This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on January 17, 2021.
The next day John was back at his post with two disciples, who were watching. He looked up, saw Jesus walking nearby, and said, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.” The two disciples heard him and went after Jesus. Jesus looked over his shoulder and said to them, “What are you after?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” He replied, “Come along and see for yourself.” They came, saw where he was living, and ended up staying with him for the day. It was late afternoon when this happened. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard John’s witness and followed Jesus. The first thing he did after finding where Jesus lived was find his own brother, Simon, telling him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, “Christ”). He immediately led him to Jesus. Jesus took one look up and said, “You’re John’s son, Simon? From now on your name is Cephas” (or Peter, which means “Rock”).
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. When he got there, he ran across Philip and said, “Come, follow me.” (Philip’s hometown was Bethsaida, the same as Andrew and Peter.) Philip went and found Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the One Moses wrote of in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It’s Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth!”
Nathanael said, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
But Philip said, “Come, see for yourself.”
When Jesus saw him coming he said, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.” Nathanael said, “Where did you get that idea? You don’t know me.” Jesus answered, “One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi! You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Jesus said, “You’ve become a believer simply because I say I saw you one day sitting under the fig tree? You haven’t seen anything yet! Before this is over you’re going to see heaven open and God’s angels descending to the Son of Man and ascending again.”
After Jesus was baptized, and claimed by God as God’s beloved son, which we read about last week, people started talking. Rumors began stirring. We can imagine that everywhere Jesus went there was a murmur. Word had gotten out that maybe this man, Jesus, was not ordinary, but was possibly God’s chosen one.
Some people may have known this because they experienced Jesus directly, others may have believed because a trusted friend told them about it. And all along there were others who were skeptical and untrusting. Our message today is about how it is we come to follow Jesus, but it’s also very much about the relationships we have along the way that get us there. Being a disciple of Jesus is all about relationships—the ones we mess up, the ones we repair and the ones that bring us closer to Christ.
There is something so elemental about how we trust one another that either leads us toward Christ or it drives us more distant.
Here are a few examples. Andrew and a friend knew and trusted John the Baptist. When they were with John and Jesus happened to come by their trust of John’s judgement (which had prophesied that Jesus was God’s son) led them to be curious and interested in Jesus. So they spend the day with Jesus to learn more for themselves. “Come and see,” Jesus says. Because they trusted John, they went and they saw.
Andrew was so inspired by what he saw in Jesus that he immediately went and told his brother, Simon, that he had found the Messiah. He says, “Simon, you gotta come see this guy!” For his part, Simon follows, not knowing what he’s getting himself into. But he trusts his brother. It turns out Simon not only finds Jesus, but he finds a new name and a new life for himself. Jesus sees through Simon and names him “Peter, the Rock.” Peter went on to become one of Jesus’ most trusted and loyal disciples. And all because he first trusted his brother when his brother said, “you gotta see this man!”
Next Jesus finds Philip who was from the same town as Andrew and Peter, and Jesus says, “Follow me.” Philip goes without any hesitation, maybe because he knew that Andrew and Peter had already experienced something life-changing in this man. How strategic is God, who will find a way into our hearts and use others to draw us into relationship with God?
But then, we run into something different. Philip goes to find his friend, Nathanial, saying “Come on! We’ve found the one Moses wrote about!! You don’t want to miss this, it’s Jesus, Joseph’s son from Nazareth.” But unlike every other person in this story so far, Nathaniel stops him right there. The cycle of trust, of one friend telling another friend and another friend telling another friend, is broken in just a few words.
Nathaniel replies: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Instead of trust, Nathaniel has only judgement and skepticism. It could also be called prejudice. Nathaniel’s prejudice clouds his ability to trust his friend’s experience of Jesus, even though that’s real and Nathaniel’s judgement is based only on stereotypes of what he’s heard about Nazareth. All Philip could say in response was, “come and see for yourself.”
This week we remember the faithful life, leadership and service of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was part of a movement that responded to the questions, “Can anything good come from Selma?” and “Can anything good come from a black man?” by saying, “Come and see for yourself.” King’s movement was one of restoring trust in relationships. A trust that had been breached by prejudice. You see, trust is really about sacrifice. It’s about letting go of whatever you think is more important or more true, and letting yourself be open to what someone else has experienced to be important and true. King’s movement called for a sacrifice in which individuals and churches and institutions would be willing to risk long-standing cultural prejudices in order to see glimpses of God reflected in someone who was different. King’s movement was about forging relationships where there had only been distrust. King dreamed of a day when we would be bonded together by what we had in common rather than prioritizing some because of what made them different.
When we read the Gospel and keep the love of God through Jesus in the center, the church shows up very differently from how the Nathaniels of the world perceive it. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. writes, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” This letter was written nearly 60 years ago. Prejudice can be crippling.
So what happened to Philip’s friend, Nathaniel? The one who would have rather recited stereotypes about the kind of people that come from Nazareth than actually trust his friend when his friend told him who Jesus was?
