Rev. Laura Everett
Grace Episcopal Church, Amherst MA
Sunday January 15, 2012- Epiphany 2
John 1: 43-51
“Can anything good come out of Cleveland?”
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said to him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called to you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
The beginning of how I became a Christians happened like this: My mother loaded clothes into the washing machine at the Wash n’ Shop Laundromat on 1st Avenue in Denville NJ. It was before we lived in a home with a washing machine, before there was a Starbucks on West Main Street, before there was a Chinese food restaurant in town. The place smelled like bleach and the warm scent of dryer sheets. The florescent lights buzzed and the dryers hummed. My sister and I curled up on the molded yellow plastic chairs that were bolted to the floor. My mother loaded the washing machine with green corduroy overalls and turtlenecks with flowers and dresses with embroidered turtles on them for two little girls. And another young mother, Laura MacKenzie started up a conversation, about her little boy and girl, about the town, about how she liked to sing in the church choir. My mother asked her where the church was. She said, “Come and see.” Will you pray with me… AMEN.
The lectionary text from John today is a tale of two conversions to Christ, first Philip and then Nathanael. And actually if we go back in the text to the day after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus has gathered Andrew and Simon Peter and perhaps the Beloved Disciple, and now Philip and Nathanael. Andrew came along easily. He was standing with John the Baptist, overheard John exclaim “Look here is the Lamb of God!” and off Andrew went following Jesus. Andrew tells Simon, and he joins too and gets renamed Simon Peter in the process. By the time we get to Day 2 of gathering the Disciples in the lectionary text today, the process is quite streamlined. Jesus decides to go to Galilee next. “He found Philip and said to him “Follow me.” And Phillip did. No questions, no push-back, no hesitation. Nathanael is the tricky one. He’s a harder sell. He’s the only disciple called here who doesn’t immediately accept Jesus’ invitation. And his words are wonderful.
Commentators seem to split in two directions- ironic or earnest. Nathanael speaks snidely when he says “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Jesus sauces him right back with more sarcasm saying “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Or they’re both being entirely genuine. Hard to tell. The Scripture text here reads like a modern text message- we’ve got all the words right but very hard to decipher the tone. A good number of sermons about this passage focus on Nathanael, because those lines are so juicy. I want to do something different. I want to turn to Phillip.
Jesus found Phillip and said to him “Follow me.” And Phillip did. The text goes on from verse 44, “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Nazareth. The Messiah, the King was not supposed to come from a small village like Nazareth. Not Jesus of Jerusalem, not Jesus of Capernaum. Jesus from Nazareth. That one. Jesus, you know, Joseph the carpenter’s kid. Yeah, turns out he grew up and is the one Moses and the prophets wrote about. Eh, we probably shouldn’t have beaten him up on the way to Hebrew school. Jesus of Nazareth. There was nothing important in Nazareth. No government, no trade, no Starbucks, no Chinese food restaurant. Have you heard their accents? The Lord and Savior might as well been coming from Revere. Or Medford, or Holyoke, Worcester or Mattapan. Or New Jersey. Or Texas. Or Maine. Uneducated bunch of backwater folks. Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? All Nathanael’s presumptions are on full display here- God couldn’t possibly come from a God-forsaken backwater like Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” William Willimon, United Methodist Bishop of North Alabama and former Dean at Duke Chapel says that beneath this question is another one, “Can anything good come to Nazareth?” Would God of all creation deign to be born in a poor farming village in an occupied land? Answered with an unequivocal Yes.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Philip pauses. He smiles a little, nods his head and says “Come and See.” Philip doesn’t challenge Nathanael. He doesn’t berate him for his prejudices. He just invites him to meet Jesus himself. Philip repeats the same words that Jesus used to invite the early adapter disciples and says to Nathanael, “come and see.”
I come to your church with a confession. I grew in my faith at a United Church of Christ congregation in northern New Jersey. We lived in one middle-class town, but went to church in the fancy town next door, a town my father dubbed “the land of horseshoe driveways.” And even fancier than our church was the Episcopal Parish. It was up on the hill. It had the fancy stained glass windows. It had a weird name. And we made fun of them. In full disclosure, we also made fun of the Roman Catholics. In fine Protestant fashion, we claimed our space by declaring who we were not. We were not the fancy pants Episcopalians and we were not the Roman Catholics. If we said the creed, and we very rarely did (for we were not a creed-saying church), I remember whispering over the part about believing in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” We were convinced that nothing good could come from the Episcopalians or the Roman Catholics. No one ever invited me to come and see otherwise.
