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|"The Missouri Disciple"
We don't know a whole lot about how Jesus called his disciples. I wish we did, but we don't. And in fact, the writers of the gospels make it all look so simple, so easy, as if all Jesus had to do was utter a few words and the disciples jumped and ran.
Somehow, I have my doubts. Somehow, I suspect that the gospel writers left a lot out, because they probably didn't know all the details. And I say all this because for anyone I know who has felt called, the calling has been a very complicated proposition.
It has involved more than just a little heavy-duty prayer, a great deal of soul-searching, and much questioning.
I've heard some speak of "missing" their call, because they waited so long to respond. But I would disagree. I don't think we EVER miss a call, even though our response may be delayed.
But I have also heard others speak of "losing" the call. Of expressing concern that maybe they shouldn't be in full-time ministry within the context of the church. And again, I'm not so sure that really happens.
What I DO think happens is that there is a discovery that the call has not yet been clearly heard, that maybe a pastor has not yet fully realized to WHAT he or she was called.
And I believe, if there was a call, that God is still working with those pastors to help them more clearly hear it.
But this morning I want to direct your attention to one disciple in particular, about whom we DO know some particulars of his call: the disciple Nathanael, also referred to as Bartholomew.
In the forty-third verse of the opening chapter of the gospel according to John, we read, "The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me."
And like I said, I have my suspicions that it was all that simple. I suspect that Jesus had more to say to Philip than those two words.
And I would also be intrigued to know HOW Jesus went about selecting these guys. WHY did he choose whom he did? What was it about Philip that made him special for Jesus? Or did Jesus just grab whomever he could find?
Well, I suspect that even if we were provided with a whole lot more detail in scripture, we would still be asking questions. And I say that because even TODAY, what answers do we have for HOW pastors are called? Each of us is called in a different way. What answers do we have for WHY we are called? And I really don't think I could pinpoint anything about any pastors I know that would point to them as being particularly SPECIAL people.
So who WAS Philip? Well, "...Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter." And we learn earlier in the opening chapter of the gospel according to John of the calling of Andrew and Peter, who happened to be brothers.
In the case of these two, we might say that the call of Peter was secondary; because Andrew found Peter and reported to him, "We have found the Messiah." And Andrew brought Peter to Jesus.
Now, maybe it was just a matter of convenience that Philip was called. Maybe he just happened to be available in the same city as Andrew and Peter. Because I doubt that Jesus put ads in all the local papers recruiting disciples. He probably really WAS picking up whomever he could wherever he could.
Now, I'm not saying there was sloppiness in his method. Far from it. Rather, I think there is a great deal of MYSTERY in the call to discipleship that we may NEVER fully understand.
I remember during my first year in seminary I would be asked what line of work I had come from to consider entering the pastorate. And when I responded that I had been the managing editor for a financial newspaper, jaws would drop. Folks would ask, "How on earth would a person make that kind of transition?"
When I was ordained a deacon, the fellow who was my district superintendent told me, "You know, when you first came to visit my office to tell me you wanted to start seminary and enter the ministry, I didn't believe you.
I couldn't believe that someone in your line of work, at your age (43), who had already spent four years in graduate school, would spend three MORE years to become a full-time pastor." Then he paused. And he added, "And I STILL have trouble believing it."
Well, like Andrew, Philip is eager to tell others about Jesus. "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."
See? Philip IS responding to more than two words. Philip believes he has found the Messiah. The long-anticipated, prophesied Messiah. And that's worth getting excited about. That's worth telling others about. And now the story gets really interesting.
"Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."
I've often wondered whether Nathanael was being serious or facetious. Was this an attempt at humor, or was he for real, or was he being cynical?
When I was in Seneca, with three other states so close, I heard lots of jokes about the OTHER states. I heard Missourians tell jokes about Arkansans, Oklahomans, and Kansans. And I'm sure that those folks had their jokes about Missourians.
And I've learned to put up with the stories that essentially ask the question, "Can anything GOOD come out of Kansas?"
