“Come and See”
January 19, 2002
One day St. Francis of Assisi, invited a young monk to join him on a trip into town to preach. The young monk was so honored to get such an invitation from St. Francis that he quickly accepted. All day long he and St. Francis walked through the streets and byways, alleys and suburbs, and they rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people.
At the end of the day, the two headed back home, however, not even once had St. Francis addressed a crowd, nor had he talked to anyone about the gospel. The young monk was greatly disappointed, and he said to St. Francis, “I thought we were going into town to preach?" St. Francis responded, "My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!”
It’s no secret that we, the church, have forgotten what it means to preach the gospel, what it means to bring to others the good news, what it means to evangelize. The word evangelism has become a dirty word in some churches, and if it isn’t outright dismissed altogether, then it is relegated as a task for only those who have been ordained, or for those who are the professional speakers, who make a living giving their testimonials and asking for altar calls, or for those who are missionaries overseas.
After all, many of us understand evangelism as it is defined in the dictionary as “the zealous preaching and dissemination of the gospel, as through missionary work, or the militant zeal for a cause.” Not one of us here wants to be called, let alone known as, a zealot or militant for a cause. So we don’t do it.
Let’s face it. We are afraid to evangelize. We are afraid of what others might say or how they might react to us. We are afraid of being pushy and intrusive into someone else’s personal affairs, afraid to make faith something other than a personal belief. Maybe we’re afraid because we just don’t know what to say, after all, we certainly don’t know everything in the Bible, we struggle with the big, theological words and concepts, and we sometimes have doubts ourselves.
I remember one time when I was in seminary, and I was working at my part time job with the freight forwarder when two warehouse workers began asking me questions about why I was in seminary. Our conversation quickly turned to faith and discipleship and to theology, and during our conversation, I began using the big, theological words and concepts, trying to get across ideas and thoughts that were as heavy to them as they were to me. To their questions, I responded with more questions, until finally one of them said, “All you have given us is more questions and no answers.” With that, the conversation ended, and I returned to my desk frustrated and embarrassed. My friends, our text for today, just like the story of St. Francis of Assisi, is a great reminder of what evangelism, of what preaching the gospel, is really all about.
Our text tells of a remarkable exchange between Philip and Nathanael, and an even more remarkable encounter of Nathanael with the living Christ. There is no doubt that Philip is excited from his encounter with Jesus and his call to follow him, and Philip can’t wait to tell someone else about Jesus. After all, it isn’t everyday that we encounter the Messiah for the first time. So, Philip runs off, and finds Nathanael, and says to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” To which Nathanael responds, “ Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nathanael certainly was not going to be impressed with anyone from a small, dirty, rotten, stinking, town like Nazareth. Even if Jesus were the Messiah, the one whom Moses and prophets wrote about, he certainly wouldn’t come from there, so this Jesus can’t be the Messiah. You can almost hear the whooshing sound of the wind being taken right out of Philip’s sails. Yet, Philip responds to Nathanael’s cynicism, not with more questions or criticism, not with arguments or disgust, and not even with a long litany of theological words, but with a simple invitation, “Come and see.” Just three words: “Come and see.” Now that, my friends, is evangelism.
You see, Philip knew something that we need to remember. We cannot ever make someone have faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is not just an ivory tower set of theological words and concepts, nor is it just a belief in a specific religious doctrine, nor is it just simply a matter of hearing what someone else believes, faith is a conviction and a confession that comes from our own personal encounter with Jesus Christ, when we come and see for ourselves who this Jesus really is.
Philip knew that Jesus was able to speak for himself, and he knew that all Nathanael had to do was come and see for himself, and he too would be convinced. All Philip needed to do was just one thing, and that was to invite Nathanael to come and see, and Jesus would take care of the rest, which is exactly what happened.
When Nathanael encountered the living Christ, he was astonished that Jesus already knew his name and what kind of person he was because of the event by the fig tree. Before Nathanael was ever found by Philip, before he even knew Jesus, Jesus had already established a relationship with him, and that was all it took for Nathanael to confess, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”
My friends, there are other Nathanals out there, people who don’t know that Jesus has already established a relationship with them, already knows their name, and already knows what kind of person they are, and Jesus is calling us to be an evangelist, to be a good messenger, to be the good messenger who brings the good news of the Gospel to them.
During a crusade in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of the speakers scheduled to speak was Billy Graham. Rev. Graham arrived a day early before his scheduled appearance the next day, and he decided to come to the crusade incognito. He put on a hat and a dark pair of sunglasses and sat on the grass at the rear of the crowd, and no one recognized him.
Directly in front of him was an elderly man, and as the speaker invited people forward for an open sign of commitment Rev. Graham decided to do a little personal evangelism. He tapped the man on the shoulder and asked, "Would you like to accept Christ? I'll be glad to walk down with you if you want to." The old man looked him up and down, thought it over for a moment, and then said, "Naw, I think I'll just wait till the big gun comes tomorrow night."
Evangelism isn’t just the task of the “Big Guns,” it is the calling of all of us. We don’t have to be professional preachers or overseas missionaries to evangelize, we just need to be ourselves, a people who embody the faith in our daily lives, a people who preach the gospel all the day long, a people who preach the gospel everywhere as we walk, a people who are still excited about our own personal and communal encounter with the living Christ. And maybe that is the key to what evangelism is all about, being excited about Jesus, just like Philip was.
The other day, Kara came busting into our room with a pair of binoculars around her neck, and she was so excited. “Mommy, Daddy, come and see…come and see! We followed her into Hollie’s room as she ran to the window. There she put the binoculars up to her eyes, and said, “Look, yellow tractor…yellow tractor!” She was so excited to see what to us was just another yellow tractor, but to her seeing the tractor was amazing, exciting, fresh and new.
After years of discipleship, it is easy for the newness and excitement of our faith to wear off. We may experience Jesus in new ways through prayer and study, but we don’t have the same feelings and thoughts we had when we had our first encounter with the living Christ. Maybe we need to rekindle that initial flame we had, maybe in order for us to be good messengers, we too need to come and see Jesus again for the first time. Maybe we too need to stand again before Jesus face to face, and feel again the wounds in his hands and side, and know him again as the one who died on the cross for us, and hope in him again as the one who was raised by God from the dead.
Only then, can we truly invite others to come and see for themselves, to encounter for the first time the one in whom we have faith, to encounter for the first time the one who promises that we, too, will “see greater things than these.”
In the powerful name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.