Preached FCCW, January 14, 2017
How do you define the word “Christian?”
If I asked you to complete this sentence: A Christian is someone who _________,
how would you fill in the blank?
Given the number of people here, I bet we would could come up with a whole gamut of responses before we were through.
Some might say a Christian is someone who reads the Bible, or someone who goes to church every Sunday, or someone who lives by the Golden Rule or tries to keep the Ten Commandments.
The common denominator, though, would probably be, “A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus.”
The implication being that a Christian is someone who believes Jesus is who he claimed to be.
Or who the Bible claims that he is.
There are many verses in the New Testament that speak of the importance of believing in Jesus.
Maybe none more important than Romans 10:9: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
But in the Gospel stories like the one I just read, where Jesus is calling people to become his disciples, it isn’t with an invitation to believe in him.
He says, “Follow me.”
In fact, there are more verses in the Gospels that mention people following Jesus, or not following him, than there are about people believing in him.
And that is neither an accident nor a coincidence.
Because there is a vast difference between believing in someone and following them.
Believing means accepting the truth about someone or something.
Following means taking the next step of putting that belief into action by committing yourself to an action that is determined by your belief.
Let me give you a couple of everyday analogies.
I can find an enticing recipe in a cookbook and believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the directions given there would produce something delicious.
But, unless I follow the directions in the recipe, I’ll never get to actually enjoy the meal.
Or, say I do create this meal and it is so delicious that I make it again and again, until I find myself putting on some pounds.
At my next check-up, when my doctor tells me that unless I go on a diet and get more exercise those added pounds are going to be a problem, I can believe what she says is true.
But if I don’t follow her suggestions I’m never going to lose any weight.
When Jesus was wandering around the docks and the tax collection booths gathering his first disciples he didn’t start the conversation by saying, “Believe in me.”
What he did say was, “Follow me.”
He didn’t use a question about what they believed about him to screen candidates for his discipleship team.
He invited people into a relationship with him so they could learn for themselves who he was, by eating, drinking and sleeping with him.
That’s what was happening when Nathanael met Jesus for the first time.
Jesus had found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
And the first thing Philip did was run and find his friend Nathanael, and told him what he believed about Jesus.
Philip said, “We have found the Messiah that Moses and the prophets told us would come someday to deliver us! Jesus, son of Joseph, of Nazareth.”
Following Jesus evidently led Philip to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
Nathanael was a skeptic, though.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked.
At first glance, Nathanael’s comment sounds like a put down of Nazareth and anybody who came from there.
On the level with saying, “Can anyone good come out of Haiti or El Salvador or Africa?”
But, Nathanael was more likely speaking out of a place of knowledge, not ignorance.
Assuming he was familiar with the Jewish scriptures, he would have known that the town of Nazareth is not only never mentioned in any of the prophecies about the Messiah; Nazareth is never rated a mention in the Old Testament, at all.
No matter how earnestly Philip believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and no matter how well he argued the point, he wasn’t going to change Nathanael’s mind because the suggestion that the Messiah could be from Nazareth didn’t fit the bill of what he had been taught to believe about the Messiah.
Philip evidently knew that. So, when Nathanael asked if anything good could came out of Nazareth, Philip didn’t waste his breath trying to prove it.
He simply said, “Come and see.”
“Come and see.”
He invited Nathanael to meet Jesus for himself and then make up his mind whether he believed in him or not.
As soon as they were introduced to each other, Jesus gave Nathanael a reason to believe that he was the Messiah by disclosing something he knew about Nathanael that he had no earthly way of knowing.
Jesus greets Nathanael like they were old friends, even though they had never met before this.
When Nathanael questions how Jesus knows him, Jesus tells him that he saw him sitting under a fig tree before Philip showed up and talked him into coming to this meeting.
And that was enough of an epiphany to turn Nathanael’s scepticism into belief.
Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!”
To which Jesus replied, in what I imagine was a good mannered ribbing sort of way, “Oh, so now you believe?
Because I saw you under the fig tree? Stick around and you will see greater things than this.”
But did he?
Did Nathanael stick around long enough to see the greater things that Jesus assured him he would see?
It’s hard to tell at first because as you read on from that first chapter of John’s Gospel, Nathanael completely disappears from the story.
You turn page after page after page, and read chapter after chapter without any further mention of him.
Until you come to the final chapter.
Just before the curtain closes on John’s Gospel, seven of Jesus’ disciples are on a Galilean beach when the resurrected from the dead Jesus appears to them.
Among the list of those disciples who were there to witness the resurrected Lord you will find Nathanael’s name.
Did Nathanael see greater things than what Jesus showed him on the first day they met?
You better believe he did.
He saw the greatest sight any human eyes have ever beheld.
The risen Savior.
But, you know what?
It’s a sight he never would have seen had he not followed Jesus.
If Nathanael believed in Jesus when Jesus told him he had seen him under the fig tree, but then went on with his life, believing in Jesus but never following him, he would not have been on that beach.
As it turns out, Nathanael not only believed in Jesus, he acted on that belief in Jesus by following Jesus, and that following brought him to the place of witnessing something that not only changed his life, but changes our lives, too.
Here’s something significant that doesn’t jump out at you when you read this passage in English.
When Jesus says to Nathanael, “Very truly I tell you, you will see the angels ascending and descending on the Son of man,” the Greek word for both instances of “you” in the verse are plural instead of singular.
Even though the verse is introduced clearly as Jesus speaking directly to Nathanael.
Which means he was no longer speaking only to Nathanael.
Then, who is Jesus speaking to?
Jesus is speaking to anyone anywhere who would read this conversation between him and Nathanael.
In other words, Jesus is speaking to us.
Jesus is telling you and me that our believing in him for our salvation is not the end of the story.
It is only the beginning of a new story.
Belief is the gateway to the start of a journey whose trajectory takes us from believing in who Jesus is, to becoming more and more the people Jesus can make of us.
Following Jesus leads us from believing what we know about him through the Bible to experiencing his Living Presence with us daily.
Following Jesus means our prayers will begin with, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” and end with “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”
These are the greater things Jesus promises us that we will see, if we follow him.
Believing is where our relationship with Jesus begins.
Following Jesus is where our relationship to him takes us.
Maybe then, we are closest to an accurate definition of what it means to be Christian when we can complete the sentence, “A Christian is_______________,” with the words “a follower of Jesus.”
Copyright 2018 Raymond Medeiros