Sunday, January 15, 2012

Come and See

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 15, 2012

Year B: The Second Sunday after Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
(1 Corinthians 6:12-20)
John 1:43-51

Come and See

On most Sundays this year we’re going to be reading and hearing excerpts from the Gospel of Mark – the earliest of the four gospels in the New Testament, written probably around the year 70. Mark is also the primary source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, so those three gospels share many stories and the basic outline of Jesus’ life and ministry.

But today’s gospel lesson is from the Gospel of John, the fourth gospel, the last of the gospels to be written - probably around the end of the First Century. The fourth gospel is very different from the others – so different in fact that in the early centuries of Christianity some people thought it didn’t belong in the Bible.

The Gospel of John offers a different outline of Jesus’ life and ministry and presents many stories that are not found in the other three gospels.

The Gospel of John also shines the spotlight on characters barely mentioned – or nonexistent - in the other gospels.

For example, Philip is only mentioned in the other gospels but gets a speaking part in the Gospel of John, especially in the lesson we just heard.

We’re told that Philip was from the same fishing town as Peter and Andrew. We’re told that Jesus “found” Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” And like other disciples it seems that Philip’s life was transformed by his encounter with Jesus. Like his neighbors Andrew and Simon Peter, Philip left behind his old life to follow Jesus.

Philip became a disciple.

And a disciple invites other people to follow Jesus.

Which is exactly what Philip the brand-new disciple did when he found Nathanael.

Nathanael appears only in the Gospel of John. He’s not even on the lists of apostles in the other gospels. Some people think that he’s the apostle who’s called Bartholomew in the other gospels. Other people think that Nathanael is a composite character, representing Jewish people who were open to Jesus.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Philip the brand-new disciple tells Nathanael the news that he’s found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Actually, Philip’s description isn’t quite right.

First of all, Philip didn’t find Jesus – Jesus found Philip.

Second, his description of Jesus isn’t really adequate. Philip describes Jesus as “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Not the worst description, just not adequate. Then again, what description of Jesus would be adequate?

Philip the brand-new disciple doesn’t get everything right, but he does seem to understand the most important job of a disciple.

Nathanael expresses skepticism, wondering if anything good could come out of an insignificant town like Nazareth.

Then, rather than taking another crack at explaining or describing Jesus, Philip the disciple says to Nathanael, “Come and see.”

Nathanael accepted the invitation and like so many others, Nathanael’s life was transformed by his encounter with Jesus. In fact, Nathanael seems to recognize who Jesus is a little better than Philip, crying out with a mix of Joy and wonder, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”

This powerful story of Philip’s invitation to Nathanael really resonates with me.

Many of you know that both my wife Sue and I grew up as Roman Catholics. And many of you know that before I became a priest I was a history teacher in two Catholic high schools.

I loved being a teacher and really felt that it was my vocation. I also loved the sense of community in the schools – the sense of faithful people working with a real sense of mission – of together building the kingdom of God by shaping the lives of young people.

In a very real way, school was my church.

After a while, though, I realized that Sue was not really part of this. So one day I suggested we start going to church together. Being a good sport, she said yes.

And so on the first Sunday of Advent – or actually the Saturday evening before the first Sunday of Advent – we went to our local Catholic church.


Please know that I’m not one to knock the Catholic Church – just the opposite, really. And it could be that we caught them on a bad night. But, on that occasion, the church was gloomy and no one seemed happy to be there. The less said about the music the better. And actually the same goes for the homily.

At one point I looked over at Sue and could see that she was upset.

I thought, well, I can add this to my long list of terrible ideas.

One day the following week I was in the faculty room telling this story pretty much the way I just told it to you. There were laughs and some knowing nods and headshaking.

And then one of my colleagues, a math teacher, said, “Oh, you should come to my church one Sunday.”

She told me it was an Episcopal church just a few blocks from our house and didn’t say much more about it.

Come and see.

Somehow I talked Sue into giving this a shot. I think I told her that since the church is a rare wood-frame Victorian from the 1860s if nothing else it would be interesting to see what the inside looked like.

The church was indeed beautiful but that Sunday – the second Sunday of Advent – we discovered something most unexpected. We found a warm and welcoming and diverse community of people who seemed genuinely happy to be there – and who seemed genuinely happy that we were there.

The music was beautiful, the sermon was smart and passionate, and at the peace everyone was out in the aisle shaking hands and embracing.

This was my epiphany.

My life was transformed that morning – veering off in a totally unexpected direction. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the transformation actually began a few days earlier in the faculty room when, like Philip long ago, my colleague the disciple said, “Come and see.”

You and I aren’t called to get everything right.

You and I aren’t called to give an accurate description of Jesus or even of our life together.

Maybe you’ve tried to describe what goes on in church. It never quite works does it?

“Yes, well, we get up early and sit on benches. We sing – or pretend to sing – or listen to some songs. We hear Bible stories. One of the priests gets up and talks about the stories, trying to connect them to our lives. We sing some more. We pray. And then we all get a thin wafer of what’s supposedly bread and take a sip of wine. Sometimes we stay after and have coffee.”

I’m sure we could all do better than that, but there’s no way to really describe what happens when we come together. There’s no way to really describe the power of being together and praying together. There’s no way to really describe how the Word of God can touch our lives. There’s no way to really describe what it means to exchange the sign of peace with one another. There’s no way to really describe what it’s like to take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts. There’s no way to really describe how what happens here can shape the way we live when we’re out there in the world.

There’s no way to describe that in a special way it’s here that Jesus finds us.

So, since there’s no way to really describe all of this, you and I – like Philip long ago and my colleague in the faculty room – are simply called to extend the invitation and leave the rest to God.

Come and see.