To follow Phillip’s example is to be an ambassador for Christ. To take the snark and the sarcasm and the skepticism of a world and meet it with an invitation to experience something new and holy. Come and see. We don’t do the work of conversion, God does. But we invite others into our homes, our churches and our experience of the holy. “Come and see,” leading to come and worship our God together. Come and see is an invitation to an experience. Nathanael’s conversion didn’t happen because someone else told him about Jesus, it happened because he encountered Jesus. And that encounter with Jesus happened because of Phillip’s invitation to come and see. More often than not, we don’t make the invitation. Whether with the prejudices of my early church years or benign neglect, we remain contented to do what we’ve always done with whom we’ve always done it. We hold Vacation Bible School on our own, we celebrate Pentecost on our own, we set up renewal energy funds for just our own Presbyterian or Methodist churches. The standard is division and separation and unity is the exception to the rule. The move towards Christian Unity is the great counter-witness to the fracture of our broken world. I am convinced that our drawing closer to one another and closer to Christ will be the renewal of the Church, if not for theological reasons because at this point we all come from so many different traditions! How many of you have been members of a religious community other than an Episcopal parish? The reality is that our local congregations are inter-denominational as it is. But Jesus wanted more for us and for the World- later in John 17 Jesus prays that his followers might be one, so that the world may believe. Our unity in Christ is not simply for our own sake, but for the sake of the world. And there’s no way to be one in Christ if we don’t step beyond our own communities to “come and see.”
Once upon a time, there was an age of great hopefulness for Christian unity in the United States. In 1958, President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for the InterChurch Center at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City. First it was called “the Protestant Center” until a lay Greek Orthodox lawyer named Charles Raphael suggested calling it the InterChurch Center. Folks called it “The Protestant Vatican,” and later “The God Box.” Eisenhower laid the stone, a gift of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, with the inscription, “This stone is from Agora in Corinth where many hearing Paul believed.” 30,000 people attended and hopes were high. Denominations moved into 19 floors of granite and steel. Times changed, church changed, the world changed. And the denominations moved out, each to their own Galilean hill-towns. The Presbyterians to Louisville, the Lutherans to Chicago, the Disciples to Indianapolis, the American Baptists to Valley Forge and the United Church of Christ to Cleveland. There’s certainly more to the story about why the denominations moved apart with finances and demographics, but they didn’t all move to Peoria together. It’s a lot easier to “come and see” when all you do is walk down the hall rather than fly from New York to Louisville.
Like Phillip and Nathanael, and the mid-century denominational staff in the God Box, the invitation to “come and see” from one to another is the invitation to draw more closely to Christ. The movement for Christian unity among the divided churches has always been a renewal movement of the Church- and if it doesn’t draw us closer to Christ and one another, that we’re doing something very wrong. For a perhaps too long the Ecumenical movement and the Massachusetts Council of Churches has done too much talking about the unity of the Body of Christ and not enough experiencing that unity. We’ve begun a program of “Ecumenical Pilgrimages,” inviting folks from many traditions to come with us to a service or event of one of the other 17 Protestant and Orthodox Churches that make up the Massachusetts Council of Churches. This year, I was a guest at your Episcopal Diocese of Western MA Diocesan convention. I hope and pray that when you elect your new Bishop, I will be there with other Lutherans, Greeks, and Baptists. I hope and pray you will follow our ministry on Facebook and through our emails, and that you’ll come and see with me when the United Methodists elect their new Bishop or the Quakers have their New England Yearly Meeting, or to hear at our annual meeting the Social Media coordinator for the Archdiocese of Boston talk with a blogging Unitarian and a Lutheran pastor. This is your invitation, Come and See.
Just a week and a half ago, we took a delegation of Protestants and Roman Catholics to Armenian Orthodox churches for their Christmas Eve and Day liturgies, celebrated on January 5-6. It was very wonderful, and very not-Protestant. Much of the liturgy wasn’t in English but in Armenian. The scents and the movements were unfamiliar. But they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. A colleague of mine has joined Twitter, the social media sight that asks people to “tweet “or type short updates of 140 characters. Well, he has decided to only tweet in rhyming verse. I got home from the liturgy, and opened my computer. His tweet read “Made it home from Armenian Christmas Eve. Hard to understand, easy to believe.” It takes the personal invitation to “come and see,” to draw us out of our own provincial communities and into the larger body of Christ. We need one another to invite us beyond our own prejudice and ignorance. Otherwise we’ll never find out if anything good can come from Rome, or Canterbury or Geneva or Etchmiadzin, or Jerusalem. Or Springfield, or Boston, or Lawrence or Amherst. Amen.