Vicar's Sermon - 18th January
Was Philip lost that he needed to be found in today’s Gospel reading? It’s probably just a turn of phrase but the word crops up a couple of other times in the reading. Jesus found Philip, Philip found Nathanael and told him that ‘we have found him about whom Moses’ and the prophets had written. ‘I was lost but Jesus found me, found the sheep that went astray’ wrote the hymn writer. Being lost and found has a good pedigree in the Christian story. The good shepherd’s job is to find his sheep when they wander. When did he find you...when did you find him? Does it matter which way round this happens?
What does it mean to have ‘found Jesus’? What does it mean to have been ‘found by him’? For Philip it meant things somehow beginning to make sense to him – the long story of the Old Testament coming to fulfilment. It also meant that he, Philip, now had a task to fulfil: ‘Follow me’ says Jesus to him. For modern day Christians the experience is much the same their discipleship begins with a realisation that Jesus somehow unlocks an understanding of the world and our place in it that ‘fits’, that ‘seems right’, that ‘makes sense’.
Nathanael, Philip’s friend, does not share his faith but is invited to join Philip in following Jesus. ‘Come and see’ says Philip. And here we have another word that crops up a few times in our reading.’ Come and see, come and see for yourself what I am talking about’, says Philip to Nathanael, ‘there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain’ he might have added. But as Nathanael approaches Jesus, Jesus sees him. ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’ he says only for Nathanael to reply ‘how do you know me’. The response uses this ‘seeing’ word again: ‘I saw you even before Philip called you’.
What do you see when you look at Jesus? What does he see when he sees you? And is it significant that Jesus knows Nathanael even before Philip calls him? – Nathanael joins the Christian Community as one known by Jesus before he is actually ‘called’ through Philip. The apostle Paul says that God knows us even before the foundation of the world: there’s a thought!
So along comes another important word- to do with ‘knowing’. Nathanael asks ‘how did you come to know me’? Something about Jesus’ knowledge triggers a remarkable response from Nathanael: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel’. John’s gospel has already devoted quite a few verses to this word: known. Speaking of Jesus john has already written ‘He was in the word and the world came into being through him, yet the word did not know him’. ‘No one has ever seen God’ he writes. ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’.
So another question: how do we ‘know’ anything? How can we be sure of anything? Philosophers spend their lives debating this question: is my knowledge the same as yours, is there an absolute against which ‘knowing’ can be measured? But here we are shown knowledge obtained through a relationship. Jesus ‘knows’ Nathanael through and through. Is there anyone who truly ‘knows you’: and is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Jesus the Son of God, the King of Israel knows you?
Personally, I find this knowledge that Jesus has of me to be a great comfort. One of my favourite psalms is the one we have already sung: Psalm 139 – with its conviction that ‘there is no place where God is not’. Its belief that I am worth knowing: that God wants to know me. The psalm gives us a sense that wherever I am, whoever I am, God loves and cares for me. Is that what Nathanael felt in Jesus presence and why he immediately related this knowing to Jesus being ‘the Son of God?’ Nathaniel doesn’t come across as feeling threatened by this knowledge that Jesus has of him – and nor should we. Being found, being called, being known – are these not positive things, do they not enable Jesus’ disciples to stand tall, to follow him with confidence?
Finally we have Jesus solemn promise ‘Truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’. John gives us a whole host of Old Testament echoes in this one phrase: we are meant to recall the book of Daniel’s description of one ‘like the Son of Man’ coming with the clouds of heaven and earth presented to the Ancient of Days. We are meant to cast our minds back to the foundation story in the Old Testament of Jacob and his dream in which he saw a ladder ‘stretching from earth up to heaven’. But the main thing we are to hear from this verse is the declaration that Jesus himself is the ladder, He is the bridge between things earthly and things heavenly. It is through him that earth is offered to heaven and heaven brought down to earth (as we have just celebrated with the Christmas season).
So what does he offer? What does he bring? He of course, offers Himself – throughout his ministry but especially on the cross on Good Friday. As the Word made flesh the One who was before all things and through whom all things were created, the one who gives life to all things, comes to birth to be fully seen within His creation: he shares everything with us, taking it into Himself – the good, the bad and the indifferent. All this is offered by him to God. We tend to hold back, we usually prefer to offer the Almighty our best face whereas it is more important that we offer him our weakness, our brokenness, our failure and sin because only then can he transform it. God changing us from within, through Christ. God knowing us, seeing us and still calling us ‘as we are’ to be His children. So Jesus offers our full humanity to God and creates a bridge through which God’s goodness can be poured out upon us in a way that we can understand: healing, renewing, recreating our lives and washing them clean through the gift of His Holy Spirit.
Where then does this exchange between Jesus, Philip and Nathanael leave us? I hope it leaves you with a sense that you too (not just these first disciples) are known and loved by Jesus – that he knows you through and through and loves you, that he has sought you out to join with Him in his ministry of reconciling the world to God. And I hope that this gives you a sense of being valued for who you are as a child of God that is totally separate and different from being judged on what you do or don’t do, whether you have lived a good life or not, whether your life has been a ‘success’ or not. If you are here in church then you are here because Jesus has in some way ‘called you’ and he has work for you to do. Finally I hope that this passage has opened up to you a sense that the work the church is called to share in with Jesus is vitally needed. We are called ‘in Christ, through Christ and with Christ’ to present a world that falls short of God’s purposes back to Him for His touch. We are asked to help to open up that world (through our prayers, through our witness and relationships) to His goodness and to share in the joy of seeing heaven come down to earth as we follow Jesus. So who wouldn’t want to hear again Jesus’ words to Philip ‘Follow me?’ And who here is willing to respond?