The Call To Discipleship
Genesis 28:10-17 John 1:43-51
The New Testament lesson for this Sunday deals with the call of God that comes to us through Jesus. Specifically, it is about the call to discipleship which came to Philip and Nathanael and which has come to each of us.
I invite you to consider three things that we learn about that call from this text in John 1:43-51. (1) It is a call that comes to all kinds of people. (2) It is a call to explore and decide for oneself about the One doing the calling. (3) It is a call to enter into relationship with the One who brings us and our lives to God and who brings God and God's life to us.
This invitation to discipleship is, first of all, one which Jesus extends to all kinds of people, where they are and as they are. He extends it to Peter, a fickle fisherman who tends to promise more than he can deliver. He extends it to Judas, a political revolutionary. He extends it to Matthew and Zacchaeus, revenue agents held in general disdain by almost everybody. He extends it to slow and ineffectual people such as Philip and to keen and capable people such as Nathanael.
Philip appears several times in John's Gospel, and at each appearance he seems to be in over his head. In chapter 6, when Jesus is asking the disciples where they are going to get food to feed the multitude, all that Philip can say is that the situation is hopeless. Someone else goes and finds the lad with the loaves and fish. In chapter 12, when Philip is approached by some Greek people who want to meet Jesus, he is so uncertain about what to do that he goes and gets Andrew. In chapter 14, after a long time with Jesus, Philip still does not seem to have a clue as to Jesus' identity. Jesus says, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?"
Nathanael, by contrast, is an earnest Bible-reading Israelite, exceptionally alert and responsive. Jesus had been able immediately to see these qualities as he observed Nathanael studying the Torah in the shade of a tree. And Nathanael immediately discerned the uniqueness of this Rabbi who had called him.
There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that Christ has a place for you at his side and in the company of his people as you are. You may know that with respect to Christianity as a whole you have as many questions as you have answers. There is a place for you. You may have a word of spiritual reassurance or admonition for everybody in every situation, even though they may need empathy more than a message. There is a place for you. You may have some failed relationships behind you that are still hard for you to understand. Jesus' call to you is just as strong as to anybody else. You may be a person who has, not only a clear conviction about what is right, but a strong sense as well that you do what is right. There is a place for you.
The bad news is that the call of Christ is being extended just as strongly to people who are not like you, to people who are not as sure as you are about what is right, to people who have been very successful in their relationships, to people who have a lot of feelings for things spiritual but who do not talk the same way you do, to people whose faith is firm and who have few, if any, doubts.
Here is what the Apostle Paul said to the members of the church in Rome about this radically inclusive call of God in Christ:
Consider your own call, brothers and sister: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
(1 Cor 1:26-29)
A second thing we learn about this call in the story of Philip and Nathanael is that it is a call to explore and decide for oneself about the One doing the calling.
Nathanael said to Philip, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
Philip said to him, "Come and see."
Go down to the automobile dealership. If the salespeople are on the ball, they will invite you to examine the car in which you seem to be interested. They will answer your questions about it and will probably invite you to take it for a test drive with the understanding that you are not obligated to buy a thing.
Go to the clothing store and show a little interest in a dress or suit. The salesperson will probably say something like, "Try it on. If you don't like it or feel that it doesn't fit, you haven't lost anything."
The psalmist says to anyone who may be interested in the life that God has to offer, "O taste and see that the Lord is good." The call to discipleship which comes from God through Christ is not, first of all, a call to believe something or commit to something or do something. It is a call, first of all, to check something out. It is a call to experience the forgiving love of God and see how you like it, to listen to the word of God in Scripture and see how you like it, to listen to what Jesus has to say and see how you like it, to enter into the kinds of relationships afforded by the church and see how you like them, to take part in some part of the church's work and see how you like it.
Probably the most consistently productive evangelistic program I have ever personally seen in a local church was one that had no evangelistic agenda. It was the Couples Club at Parkway Presbyterian Church in Metairie, Louisiana, where I served as Associate Pastor. The club met monthly for all kinds of shared meals and parties. Despite its name it was actually open to singles, as well as married couples, under the age of thirty-five. Its members were constantly alert to new people in their neighborhoods or at their places of work to bring with them to enjoy the fellowship and meet new friends. Many people who responded to the invitation to join the group and began attending wondered when the pitch was going to be made to them about the church. They became intrigued when that did not happen. They found acceptance in this lively group, no strings attached, and they liked it and were impressed. Time and again one of these newcomers would begin to ask questions about the church and would start coming to church on Sundays to check out the kind of religion being served up there. Time and again one of these newcomers would respond to what they heard and saw and would come to a new or renewed faith in the God they met there.
The call to discipleship is a call to you whoever and wherever you are. It is not, first of all, a call to believe something but a call to experience something. Thirdly, it is fundamentally a call to experience a relationship with the One who brings us and our lives to God and who brings God and God's life to us.
Jesus said to Nathanael, "Truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." That statement would have instantly brought to Nathanael's mind the story of how Jacob, fleeing from his brother, Essau, after cheating him out of his inheritance, camped out at Bethel one night. During the night he had a dream in which he was at the foot of a ladder which reached to heaven. Upon it, angels were going up and down. Now, unlike Nathanael, a sincere man in whom there was no deceit, Jacob, at that point in his life, was full of deceit. Smart, shrewd and unprincipled, he thought that God was irrelevant to his life. The dream at Bethel, however, made him sharply and uncomfortably aware that there is a connection between heaven and earth, between God and humankind, and that a person ignores or denies this to his own impoverishment and peril. As Jacob's life continued, he became more and more conscious of his need for God and of his dependence upon God for life.
What Jesus said to Nathanael was that he, Jesus, was himself the ladder connecting humankind and God. "If you respond to my call to discipleship," he was saying to Nathanael, "you will experience a relationship with God that you have not experienced before."
Typically, when we embark on this adventure of discipleship with Christ, there is a kind of shallowness and objectivity about it. We tend to focus on what Christ is doing or not doing for us (in response to our prayers, for example) and on what we are doing or not doing in response to what we perceive to be Christ's expectations.
But, if we like what we taste and if we continue on this adventure of discipleship with some earnestness, it begins to take on depth and subjectivity. We find that we are less and less focused on what Christ does for us and more and more aware of who Christ is to us; namely, the Friend, the Guide, through whom we feel ourselves connected to God.
I have a car that I initially valued just for the service it rendered. Because it has served me so well, I have come to cherish it in and for itself.
I have some shoes that I initially valued for their utility. I now value them for what they are.
There are some people in your life with whom you initially had the somewhat superficial and formal relationship of acquaintance and with whom you steadily developed the deeper and more easygoing relationship of friendship.
The promise of Jesus to Nathanael (and to us) is that anyone who hears his call to discipleship and responds with earnestness and expectation will begin to know God, not as an acquaintance but as a friend.
Christ's call to discipleship is one that goes out to you today…where you are and as you are. It is a call to taste for yourself what the One who is calling has to offer. And, if it is a call to which you keep on responding, it will take you, in time, to a place where you will be able to say with joy and gratitude:
I know not how that Bethlehem's Babe could in the Godhead be; I only know the Manger Child Has brought God's life to me.
I know not how that Calvary's cross A world from sin could free: I only know its matchless love Has brought God's love to me. I know not how that Joseph's tomb
Could solve death's mystery: I only know a living Christ, Our immortality. Harry Webb Farrington, 1880-1931
J. Harold McKeithen, Jr. Hidenwood Presbyterian Church Newport News, VA