“Philip and Nathanael: A Story of Witnessing” (John 1:43-51)
The Holy Gospel for today, from John 1, takes place very early in Jesus’ ministry, when he was first gathering his disciples. It’s the story of Philip and Nathanael, how they came to be disciples and follow our Lord. It’s the story of “Philip and Nathanael: A Story of Witnessing.” Now today let their story become your story also.
The story begins with Jesus finding Philip and saying to him, “Follow me.” Notice that: Jesus finds Philip. Just like he finds us. He seeks us out, even when we were not looking for him. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” That’s where we were–lost, wandering aimlessly, not looking for God. But Jesus came and sought us out. He found us and brought his gospel to us and placed his call on our lives. Like we sang earlier: “Love that found me–wondrous thought! Found me when I sought him not.”
Jesus calls us, even as he called Philip. “Follow me,” Jesus says to each one of us. “Come on along! Find out what you will discover on this adventure of faith. Follow me, learn from me, as my disciples. Grow in your knowledge and faith.” Jesus calls us to keep on following him, in a lifelong journey of faith. He leads the way, every step of the way, all the days of our life. “Follow me.” Hear the authority in his voice. Hear his personal care for you. Jesus is calling you to be his disciple. How can you say no? He is speaking to you today.
So Jesus finds Philip and calls him to follow. Now what does Philip do next? How does he respond? The first thing he does is to find Nathanael and tell him what happened. Notice that: Jesus finds Philip, and then Philip finds Nathanael. And so it goes. Our Lord uses us as his instruments to invite others, so that they can hear Christ’s call to faith and discipleship. Today I want you to see yourself as a Philip. Jesus has found you and called you to follow him. That’s wonderful! That’s life-changing! That is the most important thing in your life. In fact, it is your life! Jesus finding you and saving you and leading you day by day, all the way into eternal life–this is what life is all about. And what’s more, this new life doesn’t stop with you. Your changed life, your verbal witness, your faith evident in your life–this becomes a witness to others. You too will be a Philip, “filled up” with the joy and excitement that comes from knowing the Lord. When you know the Lord, it affects the way you speak and act and live.
That’s how it was for Philip. He went and found someone he could share his joy with. He found Nathanael, presumably someone he knew or had some kind of relationship with. Excitedly, he tells Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.” In other words, Philip is telling his fellow Jew, Nathanael, “We have found the Messiah.” The Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One–the promised deliverer prophesied in the Scriptures, the one who will fulfill all the promises God made to our fathers: Guess what, Nathanael? We have found him! We’ve met him! The Messiah has come!
Notice, by the way, Philip says, “We have found him,” even though in reality it’s the other way around. It was Jesus who found Philip! Well, that’s all right. It’s really saying the same thing. From Philip’s perspective, this was a great discovery, and in his excitement he expresses it the best way he knows how: “We have found him, the Messiah.”
How about you? Do you have the excitement and joy of a Philip? No? Maybe the excitement has worn off. Okay–although you can reclaim at least some of that joy. Think of it this way: Think of where you would be without Jesus. You would be lost and helpless and hopeless, headed to hell. You would have no meaning, no purpose in life. No hope to sustain you. Blind and dead in our sins, enemies of God–that is our natural state. That is our starting point, and it is a dead end.
But now pause and consider where you are because of Jesus. All of your sins are forgiven. You are a dear child of your heavenly Father. You know what life is all about. You have a sure hope to carry you through all the trials and afflictions of this life. You have the word of God as your anchor and stay. You are headed toward heaven and eternal life with your Lord and with all his saints. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see!”
My friends, this is surely good news! This is as good as it gets! If anything will put some excitement and joy into your life, this will. I can’t think of anything better. So, yes, you do have something to tell others about, something absolutely exciting and joyful!
What have you found that you can tell others about? Or to put it another way: Whom have you found? I’m guessing that unless you’re talking to an orthodox Jew, you probably won’t start out by saying, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.” That’s going to go over most people’s heads. But maybe you’ll put it a different way, perhaps like this: “I have found my Savior, and he’s your Savior too. I have found the one who forgives my sins. The one who died for me and rose again, that I might live. The one who gives me eternal life as a free gift. Let me tell you about him. He puts me right with God. He gives me meaning and purpose and hope in life. He is the way and the truth and the life for everyone, including you.” Now you don’t have to dump the whole load in the first conversation, but you can at least say something, just like Philip did when he basically told Nathanael: “We have found him, the one who makes all the difference in life.”
