Sermon Ideas For John 1:43-51 Part 2
Some time ago, an applicant to our pastoral care department's Clinical Pastoral Education program submitted a twelve page rambling explanation why he felt he had been called to the ministry and why, after completing his seminary course, he wanted to spend a year furthering his education in a hospital setting. After about the third page it was painfully obvious he had overestimated his own importance and abilities and underestimated the realities of life in a parish or, potentially for him even more disillusioning, the obstacles he may encounter in a non-church setting. The episode triggered for me, however, a review of the question: how one goes about finding and evaluating prospective members of a care team.
That appears to be one aspect of today's readings as well. The focus is on Nathanael, the initial invitation an indirect one. It is Philip, though newly recruited himself by Jesus, who apparently decides Nathanael would make a good team mate and goes looking for him. In doing so he shows that he already understands what sort of person can be an effective worker for Jesus. Many significant positions are filled because some one knows someone else and makes a referral. Having found Nathanael, Philip uses his own convictions to persuade him that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah. It is a well-known axiom that the most effective sales person is one who believes in the product or service to be sold.
Nathanael is initially skeptical. The name of Jesus' hometown, Nazareth, proves to be an obstacle. The town is an obscure and insignificant backwater with nothing to offer anyone, a place where dreams die instead of being nurtured. Nathanael is not interested in following just anyone claiming to have a new idea, least of all one from Nazareth. He is wise to impostors. It is likely there have been previous ones. When something sounds too good to be true, it pays to be cautious. He doesn't want to be set up for later disappointment—such as expressed three years later by Cleopas and his friend (Lk 24:21), "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." Yet, knowing and respecting Philip, he is at least willing to go and see this Jesus.
What he finds is a compliment and a conundrum. The compliment is being called "truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit." Not only is he not a gentile, whether Roman or other, but he is a man of deep integrity and strong faith. Obviously not all Jews were such. Many had all but given up on the belief that Messiah would ever come. Not so Nathanael. Others tried to make the best of an unpleasant occupation by collaborating with the oppressors. Not so Nathanael. He is a man who correctly knows his own measure, who lives by firm convictions not subject to easy change and not tempted by easy gain. Not for him to twist with every wind of doctrine or every flight of fancy. Not for him to join anyone or anything because there may be something in it for himself. Such persons Jesus needed then and such persons, male and female, Jesus needs today. Integrity is, in fact, so crucial to any effective ministry team that Jesus does not even mention any other needed qualifications. Skills, one can learn in the service of Christ. Integrity cannot be learned. If one does not have it at the outset, it is not likely to develop later.
This is the conundrum: "Where did you get to know me?" Who told you about me? Who sent you my resume? The simple reply wipes away skepticism and replaces it with trust in the leader, another necessary component of a good team. "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Presumably the fig tree was reasonably private and Nathanael quite sure that there had been no one, least of all Philip, anywhere near to observe him.
Did Nathanael hear echoes of a long-ago time (1 Sam 3:4ff) when in the middle of the night God called a little boy named Samuel, and Samuel also could not believe at first that God should be calling him? Did he remember the moving words of David: "You know me when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away" (Ps 139:2)? Had Nathanael perhaps been daydreaming about the promised Messiah under that secluded fig tree? Whatever his thought process may have been, the conclusion is undeniable for Nathanael: "You are the Son of God, the King of Israel."
Trust in the leader is another quality needed to develop a strong and effective team. Ambivalent and indecisive leaders don't inspire confidence. Nathanael has now no doubts about Jesus and no hesitation about following him. Jesus challenges him even more. "You think my seeing you under the fig tree is miraculous? You haven't seen anything yet!"
Like Philip before him, Nathanael, who later is usually identified as Bartholomew, is now fully sold on the cause for which Jesus came. He will stick with him, he will travel with him, he will learn from him, imitate and obey him. In common with the rest of the disciples, he appears to need no time to consider the consequences or the cost of his choice. Something there was about Jesus that instantly identified him as one who must take priority over all other personal relationships. Something there was about his cause that made his first disciples drop whatever they were doing in order to follow him.
An interesting idea to consider is whether such wholehearted surrender to Jesus, such total abandonment of whatever five-year goals we may currently be pursuing, is either still necessary or still possible in the year 2003. Does this new millennium still permit serving Christ while building up one's pension or 401K credits? Or does it demand a return to the enthusiasm of the first disciples if this world is to be conquered for Christ. Christ is, after all, more than "King of Israel," to conclude with Nathanael's honorific title. Christ is King of the universe.