“Follow me.” That’s today’s word from Jesus for you, in your hearing, and in your Baptism. Those are the words that make you His disciple. Although the word “disciple” does not appear in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to St. John, the text and theme is about discipleship. Jesus calls His first disciples, who happen to be Philip and Nathaniel. Not the front-running disciples we are used to hearing about – Peter, James, and John, but the somewhat “lesser” (if one can use such a term) and lesser known disciples Philip and Nathaniel. And in the encounter between Jesus with Philip and his brother Nathaniel, we learn a great deal about discipleship, about what it means to be a disciple, and also about the disciple-making mandate of the church.
The text brings out four distinct things about discipleship, namely:
1. Jesus seek and finds the disciple, the disciple does not seek and find Jesus.
2. Disciples make disciples.
3. The disciple of Jesus is known by Jesus before he knows Jesus.
4. The disciple of Jesus is given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.
First, Jesus seeks and finds the disciple; the disciple does not seek and find Jesus. It may seem that way to the disciple. You may think that you decided to follow Jesus, the you chose Jesus, that you made a decision or choice to be a disciple of Jesus. It may feel that way to you, but that’s not the way it was. Jesus seeks and finds the disciple. Jesus went and found Philip. Philip will later say to his brother, “We have found the Messiah,” but in reality the Messiah found him. Philip wasn’t looking for a Christ or a Lord when Jesus sought and found Philip. Why Philip? We don’t know. Jesus doesn’t say. Philip was a Greek from Bethsaida. Jesus’ circle of disciples was a mixed bag of fishermen, tax agents, and terrorists. Simon the Zealot was most likely a revolutionary. Matthew was a tax agent for the Roman government. You can imagine the conversations they must have had. Jesus picked all sorts of people to be His disciples, and the important thing to remember is that Jesus chose them. He reminded them of this, lest they start to think that they were running the show, “You did not chose me, but I chose you,” Jesus said.
Jesus found Philip. There is a sense that Jesus was looking for Philip. This is not some random occurrence. “Hey, you, over there. What’s your name?” Jesus knows for whom He is looking. And when He finds Philip, He says the disciple making words to Him. “Follow me.” A disciple is a follower, one who follows a teacher. Jesus’ words are not ordinary words, but divine, creative, powerful words that do what they say. “Follow me” are not marching orders but a creative divine mandate, like “Let there be light” or “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Word does what it says. “Follow me,” the Word says. And the Word heard is lively and active. Philip follows.
Our problem is that the old Adam likes to take credit for things. Instead of singing, “I have been given to follow Jesus,” the old Adam sings, “I have decided to follow Jesus” which turns praise into bragging, and puts faith’s cart in front of the divine horse. There is no hearing or following unless Jesus first speaks. There is no disciple unless the disciple making words are first heard. There is no faith without the Word preached and heard, no forgiveness without the Word, no holiness, no discipleship, apart from the discipling Word of Jesus. “Follow me.”
You didn’t seek and find Jesus. He sought and found you. Some of you, He found in your infancy, where the words “follow me” were poured on you in your baptism. Others He found later in life, but He found you nonetheless. When you were least looking for Him. But it’s Jesus who does the finding, and thanks be to God that He came to seek and find the lost, or we would be lost forever! Jesus decided to go to Galilee. Jesus found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Jesus runs the disciple making verbs, not the disciple. Jesus initiates, the disciple follows. Philipp followed.
Second, the disciple seeks out disciples. Philip finds his brother Nathaniel. God always works through means, whether to supply our daily bread or to bring salvation to a person. He makes disciples through disciples. He said to His disciples, “Make disciples of all nations.” He told them how to do it: Baptizing in the Name and teaching everything He taught them. And He promised that He would be with them always in this disciple making endeavor until the end of the age.
Disciples make disciples. That is the mission of the church. Make disciples. We don’t need to be in the dark about that or confused in any way. Make disciples. Make followers of the Lord Jesus by baptizing them into the Triune Name of God and teaching them the teaching of Jesus. And in this baptizing and teaching, Jesus is at work doing the disciple making.
This is the proper work and business of the church: To make disciples. To seek the unbaptized and bring them to Baptism. To seek the untaught and to teach them everything that Jesus has taught us. Jesus promises to be in the middle of all of it. There are really two works of the church: to worship and to make worshipers. To worship is to receive the gifts of Christ for one’s faith, life, and salvation. In worship we receive all the Jesus died to win for us and the world by the hearing of His Word and the eating and drinking of the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. But the work of the church, which is God’s work, doesn’t stop there. The church gathered worship. The church scattered makes disciples. Christ doesn’t keep His church huddled up into a locked, gated community but He scatters His church with His blessing to be a blessing in the world. Out there. Next to the neighbor, the friend, the classmate, the coworker, the brother.
Philip found his brother Nathaniel and told him about Jesus. Nathaniel is skeptical. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a no-name town that didn’t even exist in the OT. How could the messiah spoken of by Moses and the prophets come from a place like Nazareth. Notice that Philip doesn’t argue with his brother. He just says, “Come and see.” You want an evangelism strategy? There it is. Invite people to come and see Jesus in Word and Sacrament. To bring people to Jesus is to bring them to His church, His body. Come and see.
Jesus sees Nathaniel coming to Him and has a little tongue in cheek fun with Him. “Hey, would you look at that! An Israelite in whom there is no deceit. An honest Israelite!” (I imagine a big grin on Jesus’ face.)
“How do you know me,” Nathaniel asks. “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Two things here. Don’t assume that Jesus hasn’t shown up until you did. That’s a big relief and should take a burden off your shoulders. Before Philip even found Nathaniel, Jesus had already found Him. He always comes first. Before we can decide for Jesus, He must decide for us. Before we can choose, we must be chosen by Him. Little Samuel in the temple was called by God to be a prophet before Samuel even knew the Lord. Jesus knew Nathaniel before Nathaniel knew Jesus. He knew you too. From before the foundation of the world, He knew you and you were known in Him. You see, no matter what we do in the direction of God, God is always there ahead of us. Before you pray, God is there creating faith, because there is no prayer apart from faith. Before you knew Jesus, He knew you, as He knew Nathaniel, in all his skeptical snarkiness.
Nathaniel is impressed. “Rabbi, you’re the Son of God! You’re the King of Israel!” How Nathaniel got there from a little remark about seeing him under a fig tree is beyond me. But then, so is faith itself. We believe that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him. Faith isn’t our doing, but God’s doing. Nathaniel believes and confesses not because he’s so smart but because God is so gracious and merciful.
And Jesus says, in so many words, “Nathaniel, my friend. If you think that’s impressive, well, my friend, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus was referring to the vision of Jacob in the OT. If Nathaniel was impressed at being known before he had known Jesus, then this was just the tip of the iceberg, a little glimpse of the glory that was coming.
As a disciple of Jesus, you are privileged to know the very mysteries of the kingdom. You know the King. You have been given to live under Him in His kingdom. You have received His Baptism, His Body and Blood, His forgiveness, life, salvation. You have been given to confess with Nathaniel that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. You too will see heaven opened and the angels ascend and descend on Christ when He appears in glory to raise you from the dead as He is risen from the dead and give you the life that is yours in Him.
To be a disciple is to hear Jesus say to you, “Follow me.” It is Baptism’s daily dying and rising. To follow Jesus is to die to your old self, to Adam, to Sin, to Death. To follow Jesus is to rise each to to live in the Son as a son of God, knowing that before you found Christ, He had found you. Before you knew Christ, He had known you. Before you chose to follow Him, He had chosen you to say, “Follow me.”
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.