by Elaine Maust
John 1: 43-51
August 3, 2008
Take a look at this banner. It illustrates God’s Call for Jubilee. These are the priorities on which we feel God has called us to focus. Nurture, Worship, Service, and Evangelism. This spring our church family reflected on these and revisited them. Maybe you talked about this call in your Sunday School class or in a care group or heard about them in a sermon. During that process, we got the most questions about evangelism.
What does it mean? Are we doing it? What does God expect? Can we learn more about evangelism?
So today we begin a four Sunday series on evangelism.
First of all, what is evangelism? There are lots of other ways Christians talk about evangelism, like: sharing my faith, witnessing, spreading the Good News, giving an invitation. Here’s a definition I adapted from Welcoming New Christians: Evangelism is the process of bringing people into a relationship with Jesus.
At Jubilee we believe that God is calling us to share the Good News that God loves us, forgives us and wants a relationship with all people. That is evangelism.
Of course there are lots of ways this is done. You are doing it every day! Really. Simply living faithfully, doing the right thing over and over is one way to share your faith. Living in a way that makes people ask questions. That’s evangelism. Duane will preach about that in two weeks.
But today I invite you to turn to John 1 for a story that illustrates another part of evangelism. Join me in taking a look at this story about an encounter that Jesus had with Philip and Nathanael.
The setting is the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He was about 30 years old. He had been down by the Jordan River where John the Baptist pointed him out, (v35) “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Andrew and Peter become disciples, followers of Jesus.
That’s where our story picks up in verse 43. Jesus decided, interesting deliberate choice, to go to Galilee, a neighboring region of Palestine on the other side of the Jordan river. And it appears that he looks up Phillip. (43)
That is precious to me, especially when I think about Jesus deliberately finding us. Jesus gone looking for one of you all, for me. As if Jesus would say, “I think today I’m going to go find… (fill in your name).” (v43), Jesus finds Philip and says to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, a town on the north side of the Sea of Galilee.
“Follow me.” What did that mean for Philip? What had he been following before? I wonder. How would his life change? What did he imagine his life would become? What did he feel when Jesus looked into his eyes and spoke to him?
We don’t know that answer to all those questions. But here’s what we know. The very next thing we find Philip doing here in John 1 is looking up one of his friends, Nathanael. He couldn’t keep this good news to himself!
You know the feeling of having really good news and feeling compelled to share it? Have you heard the story of Duane’s nephew breaking down on the motor cycle trip in Colorado and about the folks that fixed his cycle on the fourth of July? It’s a great story. You haven’t heard that story? Oh you need to! It was such good news for Duane that it deserves to be told over and over.
Have you heard that we are having a grandbaby? Okay, that is good news! I have told people I don’t even know that I’m going to be a grandmother!
Ever get a call or an email in which someone says, “It’s such good news, I just had to tell somebody”?
That’s evangelism. Just telling the good news about discovering God, about new joy and peace, about finally finding a church family, that’s evangelism.
Back to Philip… He finds Nathanael and says, “We have found him!” (v 45). For centuries the Jews were waiting for God to send the one who would save them. And Philip says, “We’ve got our man!” Imagine that! In fact, he tells Nathanael that he’s found the one that the Old Testament speaks about as far back as Moses. It’s a hallelujah, can you believe it moment. And Philip knows his name, his family, and his address. (v45).
But Nathanael is skeptical. “Wait a minute. Not so fast. This ‘he’s the one guy’ is from Nazareth?” Let’s just say Nazareth was a rather undistinguished little town that folks at the time talked bad about.
Besides, though the Bible often spoke of this Messiah that would come, it didn’t mention anywhere that he would come from Nazareth. Nathanael was having trouble right from the start. “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?”
I grew up in Noxubee County, MS. Sometimes when I tell people who know Mississippi where I’m from, I get a look that suggests the same response. Can anything good come from Noxubee County?
This initial exchange between Philip and Nathanael gives me hope and teaches me. Here’s what I mean… I get all excited. I tell my friend or family member about God. And what do I get back? A “yeah right.”
Well, I can take a lesson from Philip. What does he do in verse 47? He doesn’t argue or lecture, quote scripture or try to convince Nathanael of how sinful he is. He simply says, “Come and see.” Those are the very words Jesus used when he called Andrew (v39). Come see for yourself. Evangelism is as simple as saying that I’ve found Jesus and inviting someone else to check God out for themselves.
To Nathanael’s credit, he followed Philip to where Jesus was. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming he called out to him. Do you think Jesus was smiling? Jesus said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” He identified Nathanael as a religious person and as an honest seeker, a person who put it out there straight. A man with integrity. I like that about Nathanael.
Again, Nathanael seems skeptical. “Wait a minute. You don’t know me!” (48). But Jesus is way ahead of him. “Oh, I saw you before Philip ever got to you when you were under the fig tree,” Jesus tells him.
