would always find themselves ready for what came next.