A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philips’, Easthampton, Mass., on 17 January 2021 [Epiphany 2]:
1 Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:43-51
Come and See
Of all the saints whose names have identified the worshipping communities I have served, “St. Philip” is the least impressive. Compared to St. Joseph, St. Paul, St. Martin (not to mention Christ Church!), St. Philip seems to be … second string.
Over 150 years ago, the decision was made to name the Episcopal Church in Easthampton after the Apostle Philip (not – please note — the evangelist Deacon Philip). Some of our older members might be able to give more direction on how that decision was made. In my own brief reading of our parish history, I seem to recall that being a new church plant in the Diocese of Massachusetts (our Diocese of Western Massachusetts came into being in 1901), the name of “Philip” had something to do with the larger-than-life impact of Philips Brooks, who was famously the Rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, and in 1886, Bishop of Massachusetts. Reputed to be the best preacher in America at the time, Brooks’ death fifteen months into his episcopate revealed the regard others held for him. All stripes of Christian and secular leaders were brought to grief over his death. One observer reported: “They buried him like a king. Harvard students carried his body on their shoulders. All barriers of denomination were down. Roman Catholics and Unitarians felt that a great man had fallen in Israel.” (1)
And so it was – evidently — that the parish church that you and I call home is known as “St. Philip’s”. Strange how most of us would be able to speak with more historical awareness, if not appreciation, for the 19th century, Episcopal priest and bishop than we can about one of Jesus’ Apostles. As they say, “it is what it is”.
Poor St. Philip: Mentioned only three times in the gospels, he is often characterized as having a “retiring disposition”, someone who had more questions than disciplined insights.
For instance, in response to Jesus’ intention to feed 5000 people in the middle of nowhere, it was our Philip who wondered how it would be possible to buy bread for all the gathered hungry. Philip might also have had some parish treasurer in him, also saying that six months’ wages would not meet the unbudgeted expense of the impromptu picnic. (2)
Our Philip also had a hard time grasping the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship with the Father. As Jesus was addressing his disciples and bracing them for the events of what we call Holy Week and explaining that his life was God’s life, two times our Philip confesses that he is clueless about how to proceed with Jesus. And after that, our Philip asks Jesus to show the Father to him and his fellow disciples, as if suddenly surprised that being with Jesus involves big God-issues. (3)
But there was more to our Philip’s reticent nature than this. Two other incidents, recorded in John’s gospel, indicate a definite approachability to his character. Philip may not have been the type of alpha male that Peter or Paul was, but neither did Philip intimidate those he met. Specifically, later in the Fourth Gospel, in the wake of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, curious seeker Greeks (Gentiles, outsiders) approached and asked to see Jesus. It was our Philip who then sought help from his fellow Bethsaida townsmen, Andrew and Peter, to act on this startling news. Perhaps too reticent to tell Jesus himself, nonetheless, the Greek seekers found Philip to be a safe point of contact. (4) We see this same approachability in this morning’s gospel lesson, where Philip most famously leaves his mark on the gospel tradition that guides us today.
Jesus has gone to the Galilee region, ultimately to make his “home office” in Capernaum, a busy fishing and commercial town on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Andrew, Peter, and our Philip were from nearby Bethsaida, where the gospel tells us that they found Nathanael, who was from Cana. (If you made a clock-hand sweep from 9 to 1 o’clock, you would traverse a path from Nazareth to Cana to Capernaum, with Bethsaida across the river. We are not told the reason Nathanael was “found” by Philip. (Perhaps they were classmates in the regional high school, and Jesus’ presence was cause for a class reunion.). In any event, when Philip and Nathanael met, in rather familiar terms Philip told Nathanael that he and his compatriots had found the one for whom the Hebrew people had waited centuries and that he was “Jesus of Nazareth”.
“Nazareth!” Nathanael spit out. “That hick crossroads. You’ve got to be kidding!” And here is where Philip’s approachability saves the day. Rather than take offense at Nathanael’s pooh-poohing of something that Philip obviously treasured and was giving his life to, our patron saint somehow managed not to punch Nathanael in the nose but rather offered a gentle invitation: “Come and See”. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Second string among the Apostles or not, in taking Philip and his example seriously, it occurs to me that the Apostle Philip and this parish church in Easthampton are actually quite a good fit. Our parish, shall we say, has historically been of a “reticent” character, too; and surely other churches have more impressive pedigrees. (Just compare the architecture and location of our Congregational neighbors, for instance.). But as with St. Philip, I think our mission as followers of Jesus lies in our willingness to overcome our spiritual reticence and make room for others to “Come and See”.
So, to me, in terms of our identity and purpose as a faith community, our vocational issue rests in continually extending a faithful invitation to others – to those who like those Greek searchers are hungry for a reliable faith experience, as well as to those in our midst, who like Nathanael, have preconceived notions (and even hurtful experiences) of the church.
“Come and See”.
The invitational quality of our lives comes in two forms, and these two forms are noted in the lines from the Prayer Book’s “General Thanksgiving” – the prayer with which we conclude our “Prayers of the People” in this time of pandemic, Morning Prayer worship. The telling line that speaks to the dynamics of our invitation is this one: “…not only with our lips but in our lives…” What is it about the way we live and what we do that speaks invitationally about our faith and life in Jesus? As I have said many times before in reference to “showing up” at worship, you never know who needs to see you in church. You never know who is watching your example and how your example then fortifies the observer to carry on in his or her own struggles. The same truth holds for our example beyond these walls. As another saint (Francis of Assisi) has insightfully said, “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
“Come and See”.
But this truth of our examples is not the entire issue, for there are many individuals and many groups that do “good” things to address the common good, the needs of the neighbor. What is it about our actions, our examples that has to do with God’s call to us, with being real participants in what our Bishop describes as the “Jesus Movement”, a movement that reflects “God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope”, changing the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream that God has for us all”?
Sharing this God-work also requires our words, as well as our actions. It requires our awareness and clear expression of what there is to “come” to and what there is to “see”. Perhaps the sequence of sharing God’s “mercy, compassion, and hope” begins with our actions; and when others become curious about the integrity of our lives and what fuels our awareness, our strength, and our effectiveness, we can then express in words what we know about the God-life in Christ. Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, is wont to make the point like this: “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, then you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all” … because …
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead,
to heal the sin-sick soul.”
This is the Good and much-needed News. This is the reason we can invite and say, “Come and See”. In thanksgiving I ask you to keep coming and continue to add to what God-in-Christ is doing with us and among us. For as with Philip, we follow Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Mrs. Edward S. Drown, in The Witness, March 21, 1940
2. John 6:5, 6,7.
3. John 14: 8-14.
4. John 12:21