What! Nathanael is completely taken in. I wonder what it is about this comment that blows Nathanael away, or at least blows his doubts away. I wonder what Nathanael was thinking about under that tree. I wonder what he saw in Jesus’ eyes. What he says is, “Rabbi (or teacher) you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” You are it!
Jesus says, (is he smiling?), “You think it’s something that I told you I saw you under that fig tree, you just wait. You are going to see a lot more than this!” Indeed he would. Indeed he would.
I love this story. Philip finds his friend, Nathanael and says, “Come and see.” Nathanael believes. Simple clear evangelism. But there is more.
In verse 45, Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found him.” Right? But wait. Look back at verse 43. Who finds who? It is Jesus who finds Philip. Right? And even though I give Philip a whole lot of credit for introducing a friend to Jesus, who saw Nathanael before Philip ever got to him? Again, it was Jesus.
And just like Jesus saw Nathanael, just like Jesus hunted for Philip, God is looking for us and for all the people that we love.
This is important to evangelism for several reasons.
1) Our search for God begins with God
“We love him because he first loved us.” (I John 4:19) One of the first Bible verses I ever learned.
God is not playing some cosmic game of hide and seek with us. When I turn toward God, I find that God is already looking my way. When I take a step toward God, there is a hand already reaching out to me. When all of humanity needed God, Jesus came.
Like Philip, we declare, “We found God.” But Jesus knows the truth. This whole thing started with God calling for us.
I am so very very grateful.
2) The pressure is off.
So when I invite someone else to know God (that’s evangelism, right), I am not creating something new and strange. I simply participate in what God is already doing in this person’s life. Have you seen the quote that is on the board in the church office? It is by Margaret Guenther, “When in doubt, I always assume that God is at work.” We are bringing to folks something God has invited them to look for.
So I can be less afraid to share my faith. Evangelism is primarily God’s business anyway. It is not all up to me.
I can be very patient. This calling people is God’s business. If my friend is a skeptic, like Nathanael, that’s okay. God isn’t finished yet. Some other day or time or with some other person, my friend may choose to respond. It’s not all up to me!
3) Creative and Respectful evangelism
Those are Ben Campbell Johnson’s words. He wrote a wonderful book on this subject; if you would like to borrow it from me, just ask. So instead of beginning to tell someone about God by talking or demanding or arguing or insulting, I begin by watching and listening and asking.
I say things like, “Tell me about you and God. What is your story? Who is God to you?”
As John Ackerman says of evangelsim, “Why not listen to how God is acting in the other person’s life?” This kind of listening can be done simply by getting to know the person and paying attention to their life with them. Philip knew Nathanael well enough to know he was looking for something more.
So evangelism is as simple as thinking about the people we know and asking ourselves, who seems open to God’s invitation right now or who does God seem to be especially calling these days? We listen to God speak to us, we listen to our friend and we offer a simple invitation. More about that next week.
4) One size does not fit all
We will find different ways to share the Good News. A way that is appropriate for each person.
Think about the many different ways Jesus engaged people. To the woman at the well, Jesus said, “Give me a drink.” (John 4:7) To Zacchaeus he said, “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5) To Philip Jesus said, “Follow me.” (John 1:46) We pay attention to the individual and to God to discover the best invitation.
Let’s imagine that a doctor finds a wonderful cure for colds. What amazing good news! Imagine being able to just take a pill and no more runny nose! Sign me up! The doctor is so excited about this new cure that he prescribes it to everyone that he sees. Opens the door to room one and prescribes the newly discovered cure for the common cold. Then he does the same for the person in rooms two and three. They get the same wonderful cure. But wait a minute. The lady in room two has arthritis and the guy in three is having chest pain. Maybe the doctor ought to begin by asking a couple of questions!
Well, of course we know, every good doctor would do exactly that, ask a few questions. When we share our faith, we do well to do the same. We listen to what the person’s spirit is hungry for, how the person understands God already, what their past experience with church has been, what they are noticing about God these days. Then, when it is time for to speak the invitation, we are speaking words that fit them and that they are ready to hear.
5) Joy and Wonder
When we believe that God is going ahead of us to draw people to the Kingdom, instead of being threatened we feel joy and wonder. It reminds me of discovering some great treasure on one of my walks, like an egg shell or a perfectly intact giant moth. I carefully pick it up, thrilled to be able to share it with some child.
Like Philip, we don’t share the Good News about Jesus out of obligation or with fear, but a genuine belief that God is calling and that what we have discovered the best most beautiful news ever.
Jesus went looking for Philip. Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree. And on this Sunday morning, the Spirit is out looking for folks God loves, inviting them to follow Jesus.
And us? We will join God’s search. “Come and See,” we will say. We have found God. But, we know the truth. It was really God who found us. And out of deep gratitude we share that good news.
God found us. Hallelujah. We found God. Amen.
Response, #506, Hymnal, A Worship Book