We are the Ones in Whom Jesus is Seen

Jan 17, 2021

Sermon 1-17-2021
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Text: John 1:43-51
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     What to say; what to say?
     There is so much upheaval in our country, and there are so many opinions about that upheaval. Certainly, we will pray for peace as President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Elect Harris are inaugurated on Wednesday. Given the turmoil, I doubt much celebrating will be evident. People from a broad range of political points-of-view will breathe a sigh of relief if Wednesday comes and goes without violence and interference.
     Surely today’s Gospel lesson offers some guidance in the midst of times such as these!? My initial response to that statement is, NOPE! No? Well, to be fair, we are using the text assigned for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, which, of course, was done not knowing what might be happening that particular day. Yet, this reading from John 1 particularly lacks applicable insight – doesn’t it? Well…we will see….
     It certainly does raise a number of questions, causing the reader to wonder, “What is the point.” Questions like: Why does John say that Jesus found Philip? Did Jesus already know him? Who is this Nathanael, who does not appear in any of the other gospels? Why does he put-down Nazareth? What is the meaning of the fig tree, if any? What is the significance of Nathanael being “truly an Israelite? (1) If you think I am going to carefully investigate each of those questions, you may be disappointed (or relieved) that I am not, other than to tell you that satisfactory answers are few, if any. So, what is left?
     What we know is this: Jesus had just invited Andrew and Peter to go to Galilee with him when he “found” Philip, and Philip then found Nathanael. Some commentators say that these men probably were friends; they were all from the same area. It is not so difficult to imagine that they had eaten meals together, knew one another’s families, perhaps had discussed matters of faith and the coming of the Messiah. Still, when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus, Nathanael was skeptical. He had preconceptions about Jesus, given the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth, from which he thought nothing good could come.
     Yet, there was something about Jesus, something that drew people in. That is evidently what happened to Nathanael; his actual experience of Jesus changed his mind. Commentator Stephen Hultgren writes that “Nathanael has fallen prey to the offense of the incarnation (which is that) God chooses to come to us through the lowly and the despised. (And), the answer to the offense of the incarnation is Jesus himself.” (2)
     A simpler summary is this: people meet Jesus, and they are changed. Then, they invite others to “come and see,” as Philip did with Nathanael. People become Christians because they have seen what the Christian faith has done for those whom they know.
     Unfortunately, though, it can also be true that people do not become Christians because they do not like what they see in those who claim to be followers of Jesus. Here is what I mean: there is a thrift store in The Valley run by the Summit County Humane Society called “Happy Tails.” I stop in there every few weeks just to see what treasure I can find; I enjoy the hunt as much as the purchase.
     I was there one day after Christmas, and as I looked around, I could hear the conversation going on between the cashier and a customer, who was commenting on the lack of civility and kindness in the world, adding that people needed to get back to God and to the church. I could not help but wonder if they were acquainted with one another since that could be a touchy topic. I especially thought that when the cashier responded that, in her experience, it was the ones who say they are churchgoers who are the worst when it comes to being kind and civil.
     I stopped browsing and thought to myself, “Is that true? Why does she think that?” But I did not ask her because when I was at the register, two young women were waiting as well, and I did not want to delay them. My purchases totaled a whopping $1.30, but I only had a $20 bill, for which I apologized to the cashier. At that point, one of those young women, with whom, if based solely on appearance, I had nothing in common, said, “We’ll pay for it; don’t break your $20.” I was flabbergasted, and hoped the cashier noted that small act of kindness and civility.
     When I remembered that this week, I also recalled how in one of the many news clips I watched after the invasion of the U.S. Capital on January 6, a rioter who was celebrating the illegal invasion of the Senate floor, glad that “their point” had been made. When asked what that point was, the answer was, in part, the necessity of reviving Christianity in the United States.
     Perhaps that is an example of why the woman in the Thrift Store had such a negative opinion of churchgoers. The violence, the chaos that day, and the threats, shouts, and sneers filled with hatred, in no way, represent what it means to follow Jesus. This is a truth that was repeated again and again in a summary of responses from various Christian denominations and church bodies that I read. I will admit that I was somewhat surprised to see these words from the National Association of Evangelicals, which includes many conservative congregations.
     “The insurrection at the Capitol epitomizes the rancor and polarization present in our country,” adding that, “Followers of Jesus are peacemakers. Some images from the protests demonstrate a disturbing conflation of Christianity and a nationalist ideology that is far from the way of Jesus. Christians are commanded to seek the peace of the cities where they live, to love their enemies, to seek unity and to proclaim a message of peace.
     “We encourage our communities to pray for a peaceful transfer of power and for healing and peace in our country and world,” the statement continued. “Pastors and church leaders must also consider how to help their communities embody a Christ-like approach to politics and public life.” (3)
     Those comments are a reminder that many of us – probably most of us – who follow Jesus are doing so faithfully, but some are not. That means we must work harder to make Jesus known.
     So, what about today’s Gospel lesson; does it offer any help to us in these difficult days? Let’s look again. When people are blinded by their misconceptions of the church, just as Nathanael was influenced by his preconceptions of Jesus, WE, as Philip did, invite them to “come and see.” And then, we must do all we can to embody Jesus in our lives, both individually and as a community.
     Listen to what commentator Michael Rogness has to say, “Our task as Christians is not to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, although many scholars have written persuasively of the truth of Christianity. Our task is not even to persuade others to become Christians. Our task is to say “come and see.” Philip could have given Nathanael some of his own opinions. But, no, Philip simply said, “Come and see,” as if to say, “You don’t need me to advertise for Jesus; come and see for yourself.” (4)
     Nathanael came and saw for himself. There is one important difference, though, between then and now. We do advertise for Jesus because, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are the ones in whom Jesus is seen. SIGH! Amen
(1) “Second Sunday after Epiphany, John 1:43-51,” by Stephen Hultgren, www.workingpreacher.com
(2) Same as #1
(3) “Denominational Leaders Denounce Capital Violence while Evangelicals Offer Mixed Responses” by Mark Wingfield, January 8, 2021, www.baptistnews.com
(4) “Second Sunday after Epiphany, John 1:43-51, by Michael Rogness