Then Philip identifies this Messiah by name, “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” But notice Nathanael’s response: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Apparently Nathanael, as one well-versed in the Scriptures, knew that there was no particular prophecy linking the Messiah to the city of Nazareth. Beyond that, Nazareth may have carried some negative baggage for Nathanael. Maybe he didn’t think very highly of that town, we don’t know. But it does seem clear that the mention of Nazareth was an initial obstacle in Nathanael’s mind.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” You likewise may encounter objections when you start to tell someone about Jesus. You may meet resistance when you tell others that you have found Jesus and his gifts present here at St. Matthew Lutheran Church. People may say: “St. Matthew’s? Where’s that? Never heard of it.” “Or “‘Luthern’? What’s that? Does that have to do with Martin Luther King?” “Church? No thanks. I don’t believe in organized religion.” See, these are the modern version of “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Can anything good come out of St. Matthew Lutheran Church?” People will raise objections, and quite often it’s because they want to keep God’s word at arm’s length.
Be prepared for that, but then be pleasantly persistent. Notice Philip’s reply to the problem that Nathanael has with Nazareth. He simply says, “Come and see.” That’s it. Just short and sweet, “Come and see.” Philip doesn’t engage Nathanael in a prolonged argument about the merits of Nazareth. He doesn’t get sidetracked. He’s just pleasantly persistent, inviting Nathanael to find out for himself. “Come and see.” “Come and see if you too won’t encounter the Messiah, the Savior sent from God, in this person Jesus I want you to meet.”
So it is for us in our witness. Now of course, there are many things about our congregation we can talk about, positive things, the various aspects of our life together: the camaraderie and the fellowship, the friendliness of our members, the potlucks and the friendships we enjoy. Those are all good. And we should talk about them. But ultimately, above all, when we talk about our church, we want to talk about the one who is the very heart and center of our church, the church’s whole reason for existence. And that’s Jesus. We want to point people to Jesus. The fact that people will meet Jesus here at St. Matthew Lutheran Church–that is what this church is all about. That’s why we invite people. We can cut through a lot of the fog and smokescreens and side issues when we point people to Jesus and invite them to meet him here at our church. Because this is where he has promised to be present. This is where he can be found. The Lord Jesus Christ is here in his church, where his gospel is preached, his word is taught, and his life-giving sacraments are administered. This is where people will meet Jesus, their Savior, the author of life and the giver of salvation. So don’t be afraid or ashamed to invite your friends and neighbors, your family members–anyone who needs Jesus–invite them to “come and see.” Come and meet Jesus here at St. Matthew’s.
Well, Nathanael’s initial objection is overcome by Philip’s pleasant persistence and his clear invitation. Nathanael does come and he does see. In fact, Jesus sees Nathanael approaching and he says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael can tell that this Jesus somehow knows something about him, that he has divine insight. “How do you know me?” “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” This manifestation of divine knowledge sparks something in Nathanael. Jesus is quickening faith in his heart. Nathanael declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Nathanael confesses something here that was even more than he may have known at the time. Jesus is the very Son of God, come in the flesh. As the Son of God, he is the only one able to save us from our lost condition. As a man, in the flesh, Jesus takes our place, both in keeping God’s law and in taking the law’s punishment on sinners. Jesus died on the cross as our substitute, taking our sin and death on himself, thus opening heaven and eternal life to us. And so Jesus not only is the King of Israel, he is the king who ushers in the everlasting kingdom of heaven in our midst.
“You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus replies: “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” Jesus here is telling Nathanael that he will see the divine power and blessing of God displayed in Jesus’ ministry time and time again. Not just that Jesus could see him under a fig tree. But that Jesus can heal the blind and the deaf, that he can cleanse lepers, that he can forgive sins, that he can raise the dead. Those are the great things that Nathanael will see in Jesus’ ministry.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In Christ, the kingdom of heaven comes down to earth. Heaven and earth meet in him. And this business about the angels of God ascending and descending? This recalls the story of Jacob’s ladder. Remember that? Jacob had a dream about a ladder running between heaven and earth. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” And Jacob called that place Beth-El, the “house of God,” the gate of heaven. Well, that’s what happens now in Jesus. He opens up heaven for us. Jesus’ cross is our Jacob’s ladder. By his death on the cross, Jesus bridges the gap between us and God. Christ came down from heaven, for us men and for our salvation. By his being lifted up on the cross, he raises us up from the depths of sin and death. And by his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, he guarantees our own resurrection and eternal life in heaven. The cross of Christ is our Jacob’s ladder.
And so the church then is our Bethel, the house of God where we find Christ, where heaven is opened to us. Heaven and earth meet here in God’s house, because Christ is present here. Indeed, in the Sacrament of the Altar, heaven and earth come together. Here we receive a foretaste of the feast to come. “Wide open stand the gates!”
Yes, Jesus is here, present in our midst. He is here to open heaven for us. And at the same time, our Lord calls us to follow him in faith. “Follow me,” he says to each one of us. And so we follow, as he guides us out into the highways and byways of life, where we will find people for us to talk to–where we will find our own Nathanaels. Yes, the Lord just may use our mouth to do the inviting! That’s how it went with Philip and Nathanael. Same thing today. Invite the folks you know–your friends and neighbors and your family members–invite them to come and see. And when they come, what they will find here is Jesus giving out his gifts. “Can anything good come out of St. Matthew’s?” Oh, yes! Come and see. Go and tell.