When the Lamb of God Goes to Galilee
One of my favorite parts of today's passage is the sort of nonchalance of the whole thing. Just prior we hear and see John the Baptist pointing at Jesus and yelling out: "Look here's the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" John points at Jesus and says, "This is the guy! This is the one I've been telling you about--the light of the world that will never be quenched; that's the One who will baptize you with Holy Spirit fire!" And then Jesus collects his first three disciples, including Peter, which turns out to be a bit of a big deal. It seems like the gospel train is starting to pick up speed.
And then, John tells us that the next day, after all that, Jesus "decided to go to Galilee." Not, Jesus "was compelled by the Spirit"; not driven or drawn or launched by the mighty wind of God. He just decided to go. Like he flipped a coin: north or south? Or closed his eyes and spun around, and walked in the direction he stopped. I expect that there may be more to it than that, but even the evangelist doesn't have an explanation for why Jesus would head all the way north, to Galilee.
I mean, it sounds like he was in Bethany, just a stone's throw from Jerusalem; that's where John was baptizing. Jerusalem seems a more likely destination for the light of the world; that'd be a place he could really establish his Spirit-baptism ministry! The promotional material practically designs itself! Instead, he makes the lengthy trip, past Jerusalem, through Samaria, and into the region of Galilee. The way it's told, it seems like Galilee is just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from where John was baptizing, but it's the other end of the blessed country--a long way from where any church strategist would expect the Messiah to want to be. It is where Nazareth is; maybe he missed his mom's cooking.
All John can do is shrug his shoulders and tell us that Jesus decided to go there. And apparently, the trip wasn't interesting enough to tell us about.
It's possible that I'm working this a little hard. But, I can't help thinking that the lack of explanation, the apparent randomness in the telling, is all part of John, at the beginning of his gospel, helping us see something like what life with Jesus is going to be like, when he shows up in unexpected places and says to us, "Follow me." At the end of his gospel, way down the road in chapter 20, he'll tell us that the point of it all is that in hearing the story, we'd grow into a Jesus-shaped life. In other words, the gospel is about formation, not information. Inquiring minds might like to know just what Jesus was thinking when he marched his brand new disciples a long way away from where the action is. But that's not the point. Instead, I think this readies us for the delightful and more than a little unnerving truth that Jesus isn't subject to our best ideas and plans, but that he's quite prepared to show up, where we're not expecting him, and say, "Follow me. Let's go."
Let's pray: Holy God, ready our hearts for your surprise. Ready us, when you call, to follow where you lead. Open our ears to hear you, and our hearts to love you more--that we might know the depths of your love for us, and share it with the world. Through Jesus, our Rock and Redeemer: Amen!
The trend continues when he gets where he's going. Jesus arrives in Galilee, somewhere (maybe Bethsaida), and finds Philip. Who on earth is Philip? We haven't heard of Philip before. What's he doing? What are his discipleship qualifications? Given that they're from the same relative area, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Jesus had heard of this Philip character previously, but the way it's told, Jesus might well have tripped over him.
The funny thing is that the lack of details makes the scene feel oddly familiar. Is this not something like the way Jesus is with us? Whether we can pinpoint the moment, if we have one, of our conversion, that season or second when Jesus strolled into our lives and said, "Follow me," hindsight often renders Christians sort of short on details. We might be able to tell a story or describe a feeling, but at the end of the day, there's a kind of mystery to what we're doing here, why we strive to follow this One who goes places we don't expect, chooses people we wouldn't (even us). The complete lack of details about what Philip is doing, who he is, what might possibly make him worthy--that he could well be anybody--is a beautiful denial of the possibility that we might not, for any reason, also be called.
In this snapshot of a call, we get a hint of what Jesus will make explicit down the road: that we didn't choose him, he chose us--and his criteria for choice seem to be rather less restricted than ours, and than we might like. And oddly, when we sit in that truth, when we allow that the wind of God blows where she will, and (sometimes in spite of ourselves), catches us up along the way, there's a wonder that takes over. We're caught up in something that we can't quite explain but that we know to be wildly, wondrously true.
When Jesus shows up, when God's word of love made flesh looks us in the eye, knows us more deeply than we've ever been known, or wanted to be, and says "Come on. Follow me. Walk with me. Do what I do. Know me like I know you," there's something that happens that doesn't get better by explanation, that isn't improved by observable facts. And we see wonder overflow.
Now, if it's true that this is about formation not information, I want to pay attention to a couple of things in what happens next. The first is that not only do we see in Philip what is true of us, that Jesus does the choosing (we love because he loved first), but we see that that choosing is not an end in itself. To say that Jesus chooses us is not to suggest that we are somehow over and against others. God's ultimate choice, in Jesus, is the world. In John 15, when Jesus says, "You didn't choose me, I chose you," there's a second part to that: "and I appointed you to bear fruit." We are chosen to multiply the love and the grace, the mercy and wonder that we have received. We're chosen, not over and against others, but with and for others. We're chosen to be given.
That image of bearing fruit is one of the most common ones, in Scripture, for what discipleship looks like. It's a good reminder of what we're about. The purpose of an apple tree is not to grow apples for its own edification, or even so that we might have beautiful and delicious fruit. The purpose of an apple tree is to make more apple trees. The fruit, beautiful in and of itself, is meant to make more fruit. Strangely, when the fruit falls to the ground and dies, when it's no longer attractive and consumable, its real beauty is about to be seen: there's going to be new life where there wasn't life before; there's going to be more fruit and more fruit. More nourishment, more beauty! That's the image Jesus gives for faithfulness.
