So often if someone comes to any kind of interest in the Christian faith, any kind of activated interest, just so often it’s because they know somebody who they like and respect. They get to know the person and they see their faith, then it starts to become something of an exploration.
The story that I have from the bible this evening is something of that kind of situation: someone who is a mate of somebody else who meets Jesus. We’ll follow their little story.
I’ve got some headings based around three barriers to the Christian faith, I’m sure there are more, but the three that I’ve used have been used quite a lot in different contexts in the last few years.
First, that Christianity, if you don’t know much about it, other than the church spire on the corner, is a little weird. Then, if not weird, perhaps it is irrelevant. And if you know somebody who is a Christian and it is clearly not irrelevant to them, then maybe it’s just not worth it because it is not true.
If I can start with a personal anecdote, I wasn’t going to talk about the rugby again, but it was forced upon me, as a schoolboy, one day I got a call at lunch time, “Daniels, we’re playing cricket today, we’re going to Cardiff.” Which was terribly posh for someone to go to from Llanelli, it was fifty miles. “Go and get your kit, you’re in the team.” Now I thought I was good, so off I went to get my kit, then came back and sat on the bus with the teacher and the 11 boys. I thought I was really good because I was in Year Ten and they were all in the Upper Sixth, so I was really good obviously. So the captain came and kindly sat next to me, and I thought I’d throw it in for good measure, “Oh, I wonder why I was picked today?” He said, “Well, isn’t it obvious?” I said, “Not really.” He said, “Well, how far do you live from school?” I said, “About three hundred yards.” So he said, “Someone was sick, we were short and desperate, and we worked out who was the kid who lives closest to school and can get his kit, field third man all day, bat eleven and hang around to make up the numbers.” It was me.
So off I went to the game, he was a bit of a hero. You know what it’s like when you are at that kind of age, I was fourteen or fifteen, and he was the captain of everything: rugby, cricket, and the works. So we went to the game and I jump on the bus to come back, but he was a quiet sort of chap, and he chatted for a two or three minutes, and then I tried to make the conversation. Five miles into the trip, it was a Monday, and I said, “So, what did you do at the weekend?” He said, “I played on Saturday and then on Sunday I went to church.” Now this was 1976 or something like that, so it’s forever ago, but even then, in Wales, hardly anyone went to church under the age of forty, or so it seemed to me. My mum and my auntie went, but nobody else I knew went. Nobody who was eighteen, cool as anything, and captain of everything would dream of it. I couldn’t hold it back so I said, “Why do you go to church? Does your mother make you?” I was gutted, he was my hero this guy and now he had turned to a total ‘wimp’ in one sentence. Mothers made you go to church until you were about twelve. He said, “No, no, Graham, I go to church because I follow Jesus.” I said to myself, “Forty-five miles to go. Trapped next to a bible basher.”
I know it is terrible isn’t it? I’m that bible basher now! I hope if you’re not sure that you are a Christian or actively saying you’re not a Christian, I hope that little personal anecdote encourages you.
But, now to discuss the barriers. I knew that chap for seven or eight years, and I know him still. Gwïon Jenkins is his name, Gwïon the Bible we called him. I got to know him, and immediately when the captain of everything is a Christian, it’s no longer weird, right? He was the coolest boy in school. So for a sporty kid, that removes the weirdness. If you meet somebody who is kind of like you, and they’re a Christian, it stops being weird. Unless they’re weird already, in which case, you’re probably weird because you’re mates with them so you wouldn’t know! You’re both weird but nobody knows! Except outsiders, but that’s incidental.
So they stop being weird, unusual or odd. But then there’s the relevance thing. I watched this boy and as time went on you think, “Well, it’s pretty relevant to him; there’s something about him.” He did have a sense of purpose. He had a standard of aspiration, even though he would still fail. But when he failed he’d say sorry, outrageous! He would apologise for mistakes as the captain. Small things, even in his weaknesses, you saw something very attractive that was greater than him. But for many years, when I went off to study and play sport further afield, he kept in touch. He would write. It was like a catalogue when he wrote to you, very thick, justifying Christianity. If you’re young you won’t get that because it’s all done online, but you would have to write with a pen and everything! Really basic, writing a letter to argue Christianity.
Let’s look at this story because so many people who came to faith will say it’s a mum, grandma, dad, best friend, teacher, a mate at school or college who will cross these barriers, and as we go through this story now, I just wonder if you’ll be saying to yourself: “Are these my barriers? Am I over one? Am I on the second one? Do I have a different barrier? Christianity Explored is a chance to really think out loud. You don’t even have to speak; you may listen to other people discussing it. But it is a chance to say: “What are my barriers? Can I cross them? That’s a burden I can’t get over that one, help me, I want to discuss it.” Christianity Explored taster sessions set you up for that conversation. Have a look at the barriers and let’s take a look at this story.
First, let’s look at weird in the story.
