Come and See

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I know we’ve just about to venture into four or five weeks of reading through Mark and all, but here, near the beginning of John’s Gospel, you get a peek at the heart of the Fourth Gospel… and maybe even the whole of the Christian life. I’ll be brief, because more than talk about it I want to set you and your people free not just to hear about it but actually to live it.

So in today’s reading we’ve got the typical calling of the disciples. Except, of course, it’s John, so nothing is quite typical. The day after John the Baptizer doesn’t baptize Jesus but instead testifies that he saw the Spirit baptize him (I told you, the Fourth Gospel is different!), John sends two of his disciples to follow Jesus, one of whom is Andrew, who in turn tells his brother Peter about Jesus and then brings Peter to meet him. (This all makes for good reading, by the way, and only adds seven verses to the lection.) The day after that, Jesus finds Philip and calls him to follow. And he does. Not only that but then Philip, like Andrew before him, goes and tells someone else about Jesus.

Except the one Philip tells is Nathanael, who doesn’t appear nearly as amicable as the others. In fact, he comes across as a skeptic and then some, with his (euphemism alert!) smart aleck remark about Nazareth. Jesus turns him around quick enough, but that’s not what I’m really interested in just now. No, what intrigues me is Philip. Because I’m guessing he knew what kind of a guy Nathanael was. After all, you don’t just go tell anyone when you meet the messiah. Andrew goes and tells his brother, and I’m guessing Philip went and told a really good friend, Nathanael. Which means that Philip should have known better. He should have figured that Nathanael would scoff, or make fun of him, or ignore him all together. But he goes and tells him anyway. I think that’s kinda cool. Like this news was too good not to share, especially with such a good friend.

And I think what’s even cooler is Philip’s reaction to Nathanael’s dismissive remark. He doesn’t retort something back, as I think I might. Or get defensive, as I know I would. Or walk away hurt or angry, vowing never to share anything with Nathanael again. No, he doesn’t do any of these things. Instead, he just takes it in stride and answers, “Come and see.” Which is interesting, because the day before (it really would be worthwhile reading those prior seven verses!), that’s exactly what Jesus said when Andrew and the other dude asked Jesus where he was abiding (meno in Greek — a key term in John — so “abiding” or “dwelling” is better than just “staying”).

Come and see. Such simple, open, and inviting words. Words, I think, that sum up not only the heart of the Gospel of John but the whole Christian life. For this, according to the Fourth Evangelist, is the only fit response to having witnessed the grace and mercy of God take shape among us, enfleshed in the babe of Bethlehem, crucified at Golgotha, raised on the third day…all for our sake. Come and see. These are the words we’re invited to say to others who are seeking something more from life.

Take note here — this about invitation. It’s not about about cramming your faith down someone else’s throat. After all, nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to say, “Have you given your life to Christ?” Or, worse: “Do you know where you will spend eternity?” Or, maybe rock bottom: “God loves you and wants a relationship with you…but if you turn away God will send you to hell.”

No. We’re just invited to say — not to push, just to say — “Come and see.” Why? Because this news is so good it’s hard not to share, especially with the people we care about. And if they aren’t interested, or dismiss what we’re saying, or make some smart aleck response, that’s okay. We know that the good news of God’s love for us and all the world can be hard to believe. In fact, the more we honestly think about it — God, the creator and sustainer of the vast cosmos, not only knows we exist but gives (euphemism alert!) a darn — the harder it may become to believe! So we can understand why people aren’t sure, why they may hesitate. Because this news is so good it may seem to some too good to be true. So it’s okay if they’re not sure or walk away. It’s not our job to convert, just to invite.

Yet as simple and non-threatening as this invitation is, many of us — myself included! — still have a hard time making it. I guess it’s because most of us aren’t comfortable talking about this kind of stuff. I mean, maybe we’re just nervous about sharing our faith in a culture that doesn’t exactly encourage it. Or maybe we don’t want to come off as some kind of religious nut. Maybe it’s all this and more.

Or maybe…maybe it’s just that we’ve never had a chance to practice. You know what I mean? Adults like us tend to define ourselves in terms of our competence; in terms, that is, of what we’re good at. And we get good at things only through practice. So if we’ve never practiced saying “come and see,” even in the relatively save confines of church, how are we going to gain the confidence to say it outside of church? Which means we need to make room in our Sunday worship to practice. And here’s a suggestion to get started.

A little less than a year ago, I met a pastor at an event I was speaking at who shared what I thought was a wonderful idea. He said that in his little congregation he recently had everyone get in a circle and tell the person near them what kind of toothpaste they used and why. End of story.

Seriously, that’s it. Toothpaste. Something safe, ordinary, almost banal, that anyone can talk about. And there you go: people talking to each other during the service. Not about their faith yet, mind you, but about something a little personal. And so maybe the next week you have them talk about something more important, like why they chose their computer, or car, or television set. Or why they root for the Vikings (and trust me, lots of people are asking themselves that question right now!) or the 49ers or the Giants or whatever. And, as you do this week by week, people begin to gain confidence. Maybe over time you can talk about what’s important to you in a political candidate, I don’t know. But I do know that over time you gain practice in talking about stuff that matters to you in church and before you know it maybe you can even invite people to talk about their faith.

Again, start small, maybe it’s just about what they like about this church, about when the church has been meaningful or helpful to them. And then it’s about where they feel like they’ve seen God at work in their lives or in the world, or maybe where they wish they could more easily see God or where they think God needs to be. And maybe over time as they gain the kind of competence and confidence that only comes from practice they’ll be able to imagine inviting someone else to “come and see” what a great church they have when they learn someone is looking for a faith home or has just moved into the neighborhood. Maybe they’ll say “come and see” by way of invitation to a grief group to a colleague at work who’s just lost a spouse. Maybe they’ll say “come and see” to a kid in a neighborhood who sure might enjoy the friendship of the youth group.

Come and see. Over time, with practice, these are words anyone can say. Philip said them. You can say them. I can say them, too. Maybe not right away, but over time, with practice, these are words all of us can say… and eventually might even enjoy saying. Because sharing something that matters to you with someone that matter is, as Philip found out, pretty cool.

So thanks, Working Preacher, for telling us to “come and see” week in and week out. I know that I’m changing your job description a bit with these suggestions, moving you from being the one charged to say “come and see” to being the one who trains and equips us to do that in the world. But I know you’re up to it! And I appreciate the good faith with which you do it. Keep up the good work.

Yours in Christ,