Fortunately, Scripture deals with this issue, by showing us in John 1:35-49, how the earliest Disciples came to follow Jesus. Part of this passage was in yesterday's Gospel:
There's a lot that can be drawn from this passage, and this post will only scratch the surface. But here are some of the things worth remembering, when we find ourselves in the position of folks like Philip, or folks like Nathanael:The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). Then he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
The next day he decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
1. Jesus, the Objective Truth
Look at how John the Baptist describes Jesus (Jn. 1:36): “the Lamb of God.” And look at how Andrew describes Him (Jn. 1:41): “the Messiah,” translated as “the Christ.” And Philip (Jn. 1: 45): “the One about Whom Moses wrote in the Law, and also the prophets.” And finally, Nathanel declares Him both “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel” (Jn. 1:49).
What these titles all have in common is that they’re objective truths about Jesus. They’re things that are either true or false, and not matters of opinion. None of the men we see here decide to follow Jesus because they like His message or His teachings. None of them even talk about His message or teachings in this passage.
Often I hear Christians proclaiming the Gospel in terms of what Jesus has done for them. And I don’t doubt that: God is very good. But Jesus isn’t an iPhone: we don’t choose Him over competing brands because it’s to our advantage. For many Christians in the early Church, and may Christians today, accepting Jesus Christ was (and is) a death sentence.
Why do these brave Christians willingly accept rejection, humiliation, and even death? Because Jesus is who He says He is. When we forget that, we quickly because lukewarm: following Jesus when it’s easy, ignoring or rejecting Him when it’s not.
The concern of the earliest Disciples wasn't “do I like this?” but “is it true?” That should be our approach, too. If you’ll forgive the comparison, you may like or dislike President Obama, but the objective truth is that he’s president. Pretending he’s not would just be delusional. Likewise, you may like or dislike Jesus, but the objective truth is that He’s the prophesied Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and the King of Israel.
Our personal feelings, whether we like or dislike the Gospel, shouldn’t play a role. And that’s for good reason. If Jesus is who He says He is, we should follow Him, no matter how heavy the Cross, or how steep the price. If He isn’t, we should reject Him, even if His message appeals to us.
2. The Importance of Relationships
Another reason we Christians hesitate about proclaiming the Gospel is where do we begin? There are so many people in need of Jesus, and we’re so small. The problem seems overwhelming, and we throw our hands up in despair. But Scripture shows us a way forward: a small way that we can make a difference. John the Baptist present Jesus to his two disciples (Jn. 1:35); Andrew, one of those two disciples, then presents Him to his brother (Jn. 1:40-41); Philip introduces Him to Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew), who appears to be a close friend (Jn. 1:45).
That is, the journey of proclaiming the Gospel doesn’t start out by passing out tracts as bus stops or proclaiming Him on the street corner. It starts out smaller and much more intimate, by showing Jesus to the ones we love. This is, in many ways, harder. But it’s also more effective. Those who know and trust us, those who’ve seen the difference Jesus has made in our lives, are more likely to find the Gospel credible than absolute strangers. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for evangelizing strangers (see: this blog), but if we feel overwhelmed, this is the direction we should go.
3. Little Things Matter
One of the reasons that many Christians hesitate about proclaiming the Gospel more boldly is that rarely do we feel prepared. We worry that we don’t know Scripture well enough, or aren’t eloquent enough, or perhaps aren’t smart enough. We act like Moses, who was afraid to proclaim the truth of God, praying, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10).
But look at how the Gospel is presented to each man in this passage. There’s a short and simple message. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting: the people proclaiming the Gospel in this passage present simple truths about Who Jesus is. They don’t have to be Scripture scholars or apologetics pros. They just have to know and believe the Truth, and be ready to proclaim it… or more accurately, Him.
4. Come and See
|Caravaggio, The Calling of. St. Matthew|
That’s an important lesson for us to learn. When someone asks, “What’s the Mass like?” our first instinct is a lengthy explanation. Perhaps a better answer would be, “Come and see.” This invitation isn’t just for those we’re speaking to. It’s also for us. This is from a description of a homily Pope Benedict gave on this passage back in 2006:
"The story of Nathaniel also offers another reflection,” the Holy Father continued, “in our relationship with Jesus, words are not enough.”We're called to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As Catholics, we're fidgety about that phrase sometimes, because of how it's used in Protestant circles. But it's undeniably true. The Gospel is both the objective Truth and a personal invitation. We shouldn't ignore either half. The Gospel is as true as physics or historical chronology, but it's as inviting as a suitor outside the window of the woman he loves.
“Phillip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus personally: ‘Come and see!’ Our knowledge of Jesus, above all, needs to be a living experience. The witness of others is certainly important, since, usually, all our Christian life begins with the proclamation that comes to us from one or more witnesses,” Benedict continued. “However, it is up to us to become personally involved in an intimate and deep relationship with Jesus.”