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. (John 1:43-46)
In v43, ‘the next day’, that points back to right at the start of John’s account of the life of Jesus. It starts with this amazing thirty-thousand feet view of who Jesus is, prologue to the whole narrative. Then we are introduced to a guy called John who is Jesus’ cousin and is called John the Baptist. Then there are a series of a few days, hence, ‘the next day’ in v43. John is trying to introduce people to Jesus, and here is the story of an introduction to Jesus which comes initially from John. Jesus decides to leave for Galilee and finds Phillip and says, “Follow me Phillip.” Phillip, like Andrew and Peter, was from Bethsaida, and then Phillip goes to his mate Nathanael in v45.
So it’s a pretty simple story really: Phillip meets Jesus, he wants to tell his pal and comes across his mate Nathanael.
“We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)
Short line, big idea. For six hundred years, since they’d been oppressed by foreign nations, the nation that these guys belonged to, Israel, had been yearning for the day which had been predicted in their bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. Moses and ‘the prophets’ were the people who had written the bible and they were talking about a man to come, who would rescue this nation. Now to put it in context:
“How you doing Nathanael? How’s it going?”- Phillip
“Alright, good, yea yourself?”- Nathanael
“Yea, good morning, not bad.”- Phillip
“How did you get on this morning Phil?”- Nathanael
“Well, funnily enough, I bumped into the one for whom we’ve been waiting for 600 years, who is going to rescue us from the Romans.”- Phillip
Now if they weren’t mates, Nathanael would have thought that Phillip was insane. But because he was his mate maybe he was thinking, “Well, it’s a hot day, warm country, maybe he caught some sun on his neck, give him some water and he’ll be fine.” But he doesn’t walk away from him, Phillip is his mate. This is crucial. If you are friends with somebody, who does say: “I’m a Christian.” You’ve crossed the big barrier, even if it doesn’t feel it. You have a friend or parent, you look at them and you know their weakness but they do know Jesus and they will say it.
So you’ve crossed the weird thing. And it is weird, look at v45:
“We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)
Nathanael can’t catch his breath:
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. (John 1:46)
It’s absurd! It’s like saying “He’s a really well behaved sportsman, and he plays rugby for England.” He can’t believe he’s from Nazareth because as every Jewish boy would know that in the scriptures they read, the king or ruler from God would come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth. These boys live down the road from Nazareth and know it’s a bit of a dump. “Nazareth?! It’s only down the road! How can the king that we’ve been waiting for live in that dump? Then why have I never heard of him?” That’s the sentiment, it’s absurd but Phillip is his friend. “He’s a bible-basher that Gwïon but he’s alright, a nice lad.” That was my sentiment, what’s yours? “She’s a nice girl you know, Christian, but she’s a nice girl.
Let’s look at the next heading, irrelevance.
Let’s pick the story up at v46:
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip. (John 1:46)
Phillip is top class here, look at Phillip; he is so cool. He’s not heavy; “Here, don’t have a go at me. I definitely met Jesus and you’ve had it if you don’t come and follow Jesus, I’m telling you now!” No, he just says, “Come and have a look.” He’s relaxed and doesn’t feel as though he has to do God’s work for him. If there’s a God in the universe then he’s big enough to look after himself and he knows exactly what he’s doing. If you are a Phillip tonight, chill a bit. Really, chill, invite people to come and hear about Jesus, and you’ll see. You don’t have to ram the Lord Jesus Christ down people’s throats, if he’s the king of the universe, he can look after himself; he made the world, he’s pretty clever, pretty sharp. “Come and have a look. Come and hear Jesus and you will find life Nathanael.” Beautiful really, I love that my friend wasn’t heavy handed, I loved it. Enthusiastic? Yes. Keen? Yes. One of the boys? Yes, in the right ways. Cool? Yes. Lovely. If you’re thinking about this tonight, I hope your pal is like that.
“Come and see.” Look what happens when they meet. I love this story. Nathanael has gone to see, he trusted his friend.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:47-48)
You have to understand something of their Saturday classes to understand: “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.” It refers to a hymn they sang; Psalm 32. It’s a story of a guy who dreams of being clean before God. He can’t bear his own hypocrisy and knows what’s going on behind closed doors. He shouts out to God that he wants his fractured relationship with him fixed because he wants to be at peace with himself and with God. That’s what the hymn is about and when Jesus meets Nathanael, he is saying: “You know that hymn you sing? The idealistic one about getting things right and being changed? You’re like that aren’t you?” Nathanael wonders, “How does he know me?” With Jesus responding with, “Before you think I’m messing around, let me just say that before Phillip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” In Nathanael’s mind, it would have eluded to something he learned as a kid. One of the prophets, Zechariah, who Phillip earlier referred to, talks about the day when all the nation will be clean and there’ll be a promise on that day, when they are fixed in their relationship with God, when it’s corrected and the brokenness is mended. It’s a day when every Israelite male will sit under a fig tree picturing: “Day’s work over, got my own land, care for my family, not oppressed by anyone, my home, we’re safe and life is at peace.”
