The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ … Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’
The question of having meaning and purpose in life keeps cropping up for people. It isn’t a pressing question only for the young person just starting out in life. We experience it in what we call mid-life crisis—and what age we consider to be “mid-life” has shifted dramatically with our increased longevity. Another moment meaning and purpose come to the fore of our thinking is when planning for retirement. Another moment is that time when the deterioration of our bodies has reached a critical mass and we can’t do much of what we used to be able do and wonder about the point of living.
According to an organization called Action for Happiness people who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier. Where do people find “meaning and purpose”? The answers vary for each of us but they all involve being connected to something bigger than ourselves. The Action for Happiness names religious faith as being among things categorized as “something bigger.”
I hear a lot of talk about “being part of something bigger that ourselves.” And lots of questions come to my mind. Will any “something bigger” do? And is it possible that the reason we want connection with something bigger is because we somehow know ourselves to be disconnected? What is the source of this disconnect? Disconnected from what or who? It is possible that our desire for connection with something bigger is a symptom that the idolatry of individualism has been found wanting; that looking only to ourselves isn’t all that it is cracked up to be? Why isn’t meaning and purpose obvious; why is it so elusive? “I thought I had meaning figured out but then retirement hit and I felt uncertain all over again”; this is the experience of many.
1. We are reflecting today in the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. I invite you to hold those questions about purpose and meaning in your mind as we explore this story. We want to hear what our Lord would say to us—and some of the things our Lord will say and do challenge the assumptions our culture presumes with regard to meaning and purpose
Following his baptism Jesus has decided to go to Galilee. Upon arrival in Galilee we are told that “He (Jesus) found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” We don’t know if Jesus knew Philip prior to going to the Jordon to be baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. Either way the point John makes is that Jesus sought out Philip. I invite you to underline these three words: “He found Philip.” This is the gospel in action—God comes to find us.
The gospel challenges two assumptions (at least) of our modern idea of connecting to something bigger than ourselves. The first assumption that gets challenged is the assumption that we can make the connection. The gospel declares that God comes seeking us who are by nature God-fleers. Philip isn’t out looking for Jesus. We humans are rather confident in our human capacities thinking we can get ourselves connected to God. The gospel of grace undercuts that confidence.
The second assumption is that we are quite capable of determining this “something bigger” for ourselves. This leads to all kinds of idolatry. Idols are made of good things. People seek satisfaction of this craving for connection in supporting worthy causes that benefit the poor or to eradicate a disease. Societal goods indeed. And there is a sense of satisfaction that comes in such endeavour. The challenge is that many do this for themselves—to satisfy a need within them. This my “something bigger;” I have that box checked off in happiness keys list.
Jesus isn’t the Christian’s answer to “something bigger” as if to provide something bigger were his purpose in coming among us. The gospel witnesses that something more profound than connection to something bigger is needed. Philip, by all indications, was a man engaged in seeking life in the best way he knew how and yet Jesus came and found him.
I am convinced that this impulse to get connected to something bigger is an instance of that religious impulse we see across the spectrum of humanity—a craving for the divine. The thing that Paul comments on in Athens—“I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” The gospel declares that we don’t know who it is that we are disconnected from. So he comes seeking us. Jesus found Philip.
Our generation is not the first to seek connection; to sense some kind of disconnection.
In a passage from the Timaeus, Plato wrote, “It is difficult to discover the Father and Maker of this universe; and having found Him, it is impossible to declare Him to all.” Christianity proclaims that God himself has removed this difficulty by coming among us in the history of Israel and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
2. We first have noted that the direction of the action. It is God who comes to us connecting us to himself. The second thing I invite you to consider is that the goal of God’s action is relationship with God. Jesus says to Philip, “Follow me.” Philip’s invitation to Nathanael was “Come and see.” Nathanael was invited to come and meet Jesus for himself. The action of Jesus is to gather followers in relationship with himself. It is true that the divine always exceeds human understanding. But the eyes of faith see in a way that reason alone cannot. Christian faith knows the Father in an intimate, if incomplete, way through fellowship with the incarnate Son, Jesus.
It is relationship with God that we humans have turned away from and it is this relationship God re-established in the Son, Jesus Christ. It isn’t purpose or meaning we lack. The gospel shows us that it is relationship with God that has been severed. Our purpose is to love God and enjoy him. Humanity has collectively told God to get lost. God is the one who finds the separation unbearable and so comes in the Son, sets us right with himself so that we might experience the relationship that is life to its fullest.
