Text: John 1:43-51
Date: Epiphany II + 1/18/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
In these first few Sundays of the Epiphany season we are told of Jesus’ calling of his disciples or apostles—today Philip and Nathanael, next Sunday Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John—the final total to be twelve in all. In these words we are to see and understand the fact that today Christ has called us, and still calls all, to follow him and, as with his first disciples, to know what that call means. In the context of John’s Gospel he makes it clear that to be called to follow Jesus means to be changed, transformed, named and claimed by Christ and made to be part of his new creation. Today we hear that when Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, he said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” This puzzled Nathanael at first. But as we shall see, it is because Jesus himself is The True Israelite that all who come to him are given a new life and identity and destiny in him.
How does Jesus invite and call people to follow him? There is a lot of “finding” going on in our text, which means there must also have been a lot of “losing” going on. Now we don’t always mean that when we say something may be “found” that it was necessarily “lost.” “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found…Jesus.’” Philip certainly knew where to find Nathanael, and when he said they had found Jesus he meant only that the one predicted and long-awaited, the one “of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote” had finally showed up on the scene. Yet in another way, everyone whom Jesus comes and finds are like lost sheep.
Too many preachers today have things backwards calling people in general “seekers,” that is, implying that most everyone has at least some little part in him or her that longs after God or is seeking Him. Yet this goes against the fundamental diagnosis of the Bible regarding the fallen, sinful nature, as when it says in Psalm 14, “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:1-3). Nevertheless, many denigrate and turn the Divine Service around so that what is all about God coming to us and distributing his gifts, is made over into what they call “seeker services,” dreaming up all sorts of techniques that supposedly make them and their congregations “seeker sensitive.” What? Did they forget what they learned in the catechism when it says, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or [even] come to him”? The Bible is clear when it describes the fallen, sinful human nature as wanting to have nothing to do with God. By nature, no one seeks God on their own. No, the call to salvation and to discipleship begins with God seeking us. “Finding Philip, Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
Now that’s not to say that there are no “seekers.” Nathanael became a “seeker.” But only because of two things. First, Philip was used by God to seek out Nathanael. Secondly, Nathanael joined Philip because they had heard and believed the Scriptures that told of God sending a Savior, a Messiah. They possibly knew a lot of what the Old Testament predicted including that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem of Judea. This is why when Nathanael heard Philip say, “We have found him of whom Moses…wrote,” then in the order of the Greek text, “Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael at first expressed his surprise, saying, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” They would, soon enough, learn that Jesus was, indeed, born in Bethlehem as the prophet had foretold. But he had grown up in Nazareth and now was operating in Galilee. Nevertheless, regardless of any doubts or questions he may have had, Philip issues the simple invitation, “Come and see.”
The fact that Nathanael, for all his initial doubts, nevertheless still came and saw revealed something about Nathanael. This is what Jesus meant when he announced to the other disciples standing around, when he saw Nathanael coming to him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael’s doubts or even objections regarding Jesus as possibly being the promised Messiah were overcome by the gift of humble faith that was already being formed in his heart. “Nathanael” means “gift of God.” Faith is the gift and creation of God himself in the human heart, working through the Word of the Gospel.
When Nathanael heard Jesus’ words he asked, “How do you know me?” This implies that Nathanael and Jesus had never met before this. Or so Nathanael was convinced. Jesus attests to his divine nature here when he responds telling of his knowledge of Nathanael’s habit of saying his daily prayers in a solitary place under a fig tree. After all, Who is it that was hearing his prayers?! This was evidence enough for Nathanael that this Jesus truly is, as he confessed, “the Son of God; the King of Israel.” It is like the Samaritan woman who told people about Jesus, saying, “come, see a man who told me everything I ever did” (John 4:29). And even more it was like the confession of Peter which the Church celebrates today (Jan. 18), “You are the Christ” (Mt. 16:16; Mark 8:29).
But there was to be more, much more! “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” “And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’”
The True Israelite is Jesus. Whereas the Old Israel, founded in the twelve tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob, were called to be God’s chosen people, nevertheless, they did not live according to God’s Law. In Jesus, God himself came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. As the “Son of Man” and “Son of God,” Jesus would completely fulfill God’s Law perfectly for us. Then he would also be the perfect, sacrificial Lamb of God by whose bloody death he would be the ransom, the atoning sacrifice canceling out the debt of sin, not for the Jews only but for the whole world. Whereas Jacob saw, in the Old Testament, his acceptance by God in the vision of the angels of God ascending and descending on a ladder, Jesus says he himself is that ladder. Because of sin heaven is closed to all. But now, because of Jesus, heaven is open. In all his miraculous works the disciples see that no bar exists between Jesus and God, between him and the heavenly world.
Now Jesus, as the True Israelite, is calling twelve men replacing the twelve Old Testament tribes, establishing the New Israel, the new people of God. As they have names, and in some cases like Peter, are given a new name, so are we named in Holy Baptism. There we are given a new identity and become part of Christ’s new creation. There we are brought under his authority and Lordship. There the old, sinful nature is drowned with all sins and evil lusts, and a new person comes forth, re-created by God to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Our Baptism into Christ means a daily re-identification with Christ and a rejection of the world.
We who have been found by Christ are called also to find others, even as Philip found Nathanael and Andrew found Peter. In fact, this is the way Christ finds disciples to this day, namely, his call, “Follow Me” coming to people through the people of his new creation saying, “Come and see.” Are you aware of the divine dimensions of your simple invitation of others to come to hear the Word here with us? It could very well be THE invitation that finally begins the life of faith and salvation and discipleship for your friend. Won’t you be that friend, that “Philip” who says, “we have found the Savior, Jesus of Nazareth. Come and see for yourself”?
For now, for this moment, let us hear that call for ourselves, “Follow me,” and the promise of an open heaven, as Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, comes and finds us again, giving us his very body and blood so that he might live in us, strengthening us in the forgiveness of our sins. By his seeking us out, by his gracious promise and invitation and Presence in his Word and Sacraments, truly this is heaven on earth.