Posted on Jan 14, 2018 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Today we are back in John‘s Gospel and in this Gospel John first tells us that Jesus is the living Word of God, then he quickly begins to explain to us how Jesus began to call his disciples. According to this Gospel, John says to some of his own disciples when they see Jesus walking by, “he’s the one” and immediately a couple of them begin to literally follow Jesus. When Jesus sees them, one of which is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, Jesus invites them to follow him and apparently not only do they agree to do this, but then Andrew immediately went and got his brother Simon and invites him to come, too (1:35-42).
The next day, as our story tells us this morning, Jesus heads to Galilee where he finds Philip and invites him to follow and in turn Philip goes and finds Nathanael. There seems to be a pattern here, doesn’t there? Jesus invites, then those that say yes, they, too, go and invite. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it, but if truth be told, it's not. In fact, I would argue our text today is sharing this very notion with us. When Nathanael gets the invitation his response is less than enthusiastic. In fact, at best it is sarcastic; “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46). Really, you are told by a good friend, apparently someone you would trust, that the Messiah that has been promised has come and you are worried about the neighborhood he came from? Apparently, Nathanael had a very low opinion of people from Nazareth. But you know what, Philip still invited him and when Nathanael meets Jesus, did you notice what Jesus didn’t do? He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t try to make Nazareth, or the people of Nazareth, out to be some great place or people. He didn’t get boastful or demanding. He just accepted Nathaniel and his personal understanding of Nazareth on face value and the he invited him to “come and see.”
Jesus knew what Nathanael thought of him, remember he said “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” In other words, here is a person who calls it like it is. Nathaniel came but he came to meet Jesus with reservation and Jesus says, that’s good, now, come and work with me and I will show you the truth. Come, even with the “warts” of Nazareth, come and see that great things can come from Nazareth.
Every time I read this story, it reminds me of what so many people today think about the church. What good can come out of the church? Over the centuries the church has done much to earn a bad reputation. We have started wars over land. We have started wars in an attempt to force people to believe as we believe. In the late 1930’s and early 1940” the church ignored the reality of the world and turned a blind eye when Hitler and his Nazis political system attempted to annihilate the Jews because they blamed the Jewish people for the problems that Germany faced. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. a religious leader chastised the religious leaders of the day because they had failed the African American people in this county because we failed to speak out for justice. In the church today, it is not uncommon to hear about sexual abuse by religious leaders that has been covered up instead of being dealt with appropriately. In the midst of all this, I go out and preach and teach about the good news and great things the church is doing and I know most people are thinking, “Really, what good could ever come out of such a misguided, corrupt system? What good could come from the church?”
Even here at Salem I have had some of you say to me. I want to invite people to come, but we are messed up. We have too many problems. How can I invite friends or strangers to come here when we have so many issues ourselves? What if they see our “warts”? Well, if Jesus wasn’t afraid to let his disciples see the whole truth why should we? The truth is, the human church Jesus has called into existence isn’t perfect. It makes mistakes. In fact, it makes huge mistakes and that is reality. But in the midst of our brokenness, they church does incredible work, too. Just in the ELCA, so many ministries exist that are focused on justice and peace. Ministries like Lutheran Disaster Response, the largest and most effective disaster relief program in the world. It is ready and able to hit the ground every time a disaster occurs around the world. Or, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Since 1939, this ministry, driven by God’s love for all people and a vision for congregations to be welcoming and generous centers for mission and ministry has worked to pursue justice, peace, and human dignity for and with all people. These are just two productive and effective ministries that this church brings to the world, and we are not alone. Faith communities of all kinds — even in the midst of their brokenness — are doing incredible ministry.
Does the ELCA have issues? Absolutely we do, but in and through Christ, despite our deficiencies, we can, and will, continue to do the work of Christ in the world. Here at Salem, yes, we have issues, and at times you might think we need to fix those issues before we can do good ministries, but that is backwards. If we want to really fix any issues we have, first and foremost we need to come and see the work of Christ that is being done in and through Salem and then, and only then, will we be able to effectively make sense of our issues of facilities, relationships, etc.
When we go out and invite others to join us, or to come and see, will they be skeptical? Yes! When we invite others to come and see, if they come, will they see our failures and deficiencies? Yes! But, if we continue to focus on the work of Christ that is being done here, they will also see Christ. When they come, they will see the work being done through our Pantry Pack program, our children’s ministry program, through our children and teen programs, through our worship, and the list goes on. Notice I didn’t say they will see the work of Christ in our buildings, or in our perfect relationships, because they won’t. In fact, they might say, can any good ministry be done in such a place? Can our children learn about Christ in an old, run-down building? Can the work of Christ be done in a place where they don’t have the money to keep doing things as they have done? To such questions our response ought to be like Jesus’ response. You are right, we have issues and I am glad you noticed, but we invite you to come and see how Christ is working through us in spite of those things. In spite of our lack of facilities and in spite of struggling financial issues, and in spite of relationships that are struggling, Christ is working and we want to continue that work.
Brothers and sisters, our future does not, and cannot, depend on this facility, or on money, or anything else that is our desire. Our future is in Christ and Christ alone. It will be difficult and it will be scary, but like Nathanael, today Jesus says to us when you come and see, “I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:50-51). Christ has called us to be all we can be and if we are going to be all we can be, then we have to start with Christ and Christ’s work, not ours. Amen.