I come back to moments when our sense of purpose and meaning seem elusive. It is true that our work carries with it a sense of purpose. We find in life that tasks—tasks that ultimately God has given—are things that cause delight. Think of the satisfaction we find in building something or fixing something. Think of the satisfaction felt after the meal you made was enjoyed by the friends invited around the table. There is a satisfaction enjoyed in building a business or designing a home. We sense purpose in our work in that the monetary gain is for the support of family and so we can bless the needy.
Last summer my grandson was on a baseball team he loved playing with. They did well but the thing that stood out to me was how much fun they had together. It must have been satisfying to the coaches to see their work with these children being enjoyed. What broke my grandson’s heart wasn’t the loss in their final game but the realization that the team wouldn’t be together again. When you think about it there is much in life that satisfies and with it a sense of purpose. But none of them by themselves or all together are of the ultimate. And sometimes our mistake is in clinging to them as if they were ultimate—hoping they will do for us something they ultimately cannot; something only relationship with God can satisfy. Yes, Jesus had things for Philip and Nathaniel to do but it was predicated on relationship with him.
Think with me about those moments when living seems pointless and we hate the way we have become a burden on others. Every one of us feels great sympathy for the person so debilitated by disease that the idea of taking joy in anything seems beyond them. None of us wants to be there but may find ourselves there some day.
Think with me about the nature of relationship for a moment. When we were babies we couldn’t do anything for anyone yet we somehow were the source of great delight to many people for the sole reason of relationship. I remember my son holding his newborn son in his hands and the utter delight that was in his voice as he talked of this boy. This boy couldn’t throw a ball or shoot a puck but my son was delighted to the core of his being. (The little guy is now a little over a year old and my son tells me he likes hockey but so far has only mastered slashing.) And the delight I have for this little boy is predicated on relationship.
The most common metaphor for faith in the scriptures is marriage. Now there are moments of intense intimacy in marriage but most of the time we aren’t particularly thinking about being married—yet the relationship is ongoing. A similar thing can be observed about other family relationship in life. Relationships like father and mother and grandparent and great-grandparent are ongoing even when we aren’t thinking about them.
So too the faith relationship. Jesus Christ is faithful in his keeping company with us even when we aren’t thinking about it in particular. And your relationship with him is not predicated on how healthy you are or how much you have left to give. His love for you and me is steadfast and is the thing that gives life. The Apostle John in his prologue to this story of Jesus wrote, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The Psalmist wrote that “his steadfast love is better than life.” Look to this relationship to sustain you when all those other delights are beyond us.
Likely you too have found that the thing that can be your friend in life can also undo us. I think of young people today who have before them a plethora of possibilities when it comes to career choice. This vast array of possibilities is exciting but also daunting. What if I choose the wrong thing and how will I find the right thing. We place a lot of emphasis on this choice hoping to find some fulfillment in what we do. And there is fulfillment—but never expect the fulfillment of our work to fulfil what it cannot. Jesus calls us to relationship with him and out of that relationship he promises to direct your paths. In any profession we can be a witness to Jesus Christ is how we do our work—as unto God not for personal prestige, for example.
Perhaps you too have done those personality trait exercises to help discern the kind of work that fits who you are—and there is some value in those things. Let us revisit Psalm 139 for a moment. The Psalmist was reflecting in the vast difference between God’s knowledge of us and our own knowledge of ourselves when he wrote, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
Thinking of God’s complete knowledge of us, plus other wonders the Psalmist then writes, “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand’; I come to the end (of my own ability to count)—I am still with you.” Note what the Psalmist finds help in—not his ability to know himself but in the relationship with God.
The gospels assert here in the Psalms and in many other places that who you really are, the fullness of your humanity, the person you were created to be is discovered/lived/found in relationship with God. And the wonder is that Jesus comes for this purpose—that you might have life and that abundantly. It is Jesus who promised that through him if you seek you will find—and he will guide you. Invest in relationship with our Lord and many other things fall into place. Follow up on Philip’s invitation, Come and see.
3. One final reflection on our text in John’s gospel. In Philip’s witness to Nathanael that Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth was the Messiah, Philip said “we have found him.” Who is this “we?” It is the group that have responded with a yes to following Jesus; Jesus is gathering a people to himself. In other words, when Jesus calls us into relationship with him he does so in such a way as to join us to one another in fellowship; into the church.
And this communion that we see in its infancy in Galilee is the same one we are gathered into as believers. When we speak of the universality of the church we mean at least two things. One, we are united with believers in every part of the world and second, all the believers of the past and of the future form with us a single great communion. The Apostles and their witness remains with us and is ours today in Christ. Philip who invited Nathanael to come and see invites still today.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’