Epiphany 2 B: Come and See

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Come and see.

Think, for a moment, about the effect of those words might have on you were you to hear them in an everyday context. Would they generate a certain sense of excitement about whatever it might be you were being invited to witness? Perhaps curiosity? Or maybe gratitude that someone thought to include you?

Come and see.

The words are both simple and warm, issuing an invitation not only to see something, but also to join a community. To come along and be part of something.

Come and see.

These words, this invitation, form the heart not simply of this opening scene but much of John’s Gospel. John’s story is structured around encounters with Jesus. Again and again, from these early disciples, to the Pharisee named Nicodemus, to the Samaritan women at the well, to the man born blind, to Peter and Pilate and eventually Thomas, characters throughout John’s Gospel are encountered by Jesus. John structures his story this way, I think, to offer us a variety of possibilities, both in terms of the kind of people to whom Jesus reaches out and the kinds of responses they offer…and we might offer as well.

And so across the pages of John’s Gospel there are women and men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable, people of all shapes and sizes and varieties that Jesus meets. And to each one, in one way or another, he says the same thing: come and see. Come and see God do a new thing. Come and see as your future opens up in front of you. Come and see the grace of God made manifest and accessible and available to all.

In response, some take up that invitation and follow, while others are puzzled, confused, or simply do not believe Jesus’ offer. And some not only follow but invite others to do the same.

In today’s reading – and I’d suggest starting at verse 35 in order to hear Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and share a larger sense of the story John narrates – we have several of these possibilities before us. By way of background, it’s helpful to remind folks that just earlier John the Baptist had testified that Jesus is the lamb of God, the one appointed to take away the sin of the world. And so he instructs his disciples to go follow Jesus. Several do, including Andrew, who also finds his brother Peter. Jesus then comes to Galilee and bids Philip, who perhaps also was one of John’s disciples and who lived in the same town as Andrew and Pater, to “follow me.” Philip not only does, but he also seeks out Nathaniel to invite him to do the same. And even in the space of these few verses we have folks who run the gamut from eager to downright skeptical (to the point of being insulting). And yet each is invited – some by Jesus, others by each other – to come and see Jesus and, eventually, to follow him.

Come and see.

Such easy, warm, and hospitable words. The heart not only of John’s Gospel but Christian evangelism, as we are called not to cram our faith down another’s throat or question their eternal destiny or threaten them with hellfire, but instead simply to offer an invitation to come and see what God is still doing in and through Jesus and the community of disciples who have chosen to follow him.

But as simple and as non-threatening as these words are, I wonder how many of our people have ever uttered them, or anything remotely like them. For that matter, I wonder how often we have said them, not only to people who came to church one Sunday but to folks we meet in our daily lives.

I don’t ask this question to point fingers, but rather to highlight the reality that most of our people, and perhaps many of us are well, aren’t comfortable inviting others to church. Which is a challenge. You probably know as well as I do that the key factor influencing persons to attend a church for the first time is a personal invitation. It’s not the size or reputation of the church; it’s not the beautiful or simple building; it’s not the service times, style of worship, or quality of the music; it’s not even the brilliant preaching of the minister. All those things have value, but the number one reason people give for coming to a church for the first time is that someone invited them personally. Just as Philip said to Nathaniel, that is, someone said to them, “Come and see.” Which means that the future of the church depends greatly on ordinary, everyday Christians summoning the courage to invite someone to come and see what they have found in the community of the faithful that is their congregation.

Of course, this assumes a) that our people actually have found something that is important to them at church and b) that they are able to name and share that. So I wonder, Dear Partner, if you’d be willing this weekend to test those assumptions. Would you willing, that is, after opening up John’s story about these early followers of Jesus, to ask the present-day followers of Jesus in front of you to answer two questions. First, what is your favorite thing about the life we share in this faith community? Second, would you be willing to invite someone you know to come and see and share this aspect of our congregational life that you enjoy?

Certainly you can pose these questions hypothetically, but if you’re willing to go a bit further, I’d make a couple of suggestions. While you can of course invite people to answer and discuss these questions with each other, I suspect that these particular questions may make people feel vulnerable enough that writing, rather than talking about it, might be easier. You can provide 3×5 cards in the pews or have a half-sheet of paper with the questions printed already prepared and placed in the bulletin. (Either way, it may help to have some pencils or pens available.) They could then pass their answers in via the offering plate. Or you might instead, or also, send these questions out via your email list Monday morning and ask folks to send their responses back to you.

I suggest this exercise because I think it’s really important to help folks to identify for themselves what elements of the congregation draw them to come to church in order to help them imagine inviting others to come, see, and share what they appreciate. (If they don’t know why they come, or can’t name anything they enjoy, why would they invite others?) But I think this exercise might also be helpful because, even if folks appreciate their congregation, they may not feel comfortable or confident in inviting others. That’s important for both you and them to know. If that’s the case, you may want to discuss how you can help people feel more competent and confident sharing their faith and inviting others to church. (For instance, resources like Martha Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism or Kelly Fryer’s A Story Worth Sharing may help you move forward.) Creating a culture of invitation will take time, of course, but this seems like an excellent Sunday to get started as we witness these early disciples both be invited to come and see and try out doing the same with others.

I said earlier that the future of the church may rest on our ability to invite others to come and see what we have found in our congregations. I should clarify that. In a culture that no longer has a vested interest in encouraging congregational participation, the future of our faith communities will, I believe, be greatly determined by our willingness to invite others to share what we have found. But the future of the church is without a doubt in God’s trustworthy hands. And the same Spirit who descended on Jesus at Baptism is still working among us. Indeed, the Spirit that inspired Philip and Andrew, who reached out through their efforts to others, and who overcame even the skepticism of Nathaniel is still offering all kinds of people all over the world an invitation to “come and see” and creating in them the desire to do just that.

So no matter how you may approach this text, perhaps we might end with this simple prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit, that we may see and taste the grace of God afresh. Come, Holy Spirit, that we might share the grace of God with others. Come, Holy Spirit, that we might bear witness with our whole lives to the grace of God made manifest and available to us in Jesus. Amen.”

Come and see, dear Partner, for God is working in you and through you for the nurture, care, and growth of God’s people and church. Thank you for your faithful witness.

Yours in Christ,