Sermon for Sunday, January 17, 2021 || Epiphany 2B || John 1:43-51
Imagine with me the memories of the disciple Nathanael, thinking back to that fateful day when Philip invited him into Jesus’ circle.
This is a story about seeing. But first I need to tell you about my best friend Philip. Philip was always the one who was quick to believe. Every few months he would come to me way too excited about a new guru he had heard about or a get-rich-quick scheme or an investment opportunity. He always gave me the hard sell: You don’t know what you’re missing! How much money do you have! We can pool ours together and buy a full share! This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal! Well, Philip’s deals were more like once-in-a-fortnight deals, considering how often he fell for them.
This one time, a few years before we met Jesus, Philip was ensorcelled by a charlatan claiming to be the second coming of Elijah. After a month, Philip was broke and the not-so-proud owner of a year’s supply of some sort of nectar purported to make one lucky in business. It turned out to be olive oil with a little cumin mixed in for color. At least we could cook with it.
Looking back, I do commiserate with my friend Philip. We were all under the thumb of the Romans. We were all looking for something to brighten the future. We were all a little vulnerable to those willing to prey upon the desperate. Who would have thought that we would meet someone who would bring the desperate healing and good news and a new way of life that actually made life more worth living.
Here’s how it happened. I had spent my break eating lunch under a favorite fig tree of mine, and I was back at work late in the afternoon. I distinctly remember seeing Philip’s long shadow bobbing toward me as he ran east to the water. I waved him over before I saw that telltale manic glint in his eye. But he was my friend, and I could humor another scheme if it meant sharing his company for a while.
He started in right away with words I had heard a dozen times: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
If I had a denarius for every time he had said something like that. I tried to let him down easy: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth is a backwater whose only export is the dirt people track on their shoes when they leave town. Everyone knows that. I regret these words now. I thought I was being clever. I was just being mean. I handed Philip my canteen as a peace offering, and he took a long drink. When he was finished, he handed the jar back to me, and I noticed a shift in his demeanor. His eyes weren’t manically glinting at all. If anything, his body trembled with a strange mixture of excitement and solemnity. Instead of giving me the hard sell, he said three simple words of invitation. “Come and see.”
It was this invitation that got me. I had known Philip a long time and he always started in on the pitch, trying to convince me like someone higher up the scheme had convinced him. I wonder if he acted like this because he was really trying to convince himself of things he knew, deep down, were merely gimmicks.
But not this time. This time Philip had no need to convince himself or to convince me. He didn’t try to sell me. He simply invited me. “Come and see.” If Philip had said, “He’s the best one yet!” Or “You’re not going to believe what secrets he knows!” Or anything like that, I would not have humored him. I’d heard all that before. But he didn’t. He did not cajole or pester or demand. He just offered an invitation. I could accept it or not, and both were viable options.
At first I decided to go with Philip because I needed to know who or what was making him act so strange. But as he guided me back the way he had come, I realized I was actually excited. Me! I had never fallen for anything in my life. I probably let a few too many legitimate opportunities go by because of what I would have called my realism, but which was really a cover for my complacency. I would have been fine eating the same lunch under the same fig tree every day of my life. At least, until I met Jesus.
I could tell right away this Jesus had a way about him. He was so disarming – completely genuine, completely at home in himself, welcoming, patient, determined, fiery when he confronted injustice, and funny without having to try too hard. He pulled out the oldest joke in the book when we first met: “Ah, here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Hey, I’ll take the comparison to our trickster ancestor Jacob any day of the week.
“Where did you get to know me?” I asked. Honestly, you could tell that joke about anybody, but it wasn’t the words of the joke that struck me. It was the fact that a joke was the right way to bring me in. Somehow he knew I was a skeptic, more a watcher than a joiner, like I might join – but ironically. He knew way before I did that my complacency was keeping me from embracing the kind of life he yearned for me to have, but that I didn’t even know existed. The words of the joke were one thing. Their tone and intention were something else. The joke said, “You belong here.”
Jesus’ next words said the same thing: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Again, it doesn’t sound that special in the telling because I can’t recreate his presence in my words. Anyone could say, “I saw you earlier today eating lunch.” But when Jesus said this, it wasn’t just simple recognition of a face. When Jesus said, “I saw you,” he meant, “I know you. I care about you. You are important. You are beloved.”
That’s what made Jesus who he was. That’s why the words of my confession spilled out me, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” I was a little embarrassed at first by that outburst, but then I saw Philip’s stunned face and I just started laughing. Somehow, he and I had switched places. Jesus started laughing too while he said, “Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?” We all laughed together until we caught our breath. Then Jesus sobered, put his hand on my shoulder, and looked me in the eye. “You will see greater things than these,” he said.
Seeing is a funny thing. They say seeing is believing. But that’s backwards. Jesus taught me that believing something changes the way we see. This could be good or it could be very bad. Thanks be to God that for me, I chose wisely somehow. I chose to believe in Jesus and in the way he moved in the world.
From the moment we met, I believed that Jesus saw me. Saw me right down to my bones, to my plans, to my hopes and fears and dreams, to my traumas and my glories. And I wasn’t lucky or anything. That’s how Jesus saw everyone. When Philip invited me to “Come and see,” he accidentally meant the invitation in two ways. He meant to come and see the person he was talking about. And he meant come and see — see in the way Jesus sees. Believe in the new and abundant life that Jesus offers, and have that belief act as your lens. Jesus said I would see greater things than these because he hadn’t adjusted my eyes yet.
My eyes see differently now. I’m no longer an aloof skeptic hiding my complacency with misguided realism. Now I see the world through the eyes of my belief in the life Jesus offers – a life of love and justice and peace, a life of eternal relationship with the source of all there is. Jesus saw me so that I might see myself and see the world in new ways. And so I say to you what Philip said to me on that fateful day. Come and see. Come and see. Come and see.