Some readers of this story might like to see Nathaniel’s prejudice rebuked and overturned in a dramatic, teach-him-a-lesson kind of way. But that was not the way of Jesus or his newest disciples. Nathaniel was shown love. Nathaniel had a good friend in Philip wasn’t about to give up on Nathaniel. He said, “Nathaniel, come and see!” In other words, don’t believe what you’ve always been told. Don’t fall into that trap of judging something without any real credible knowledge. If you can’t trust me as your friend, at least come and see for yourself.
And so Nathaniel went. He went to see Jesus. I don’t know if he was muttering under his breath the whole way there or not, but what I do know is that Jesus was watching. And as Nathaniel came up to Jesus, Jesus saw past every flaw in Nathaniel. Every flaw. Jesus shouts out to him as he’s walking up: “There’s a stand-up guy! A man of his word. Not a false bone in his body!” I can only imagine Nathaniel’s shame. “Where did you get that idea? You don’t know me.” You don’t know how quickly I was to judge you before I’d even met you.
“I’ve had my eye on you, Nathaniel,” Jesus says. “Long before Philip told you about me, I saw you under the fig tree.” Jesus saw him. I don’t mean just laid eyes on his physical presence. But he saw him. Not his faults and his failures, not his judgement or his shame. Jesus saw his soul, his potential, his inner beauty. Jesus saw in Nathaniel the image of God. In one moment, Jesus takes all the broken trust that lives inside Nathaniel’s prejudice and heals his soul by helping him feel seen not for who he was, but who he could become.
This is the true miracle work of Christian relationships. With Christ as our saving leader, we see that relationships don’t have to end when prejudice puts up a wall. We see that true love breaks down those walls. In one single moment Jesus broke that wall down by choosing to “see” what was hiding behind Nathaniel’s shame: a better version of himself.
This weekend as we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, we are honoring that he trusted the witness of Christ enough to know that darkness would not drive out darkness. He knew that prejudice could not be fought with more prejudice. He stood up to those who would judge whether anything good could come from him by inviting them to come and see that good. To see the dream in action. People crossing lines of color to lift each other up and defend each other’s freedom.
Today is Human Relations Day. A day in the church year when we recognize that it will take me trusting you and you trusting me in order to work together for something better. Jesus is already at work in our communities, building relationships that may seem unlikely if we stop and judge a book by its cover, as Nathaniel first did. But when we actually agree to “come and see” we find the truth.
Here are just a few examples:
In Chicago, IL Maple Park and Englewood-Rust United Methodist Churches are in partnership to engage in community-based alternatives to juvenile incarceration. Mentorship and leadership development support local youth, create healing relationships and reduce recidivism.
In the Philippines, community organizations are strengthening family resiliency to address substance abuse, particularly with those who are living in the Manila North Cemetery. And in West Congo, United Methodist Churches are working with ecumenical partners to provide pastoral support and advocacy for children and youth who are in prison.
All of these programs were supported by grant money from the United Methodist Church which was in turn funded through offerings taken up on this Sunday each year, Human Relations Sunday. I know our churches have a long way to go before we have realized King’s dream of an equal and just society for all people, but I want to give thanks for the way we trust our connection, relationships, with one another enough to work in partnership. Our congregation’s Human Relations Day offerings join with those of other United Methodist churches to connect and build up new realities that reflect God’s desire for wholeness.
Relationships are everything. None of these people who became Jesus’ first disciples would have done so without a friend bringing them along to “come and see.” You, too, can probably right this moment think of at least one relationship in your life that brought you out of a dark place. Maybe it was a place of distrust and prejudice. Someone who saw past your shortcomings to the person who you could be in spite of your flaws. Someone who made you feel seen even when you didn’t deserve it. Someone who lifted you up and pulled you along when you deserved, based on your actions, to be left behind. Someone who was showing you the light of Christ.
Don’t give up on your relationships. We are called to care for the people we meet as children of God – fearfully, respectfully and wonderfully made in God’s own image. How do we invite others to come and see that they are neither alone nor forgotten? In relationships formed through Christian community, no matter where people are on the journey.
In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
It starts by not giving on your relationships. Trusting what you know to be good and letting go of your judgement.
Video: “I have a dream.”
A prayer for Human Relations Sunday by Safiyah Fosua
Speak, Lord, For your children are listening For a word of encouragement, for a word of instruction About how we ought to live in these troubled lands.
Speak, Lord, For your children are listening, As we drift off to sleep in down-covered beds In marble palaces Or in sawdust padded pallets On dusty floors. We are listening, rich and poor We are listening, young and old For a word from you that will heal our lands.
Eternal God, Lover of our souls, we come to you this morning hungering for something from you that will change the rest of our lives. We come hungering for honesty instead of corruption; for generosity instead of greed; we come hungering for integrity instead of intrigue. We come hungering for our neighbors to be fed and for all to have enough honest work to provide for the basic needs of their families. We come this morning hungering for righteousness to flow like rainwater and for the justice like an ever-flowing stream described by the prophets.
We come hungering and we come listening for your words to us, describing how we can participate in your great work of re-creation. We come listening for ways that we can become part of the solution and not part of the problem. We come listening in fear and trembling, praying that we will have the courage to respond and act if we hear a clear word of instruction from you.
Speak, Lord, For your children are listening…
Grace and Peace,