We're chosen to bear fruit, to expand the orchard. We see that, in Philip. He runs off to get Nathanael. And there's a beautiful lesson here about what it means to share our faith, what it means to invite people into the unstoppable love of God, this wild and wonderful truth we've come to know in Jesus. I love the way that Philip isn't afraid of Nathanael's dismissal. Philip has to have known that the words coming out of his mouth were, from at least one position, and maybe several, utterly ridiculous. When Nathanael says, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" there's got to be something in Philip that knows that Nate's doubt is absolutely reasonable. It might be the most logical response.
Incredulity is not an unreasonable response to the gospel. I believe it's the wrong response, but it's not unreasonable. In fact, it's a good reminder that we're dealing with God here, and God won't be boiled down to easy, straightforward answers. God defies our expectations and explanations. God is perfectly content to show up in Nazareth, and doesn't actually require us to know all the answers about why or how. We'll be better evangelists if we start by remembering that.
We'll be better sharers of this stunningly good news that has come to the world if we pay attention to the fact that Philip doesn't try to argue Nathanael into submission. Instead, there's a kind of vulnerability. He drops his fruit in what might or might not be fertile ground. He just says, "Come and see." Come and meet the guy and see for yourself. Don't believe me, come and see. And the orchard grows.
So that's the first thing that I want to pay attention to in Philip. We're chosen to bear fruit: more love, more mercy, more beauty, more nourishment. We're chosen, in Christ-like vulnerability, to expand the orchard of God's grace.
The second thing I want to notice is the abiding truth that there's no enthusiasm quite like the enthusiasm of a new convert. That rush of newness that bubbles out of a person when they discover something that shifts the world is undeniable. And I think it's worth admitting that this can be a bit of a problem for those of us who have been hanging around for a while. Because, it's easy to fall into routines and patterns that keep us from surprise and wonder. It can be easy to enjoy our fruit--as it were--for ourselves. I've been in lots of situations with church folks who are asked why they come to church, why it matters, and the answer is largely crickets. It's perfectly common for Christians to sink into the comfort of lukewarmness--not hot or cold--to forget, as Jesus puts it elsewhere, the joy and wonder and energy of our first love.
The good news is: it doesn't have to be that way. Lukewarmness isn't inevitable! But it's why we need prayer and scripture and worship. In a sense, we have to (we get to!) continue to "come and see," for ourselves. Come and be reminded of the unexpected ways and places God shows up. Come and be reminded that you are chosen, holy, and loved, before you manage to do anything; before you get out of bed in the morning, without qualification or accomplishment, no matter what else is going on in your life, you are loved beyond measure. God's mercies are new, fresh, wondrous every morning! When Jesus invites Philip and Andrew and Peter and all the rest to follow him, it's an invitation to everyday intimacy--not just to walk with, but to live with, to become like, to know deeply and more deeply. It's an invitation to be bound in love to the light that is the life of all people, the life that is truly life.
That's why we need daily prayer and scripture reading, why we need regular worship. It brings us back into the company of this One who knows us and loves us, who's chosen us because he has this wild notion that we are sufficient to witness to all the hope, peace, joy, and love of heaven for this world, here and now. That's not a self-evident truth. There's lots of stuff that suggests it might not be true. Can anything good come from Nazareth? It's a truth we know and come to know in relationship with the One who is, unbelievably and wonderfully, the way, truth, and life of all things.
If you don't have a regular devotional life, I'd encourage you to talk to me, or someone else that you trust. Because this is important, the Church has come up with lots of ways to develop and attend to our relationship with Jesus. We don't have to make it up on our own, and most of us don't know how to do it on our own anyways.
But there's a caveat. The climax of the story would seem to be Nathanael's outburst, when he finally, and against his better judgment, meets the Lord. But the thing I always think about with Nathanael is the one odd description we do get in all of this: that he was sitting under a fig tree. I have to wonder if this isn't a bit of poetic license taken by the evangelist, or at least a really happy coincidence. Because in Scripture, to sit under a fig tree is an image of contentment, of satisfaction. Nathanael, sitting under his fig tree is the picture of satisfaction--not a care in the world. Judging by his initial response to Philip, he's the picture of self-satisfaction. He's perfectly happy with the way things are. He's got a good handle on the world, knows which end is up and that nothing good comes from Nazareth--he's been there and seen it for himself. For Nathanael, sitting under his fig tree, all is well in his little, but straightforward world.
And Jesus, as Jesus does, calls him out of that. Jesus upends Nathanael's world. There may be no deceit in Nathanael, but there's not the whole truth, either.
This is what Jesus seems to do. He expands the world, moves us from self and satisfaction into an unexpected communion, from satisfaction to joy. In his company, suddenly we find ourselves caring about things we never cared about, seeing things we never saw before, loving what we thought was unlovable, forgiving what we thought was unforgiveable, giving what we thought was ungiveable. The trick Jesus pulls, when he calls us, is not just seeing us as we are, loving us as we are, wanting us and calling us as we are. The real miracle is teaching us to see like he does--to want what he does, to love what he loves; the real miracle is when we develop minds like Christ, as Paul puts it. And when that happens, the space between heaven and earth gets awfully small. When that happens, we're liable to catch angels going back and forth; heaven and earth come wildly, unnervingly, unexpectedly, beautifully and hopefully, together. Then, we might just catch a glimpse of how things really are and will be, because the Lamb of God has come into the world. May it be so. Amen.