Seventeen years ago, shortly after I had left seminary, I was asked by a native of southwest Missouri where I had come from, where I had most recently lived. And when I answered "Kansas City," I heard, "Well, I'll bet you're glad to get out of there!" Which is the equivalent of "Can anything GOOD come out of Kansas City?"
After the presidential elections of ‘92 and ‘96, I'm sure that there were Republicans--and probably a few Democrats--who were asking, "Can anything GOOD come out of Arkansas?"
One of Bill Clinton's nastiest critics was Rush Limbaugh. Rush was originally from Missouri. And I'll let you fill in the blanks on that one.
"When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"
So Philip has told Nathanael, "We have found the Messiah!" And we could probably paraphrase Nathanael's response as, "You've got to be kidding! A Nazarene?" And if we were to stop the story right there, we might even be thinking to ourselves, "What blasphemy! How DARE he say such a thing!"
And if we didn't know what was to happen next, what might we anticipate from Jesus? Would he be upset? Are WE upset with putdowns? You've probably all heard the story of the fellow who got a new job, but had not yet been filled in on all that was expected of him. So the first thing that happened was that his boss handed him a broom, and said, "You can begin by sweeping the floor." And the new employee was irate! He said, "But I'm a college graduate!" And his boss said, "In that case, I'll show you how." But Jesus is NOT upset with the putdown. In fact, he seems rather pleased. "At last, a really honest person! Somebody who speaks his mind!"
Well, Nathanael doesn't know what to make of this. "Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you."
And he might as well have said, "I have ALWAYS known you."
There is another story in the gospel according to John that I am reminded of.
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he overwhelmed her when he said, "You are right in saying, "I have no husband"; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband."
“When she went back to the city she told the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"
The Samaritan woman has discovered that she cannot hide the truth from this man. Nathanael discovers that he cannot hide himself from Jesus. In both cases, it is as if Jesus has always known them.
I've come to believe this about God's call: If God truly WANTS us, God will reach us, will call us, when God NEEDS us. We may think we're avoiding it, or delaying it, but we can't HIDE from it, and our schedule is not God's schedule.
And when life isn't following the path we want, maybe we're just on a detour that God has chosen for us.
Well, Nathanael the cynic is overwhelmed.
"Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
Nathanael has been transformed from agnostic to true believer. And what did it take? It took KNOWING that Jesus knew him before he met him.
Now let me try to explain what this means in terms of a calling. At least in my experience and in the experience of other pastors I have known. I discovered that, when I first had this sense of call, that other events in my life started to fall into place.
And it was as if other events had been pointing in this direction, as if other events had been building on one another. As if God KNEW me all along and was creating a path for me to follow and was patiently waiting for me to discover it.
Another word for it might be revelation. Our lives are REVEALED to us by the one who has always KNOWN us. And we come to understand that events in our lives that didn't make much sense at the time, suddenly BEGIN to make a lot of sense. And we come to understand that CALL can be a long time in the making.
But Jesus tries to put things into perspective for Nathanael.
"Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these."
And I can imagine God speaking to those who suddenly feel called, "Do you believe because of this ONE event in your life? You will see greater things!" And indeed, for those of us who feel called, we DO see greater things, and the call can only become stronger.
Have you figured out why Nathanael was the Missouri disciple? This IS the "Show me" state, isn't it? And Nathanael needed to be shown. Nathanael doubted that anything good could come out of Nazareth, so Jesus showed Nathanael who was in charge. And it was enough.
"And Jesus said to him, "Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
And indeed, as one of the twelve, Nathanael experienced first hand the messages of God to come through Jesus, through his healings, through his teachings, and ultimately through his death and resurrection.
But there is one last wonderful message in this story. Nathanael was a stubborn, cynical, outspoken disciple, and Jesus received him with joy. And I would like to believe that God understands our stubbornness, our cynicism, our frustrations, our impatience; and like Jesus, works WITH us to help us remain faithful.
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