“Come and See” John 1:43-51 2nd Sunday of Epiphany Jan 14, 2018
Riverside Methodist Church in Occoquan, Virginia has a black Jesus. Pastor Harley Camden noticed it the first time he walked into the small sanctuary and looked up at the stained-glass window at the front of the church.
At first, he thought that the glass was simply dirty, but as he moved closer, he realized that the window had been designed that way, with Jesus looking more like a Palestinian Jew than an English Methodist. Then he looked closer and saw the date on the lower right corner of the window: 1885.
The dark-skinned Jesus had been installed in an era when most stained-glass images were as white and as blond as Norwegians. But this Jesus was definitely a person of color. Not truly black, but certainly not white.
Then Pr. Harley realized why this was so: the church had been founded by a pastor named Bailey, a former slave, and for over a century it had been an African-American congregation called Emanuel Baptist Church. He had visited the church on his first trip to Occoquan, a small river town in Virginia. Occoquan sits on the banks of the Occoquan River which flows into the Potomac River.
Pr. Harley knew that the church had become Riverside Methodist after the Baptist congregation outgrew its building and moved to a larger structure. As the new pastor of Riverside, Pr. Harley walked between the neat rows of oak pews and tried to imagine himself leading worship in the creaky old Sanctuary. Something was stirring within him – an emotion. He couldn’t quite identify it, but it was calming instead of anxious.
Running his fingers along the backs of the pews, he imagined that the space had been the site of countless milestones: baptisms, weddings, funerals. Anguished prayers had been said there, rousing sermons had been preached there, lives had been changed there. Generations of African Americans, in particular, had looked up at the Jesus in the stained glass and found strength to live with faith and dignity in a segregated society.
Pr. Harley began to warm to the situation. But then, when he opened the door to the pastor’s office, he was shocked and disappointed. The office was hardly bigger than a broom closet, and the desk had a typewriter on it. Yes, a typewriter – in the year 2017.
Harley Camden is a fictional character in the novel City of Peace by Henry Brinton. But what he experiences on his first visit to Riverside Methodist Church is something we all know to be true – the fact that places can be important. Places such as the home where we grew up in; our first house/home that we owned; the place where we got engaged; or our favorite vacation spots.
Church buildings, in particular, are where we experience the milestones that run from baptisms to weddings to funerals. They are spaces we enter to find comfort and challenge and inspiration. Church is the place we encounter Jesus … or not.
The story of Philip and Nathanael in today’s reading from the Gospel of John gives us a clue about the kinds of places that help us to come face to face with Jesus. At the start, Jesus decides to go home to Galilee – an area described in Matthew’s gospel as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15). Not “Galilee of the Jews,” even though Jesus and his family are all Jews. Not, “Galilee of the Gentiles”.
The region is full of Romans and other non-Jews, people called Gentiles. It is a very multicultural place; kind of like twenty-first-century America; or at least the U District of Seattle where this congregation resides.
So, what happens on the road to Galilee? Jesus first invites Philip to follow him as a disciple, and then Philip finds a friend named Nathanael and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45). This is a strong affirmation of faith, one that states clearly and concisely that Jesus is the fulfillment of what had been predicted by Moses and the Old Testament prophets.
I find it interesting, however, that this statement of faith makes no impression on Nathanael. Instead, he focuses on the word “Nazareth,” the hometown of Jesus. Once again, places can be important. Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46).
Nathanael doesn’t have much respect for the place, knowing it to be a small town in the hill country of Galilee, one with a high number of immigrants and foreigners. This is not the place where Nathanael expects to find the Jewish Messiah.
In response, Philip does not mount a robust defense of Nazareth. Instead, he simply says, “Come and see” (v. 46).
- Come and see for yourself if Jesus is the fulfillment of everything that God has said and done.
- Come and see the place where Jesus is, and make up your own mind after you encounter him.
In saying these words, Philip is offering an attractive invitation, but the words he says are not original to him. Philip is repeating what Jesus has just said to two of the disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew & Peter, namely, “Come and see.” After hearing this invitation, Peter & Andrew followed Jesus (vv. 38-39).
We live in a world that is as multicultural as the Galilee of the Gentiles, and our challenge is to create places in which people can come and see Jesus.
- See him as clearly as Pr. Harley Camden saw Jesus in the stained glass of Riverside Methodist Church.
- See him as clearly as Philip and Nathanael did on the road to Galilee.
In our fractured and polarized world, we don’t need more arguments about religion and about politics. Instead, we need to create places in which people can have a personal encounter with Jesus no matter their age or life situation. The best way to do this is to practice Christian hospitality – to welcome all people with love and grace, just as Jesus did.
Jesus was famous for eating with tax collectors and sinners, embracing outcasts, and feeding hungry people without asking whether they really deserve to eat.
At the end of the Gospel of John, when the disciples are trying to find their way after the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t give them a lecture. Instead, Jesus appears to them on seashore and says, “Come and have breakfast” (21:12).
Hospitality can accomplish what theological discussion and political debate cannot. It can build a diverse community and make peace between antagonistic people.
Theology and politics tend to divide people, but shared food & drink can unite people at the level of a basic human need, namely, sharing around a meal and the development of relationships. Perhaps the clearest path to unity is through the stomach.
Unfortunately, one of the sad facts of life today is that many people tend to go to church with the attitude of a guest, rather than a host. They expect their own needs to be met in church. They want to sit in their favorite seats, enjoy their favorite music, see their friends, and have some food and drink with people they already know and then go home.
But what if we shifted our attitudes and became the hosts that God wants us to be? That would mean greeting our guests at the door, offering them comfortable seats, asking what kind of music they would like, and ensuring that they have something to eat and drink. That’s making church a place of real hospitality, engaging in an ancient, but often overlooked Christian practice.
When we welcome people to our tables – in the sanctuary or in the lounge or in the fellowship hall – we help them to come and see what Jesus has done and what Jesus is doing today. When we have personal encounters around food & drink, we find that church can become a home for all.
Hospitality builds relationships, and such relationships can help to unite our fractured society & in some cases our fractured congregations. Harley Camden discovers this in the book City of Peace, when he gathers his people under the black Jesus of Riverside Methodist Church. He takes a chance and practices hospitality – practices hospitality among the Christians, Muslims, Jews, and the non-religious finding a way to heal himself and his community.
But Christian hospitality is not limited to fiction. It can be a fact – a fact in any congregation that wants to make the church a place of welcome, a space in which people gather around food & drink and develop relationships.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Or Occoquan, Virginian? Or Seattle? Or the U District? Yes, but only if we follow the example of Philip and invite people to come and see what Jesus is doing.
When we do, we will find that Jesus is welcoming all people – including us – and offering everyone grace and love and peace.
©Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, 1/2018
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 1-14-18” name of the sermon.