If you’ve been with us any time over the last three months, you’ll know we’ve been looking at John’s gospel. As we’ve done so we’ve been particularly focused on the signs of God’s kingdom. They’ve been right through John. They’ve been signs of the coming of God’s kingdom and the glory of his King, Jesus. And today’s passage is no different. It’s full of signs of who Jesus is, and what he’ll do. The signs are there in all the names and titles that are used of Jesus. I wonder how many you saw as we read through? I counted at least nine. They’re signs that Jesus is pretty extra-ordinary!
But this morning I don’t want to look at any of those signs. Instead, as we come to the end of our time in John, I want us to look at the people who first saw those signs. To ask, what kind of people were they? And how did they respond? Can they teach us anything?
In this gospel, the first person to see a sign is John the Baptist. He witnessed the Spirit descending, and remaining on Jesus. He explains this is the sign he’s been waiting for. As we read last week, he’s just ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’ But until he saw the sign, he had no idea who exactly he was preparing the way for. Now, thanks to the sign he knows. It’s Jesus. And how does John respond to this sign? Does he laugh, that it can’t be his cousin? No. He carries on with his mission, of pointing people to Jesus. He proclaims, and continues to proclaim, that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the one who’s come to take away the sins of the world.
Which leads to the next people who see the signs. It’s two of John’s disciples. They’re with John by the Jordan when Jesus comes walking by. John points Jesus out to them and again tells them, ‘This is the Lamb of God!’ That’s enough of a sign for them. They decide to check Jesus out. They start following him around the Jordan. Perhaps at that stage, they just want to know more. Perhaps they’re still wondering what John meant. But then Jesus asks them, ‘What are you looking for?’ Immediately, they’re just wanting to know where Jesus is staying, so they can talk with him, so they can get to know him more. But Jesus question goes deeper. It challenges them, it challenges us, to think about what we’re hoping to find. As we, like they take the first steps in following Jesus as disciples, what are we looking for? What are we looking for in life? What are we looking for in Jesus? And when we’re confronted with how he calls us to live are we ready to continuing following? Or will we go looking for something else?
Well, who are these first responders anyway? Well, we don’t even know the name of one of them! It’s possible that it’s John, the author of the gospel. That would fit with how John writes about himself. But it’s not definite. The first disciple who’s named is Andrew. But did you notice just how he’s introduced? He’s Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. Andrew’s relationship with his brother defines him! Anybody here with an older sibling, or a more successful one, or a ‘famous’ parent, will know what this feels like. To always be in the shadow of another. Peter ends up as one of the leaders of the apostles and the early church. So in some ways, it’s natural to introduce Andrew as Simon Peter’s brother. But, for anyone who is overshadowed by another, it’s good to know that Andrew’s contribution is vital. Because when he encounters Jesus, he’s the one of fetches Simon. Without Andrew, there would be no Simon Peter! Fetching his brother was ‘perhaps as great a service to the church as any person ever did. He’s a great model for us, in inviting our family, and friends, to come and meet Jesus. He starts at home, but this pattern of bringing others to meet Jesus is something he continues to do. It is perhaps the most common, and most effective, way of sharing the gospel. An invitation from one friend to another.
When Simon meets Jesus, did you notice what happened? Jesus doesn’t dwell on any of Peter’s faults, on his rough and ready nature, or his impulsiveness. It’s a great comfort to us, that when God sees us, he doesn’t see our sins and failures. These are forgiven in Christ. God sees us as his children, washed by the blood of the lamb. When Jesus meets Simon, he focuses on the potential that he sees in Simon. He gives him the name Cephas, or Peter, which means rock. Jesus begins the process of transforming him into the person he calls him to be, just as he transforms us through his Spirit.
On the next day two more disciples are added to Jesus’ growing band. The first of these is Philip. In the other gospels Philip only gets a mention as one of the twelve disciples. But here, in John’s gospel we learn that Jesus personally tracked him down and invited him to follow. Throughout the rest of the gospel we learn why he was singled out like this. He’s often shown somewhat out of his depth! Philip isn’t perhaps the most capable man! In John 6, he’s unsure how the crowd of five thousand could be fed, short of six months wages. When some Greeks come seeking Jesus, Philip is unsure of what to do and has to consult with Andrew. Then, in chapter 14, Philip is the one who asks Jesus to show them the Father. Even towards the end he hasn’t understood Jesus’ relationship with the Father. Which is perhaps why this time it’s Jesus who takes the initiative in going out and finding Philip! It’s encouraging to know that Jesus went out of his way to find the otherwise ordinary Philip and to recruit him.
Whatever his limitations, Philip responds just as Andrew did. He rushes out to tell someone else about Jesus! He’s ready to proclaim to Nathaniel that Jesus is the one that Moses and the prophets wrote about. Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for!
Nathaniel’s response is classic! ‘Nazareth,’ he said, ‘Can anything good come from there?’ There might be a bit of small town rivalry going on here. Nathaniel is from Cana, a small town in Galilee. Much as we might poke fun at Tasmanians, or New Zealanders, there was no love lost between those from Galilee and those from Judea. But more than this, Nathaniel’s scepticism is understandable. Nazareth is a small, nowhere town. It isn’t mentioned in any of the prophets that Philip spoke about in connection with Messiah. Though of course we know that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. Philip responds in the best way possible. He doesn’t have all the answers. Instead he invites Nathaniel to come and see for himself. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to ask people to meet Jesus for themselves. What if you asked someone to read the bible with you? If you just invited someone to read with you, to meet Jesus and to decide for themselves?
Nathaniel takes Philip up on his offer and goes with him to meet Jesus. As they come near, Jesus demonstrates that he indeed knows the heart of every person, as we read in 2:25. He greets Nathaniel as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. It’s a great complement, one that captures Nathaniel’s attention. But he’s even more surprised when Jesus admits to seeing Nathaniel under a fig tree, before he was even called. The significance of this might be lost on us, but it wasn’t on Nathaniel. He sees this as a sign, and straight away confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the long promised King of Israel.
Jesus responds with a great promise, to Nathaniel and to us. That we will see even greater things than this. And, as we’ve seen over the past three months we certainly do. We see the great signs. The signs that heaven has opened up. We’ve seen that the connection between heaven and earth is made in Jesus. That he’s one through whom God’s kingdom breaks into our world.
The first disciples, those who first saw the signs of this happening were just ordinary folk. They weren’t remarkable. They were overshadowed like Andrew, and they were unknowns. They were explosive, potential leaders like Peter. They were withdrawn, struggling characters like Philip. They were earnest, ingenuous souls like Nathaniel. They were ordinary folk, just like us. They heard the call to follow, and they took that step of faith. They remind us that Jesus still calls. He still invites people to follow him.
And what they did next is important too. After they took those first steps they kept following. Despite the confessions they make in this chapter, as the gospel unfolds we see them still grappling with the significance of the signs they witnessed. We see them still trying to work out what God’s kingdom was about. We see them growing in their relationship with Jesus. They remind us that we need to press on in our faith, that we need to hear that call and to continue to respond to it day by day.
And these first disciples remind us that we have to share the signs we’ve seen with others. That we all have a part to play in sharing the gospel. That we can all invite others to check Jesus out. And when we do, we should pray that they too will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing they may have life in his name.