by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow
Years ago I attended a workshop on evangelism and welcoming people into the church and growing church membership. Our workshop leader based much of his presentation on this Gospel reading we have assigned to us in the lectionary this morning – because he said that this was his story: he had a place and a life in the church now because someone had done for him what Philip does in the story.
The workshop leader said he had grown up without any kind of church connection. His parents had gotten fed up with church and had left it long ago. He himself had never attended church – other than a wedding or a funeral now and then – and not many of those, really: most of his friends had gotten married on beaches or forests or banquet halls. As far as he could tell, church was a waste of time at best, and at worst a real negative influence in the world. He had absorbed a lot of the “post-Christian” rhetoric that said that churches were full of hypocrites; that church was all about power and domination, with a manipulative hierarchical clergy controlling a passive and duped laity; that church and religion did nothing but promote fear and tribalism and violence and war. As far as he could tell, there was nothing about church that he wanted any part of.
But he had a friend at work that he really admired. He liked him, he enjoyed his company; but more than that, he respected this friend, he recognized qualities in him that he would have liked to have had himself. He said his friend always seemed grounded and balanced, in a profession and a lifestyle that tended to be frantic and chaotic. He said his friend was intelligent, but also seemed wise: he thought things through, and he made decisions with ethics and integrity. And he seemed genuinely happy: there was a quality of joy in him, and even when things around him got dire and distressed, he himself had a sort of basic good vibe that people around him could feel.
In fact this man was so impressed with this friend that one day he worked up his courage and asked him where all that came from, how he cultivated those qualities in his life. And his friend said: “From my church. From the friendships and the learning and the prayer I find in my church.”
Well that really surprised him. “Church?” he said. “Seriously? Church? Can anything good come out of church?” And, he said, his friend just looked at him and smiled and said “Come and see.” He didn’t argue; he didn’t try to defend the church or explain the church or promote the church; he didn’t start telling his life story and his faith and his conversion; he didn’t try to convince or persuade or cajole. He just said “Come and see.”
It was some time later – when he himself had begun to make connections and friendships and learnings and groundedness at church – that he came across this passage from John’s Gospel, and realized what his friend had done. And, he said, he himself had been practicing “Come and See” evangelism ever since. And, he said, that’s what we should be doing too.
And clearly his story left enough of an impression on me that I’ve come to see this Gospel passage as a model for our sharing the Good News as well. I think the best way we have to help people get to know Jesus is simply to invite them to come and see.
But that of course implies that, if we invite them to come, then we also have something for them to see. And that is why I find so intriguing the rest of this Gospel story, that’s why I’m so interested in what happens to Nathanael after Philip invites him to come and see.
As Nathanael is approaching Jesus, before Philip even has the chance to introduce them, Jesus looks up and sees Nathanael and says, “Ah! I see before me a true son of Israel, who is honest and guileless and who cares about the truth.” The first thing Jesus does is to see Nathanael – and not just to notice that he’s there, but to see him, to see him for who he is, to see his qualities and his gifts and his needs. Nathanael to Jesus is not just new blood to recruit, he’s not just a warm body to count among the disciples, he’s not just a blank screen on which to project his own plans and intentions and ambitions. But Jesus sees Nathanael as he is, and accepts him as he is, and sees what he can become.
And when Nathanael is moved because Jesus has seen him so well, Jesus promises that he will see even more: “you will see heaven opened,” Jesus says, “and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” And because Nathanael is a true son of Israel, he would recognize those words of Jesus right away: seeing angels ascending and descending is what happened to Jacob, when he was at Bethel, and had a vision of a great ladder connecting earth and heaven, and angels ascending and descending, and God saying to him “I will be with you wherever you go.” Angels ascending and descending is a figurative and poetic way of talking about a connection between earth and heaven, a connection between human experience and divine purpose, a connection between the situations and circumstances and ups and downs we have in our lives and the love and healing and peace and justice that comes from God. Seeing angels ascending and descending is a way of promising Nathanael that he will learn spirit and wisdom and balance and groundedness and mission and joy, as he learns to see Jesus as Jesus has seen him. It is that mutual seeing, that connection between God and us that comes through Jesus, that Philip offers when he invites Nathanael to come and see.
And if we want to invite people to come and see, then we need to see them, and find out what kind of angels ascending and descending in Jesus they need to see, too.
The evangelism workshop leader had a friend who saw him, saw his need for balance and groundedness in his life, invited him to come and see the connection between human life and divine ground in Jesus that he knew at his church.
St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Manhattanville, NY, looked around its neighborhood and saw neighbors that had no access to fresh produce. No big supermarket chain would put a store in their neighborhood because they wouldn’t make enough profit; and the mom-and-pops and convenience stores that were there had packaged and processed foods, but nothing fresh; and the church saw neighbors who had a gap in their nutrition. The church itself had a fairly large churchyard, a chunk of a city block, and it wasn’t being used for much of anything. So the church brought in a lot of lumber, and sixty cubic yards of topsoil, and built raised-bed garden boxes in which they started to grow carrots and kale and squash and collards and all kinds of stuff, so that they could put fresh produce in the bags they gave out in their food pantry for about 200 families every Monday. St Mary’s Manhattanville saw their neighbors, saw their gifts and needs, and helped them see the connection between human food and divine generosity, as it was revealed in their urban farm. St Mary’s invited the neighbors to come and see.
And we at Trinity have just those same kinds of opportunities for mission open to us. We can look around our neighborhood – our neighborhood on many scales, in Newtown, and Downtown, and the city, and the county, and the Valley, and the state, and the nation, and the hemisphere, and the world – we can look around our neighborhood and see our neighbors, really see them, see them for who they are, see their hopes and dreams and needs, and learn from them how they need Good News, how they need to see angels ascending and descending – and we can use our Episcopal heritage and our unique gifts to invite them to come and see Jesus as they need to see him. As individuals, we can learn to lead lives of integrity and spirituality and joy, so that people around us will wonder how we got that way, where we found such uplifting qualities – and we will be able to invite them here to come and see. It is because we are seen by Jesus, and we are learning to see Jesus, that we can come to others and help them see Jesus too.
That is the mission we see in our Gospel today. Let us pray that God will open our eyes to this mission, now and always. Amen.