So in our language, what Jesus says to Nathanael is: “Hi mate, how are you doing? Listen, I know you’re mate Phillip, I bumped into him, thanks for coming to say hello because, can I tell you something? I know you inside out, I really do, and I know you want to change the world and I know you get fed up with yourself. I know that nobody knows about it, but I do, don’t worry. I’ll prove it to you. You want a better world. You wish you could fix the things that don’t work so well. You know there’s something not quite right, and I’m the one who can tell you that I know it. OK?” He does it ever so subtly using language he would have known from being a kid. Gorgeous.
If you get towards being in a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, this is what happens. Listen to this, know about the second barrier of relevance, somewhere there’s a grey area, where it stops being your friends faith and starts to feel like it could be yours. It is the most marvellous thing. You start to think to yourself, “I could be a Christian…. Wait, No! Don’t be ridiculous, not me. Well, I mean she is, and we’re great mates and I’m starting to think God knows a bit about me. I’ve heard people speaking from the bible, I’ve read a bit of the bible and I’ve been to some talks, I’ve done some thinking, I’ve asked some questions. I think this is about me as a human being, not religious people. I don’t think that there are religious people,” you find yourself saying, “they’re just people like me.” It’s a beautiful thing, and if you’re in it, it’s a bit scary, “Shall I? Shan’t I? Shall we dance? Will I go further, will I pull out? What will they say at work?”
Back to the passage, it should end here; Nathanael says “I’m in.” Rabbi means teacher, “You are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel, and you are the one which we’ve been waiting for. You have come from God, you are our rescuing king, and I’m in.” Two minutes ago he was saying, “From where? Nazareth? What a dive!” Now he’s saying, “I’m in.” That was quick wasn’t it? If Jesus was desperate, he would sign Nathanael on the dotted line straight away and baptise him, but no chance. Jesus is never forcing the issue with any of us. He says “No, I’m not desperate for people to sign on the dotted line for religion; I want you to understand who I am, who you are and what can be done in this life, and for eternity.
Look at the last part, is it true?
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” (John 1:50)
Do you see that? “You believe that just because I’ve sussed you out, and know what’s inside you? Just because of that?” He says, “Nathanael, it’s not enough, you will see greater things.”
He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
Last story from this guy’s background is that of two brothers, Esau and Jacob in Genesis 28. Jacob is a waster; he steals his brother’s inheritance and runs away. Whilst he is running away, he lies down to sleep with his head on a stone, Phillip and Nathanael would have known it from Saturday school, Jacob then had a dream. In the dream there is a ladder between heaven and earth and heaven is ripped open and angels are coming up and down in the dream. The understanding of the dream is that God says, “Jacob, I will never leave you. I’ve got my hand on you despite your shocking behaviour towards your family. Whatever you do my friend, I’ve got a promise for you, and I’m going to fulfil it, I love you whatever you’ve done.”
You will see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. That last little phrase he would have known inside out. It’s from a book in their bible called Daniel and “the Son of Man” is a name for the king who would come and rescue the world. And do you know who that king is? It’s the man speaking in the story. This is what he said: “Nathanael, you’re an idealist my friend but I tell you something, I’ve come from heaven, I’ve ripped heaven open, I’ve come into world and I have come for you my friend. I know your idealism, but I know that there’s a touch of Jacob in you. I know the deceit, I know the lying. I know the stuff that nobody knows, and what causes fractures between you and God.”
And the story ends at the end of John’s gospel with Nathanael, in chapter twenty-one, following Jesus. He meets with Jesus, after Jesus had beaten death. He follows Jesus, like Phillip, but you see what Jesus had to do in the meantime, he went to a filthy cross to hang on it and die on it, because he knows you. He knows you inside out, and when no-one sees you. He sees the beauty and the beast, he sees the Jekyll and the Hyde. He sees the gorgeous empathy for others and the tragic selfishness that we would never be able to admit to anyone. He came from God as the only one who ever lived a perfect life. And when he went to a cross, he went there in our place, because we were born rebels against our creator, and out of an incredible, wonderful, sheer love he came to find Phillip, he came to find Nathanael, he came to find you and me.
Is it weird? Chances are you wouldn’t have shown up if it was double weird. Is it relevant: “Not just my friend and my mum?” Is there more truth than you imagined? It’s not just about moral idealism and wanting a better world or wanting to be a better person; it’s about knowing that you have a need. You have a yearning for beauty and a tendency towards ugliness, and God knows it. That’s why he came; Jesus dies and smashes death to bits so that any one of us tonight in this room can say, “I will turn to Christ and trust in the one who loves me enough to come and find me, who cares enough to die for me, who smashes death to bits that he might know me.
So as we close, what would you say ladies and gentlemen? Are you Phillip? Well keep saying: “I’ve found the one who was meant to come for us.” Keep saying it because when you do, you open up a while new world for people, and God can do his work.
Are you Nathanael? Well done for being here. I just wonder, will you trust in Christ? Will you turn to him? Will you know him personally and not just leave him with Phillip? Christianity Explored and the taster sessions are a great chance to find out. I really encourage you to have a look.