Follow Me ... Come and See
Sermon preached on Sunday, March 5, 2023 by Dr. Teva Regule, M.Div., Ph. D.
Reflections on John 1:43–51
Part of Sermon series: “The Pilgrimage of a Christian: Our walk with Christ”
Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—One God. Amen.
Many of you know that I have a Ph.D. in theology. However, I must admit that this was something that I never foresaw for myself growing up. This journey began more formally when I decided to go to seminary at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology as a second-career student in 2002. As part of the program, I took classes through the Boston Theological Institute, of which Holy Cross is a member. One of the classes I took early in my seminary years was one on Jewish and Christian liturgy. I remember that after class one day, one of my professors asked what my plans were for after graduation and if I had ever considered continuing my study at the doctoral level. At that point, it was something I had never really considered. I was already a second career student and was just trying to balance my seminary studies with my day job. But something caught my imagination and I began to give it more serious thought and preparation. I sought advice from other colleagues, from my professors, and from others who had been through the program. They shared with me their insights into what might lie ahead if I pursued this path. Most were encouraging, but a number also warned that it was not an easy pilgrimage.
Over the years, I kept in touch with this professor and, after I completed my degree, he encouraged me to apply to the Ph.D. program at Boston College. He obviously had seen something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. Although I had my doubts, I decided to apply and a few weeks later was invited to campus as an accepted student to “Come and See” what BC had to offer. That fall I would embark on what I called my “Ph.D. pilgrimage.” I really didn’t know what to expect despite having heard the prophetic voices of others. Nevertheless, I embarked on this new chapter. My journey was filled with an incredible array of joys and struggles (mostly the latter), but I was helped by the wise words of my advisor and the support of my classmates. In the end, it was not only the goal of the degree that motivated me to continue (although it has certainly opened doors that wouldn’t have been open otherwise), but the realization that the journey itself was formative. I had stretched my mind in ways that I never imagined and had deepened my faith in the process. The experience shaped me into the person I was to become and, in some ways, the one I am still becoming. Today, I encourage young scholars to follow a similar path, if they feel called to do so. It is not an easy journey, but well worth it.
Perhaps many of you have had similar experiences in your own lives—a time when someone encouraged you to do something, maybe even outside of your comfort zone or something that you had never really envisioned for yourself. You agree to follow their lead and it changes the trajectory of your life. Although not a perfect analogy, this is what came to mind when I read this morning’s Gospel reading (John 1:43–51).
The passage today is set at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. St. John prefaces this section by introducing the ministry of John the Baptist (as well as the prophets before him) to prepare the way for Jesus. In the Gospel of John, after Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He calls two simple fishermen and invites them to “come and see.” One is Andrew (the brother of Simon Peter) who recognizes Jesus as the Anointed One of God—the unnamed servant of God who the prophet Isaiah foretold would come to renew the Covenant (Isa. 55:3). The One on whom the Spirit of the Lord descended to “heal the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release the prisoners… [and] comfort all who mourn” (Isa. 61:1–2). It is in this context that we hear of the calling of Philip and Nathaniel in the reading prescribed for today (John. 1:43–51).
As he continues to gather His disciples, Jesus finds Philip and invites him to “Follow Me [Him]” (Jn. 1:43). Philip then finds Nathaniel and proclaims (like Andrew before him), “We have found him whom Moses in the law and also the prophets spoke…” and reprising the words of Jesus, he says, “Come and See.” They would have known of the stories of the prophets that we referenced in today’s epistle reading. They would have known that the prophet Isaiah told of the One who was to come, as John the Baptist testifies when he sees Jesus at the latter’s baptism, as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29, re: Isa. 53: 7b, 12b). They would have known that Jesus was this Unnamed servant of which Isaiah foretold when John testified that he saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus at His baptism (Jn. 1:32, Isa. 61). They would have known that John had prophesized that this is the One who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit so that we might become children of God (Jn. 1:33, Jn. 1:12). They were prepared for their encounter with Jesus.
Latter in the narrative, Jesus would tell Nathaniel that he saw something in him even before Philip invited him to “come and see.” He says that he is a true Israelite, but one with no duplicity (Jn. 1:47). [This is an allusion to Jacob who is the first to be named “Israel” (Gn. 32:27), but who was a man of duplicity in stealing the birthright of his brother, Esau (Gen. 27: 35–36).] Nathaniel is presented as one who is pure of heart. The text says that he saw him “under a fig tree.” Today we may wonder why such a detail is included in the story. The original hearers of this account would have known that the fig tree was a symbol of the peace of the Messiah (Zech. 3:10). According to the prophecy of Micah, those to be restored would sit under their own fig tree before their walk in the name of the Lord (Micah 4:4).
Although they were simple fishermen and probably had never envisioned a life beyond that, they freely followed Jesus after this initial encounter. He was their guide on this journey. Just like the Hebrew people who were led out of Egypt with the presence of God in their midst (i.e. a Pillar of Fire by night and a Pillar of Cloud by day), they would be led by the One whom John the Baptist proclaims as the Son of God (Jn. 1:34). As we know, their walk with Christ was full of amazing things, just as Jesus had foretold, “You will see greater things.” They learned from Jesus’ teaching and witnessed His many miracles. We also know that the journey was challenging. But in the end, we know that the disciples became apostles—those who were so filled with awe and wonder at the Resurrection that they wanted to spread the Good News of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
This Gospel passage is read for us on the first Sunday of Lent as it speaks to our Christian journey—our walk with Christ. It is an invitation for us to follow Christ’s direction to “Follow Me”—to follow Christ—and begin our own pilgrimage to the Kingdom. For us, our journey begins at our baptism. In fact, Great Lent was (one of) the traditional times for those preparing to be baptized at the Paschal Vigil to enter into the catechumenate to formally begin this process. They would freely decide to embark on this path by approaching the bishop with the intention to be inscribed into the “Book of Life” (re: Prayer at the Reception of Catechumens, p. 146). Their Lenten journey included lessons on the Creed and Lord’s Prayer as well as spiritual cleansing of the body—for the healing of mind and body—to cultivate that purity of heart that Jesus saw in Nathaniel. As they began to walk in the footsteps of Christ, they were guided by the testimony of others who had gone before them. At their baptism, they “put on Christ” to continue their pilgrimage to the goal of becoming more and more God-like—what we call in Greek, theosis. To become more God-like is the telos or purpose of our journey.
For those of us who were baptized in infancy, Lent gives us the opportunity to continue this walk and deepen our commitment to Christ and one another. Someone saw a life in Christ for us when we were just a babe—usually our parents and/or Godparents. They gave us the invitation to this life as a gift. However, we must constantly recognize it and recommit to it. The Church invites us to “come and see.” In Great Lent, in particular, the Church gives us multiple tools for our walk with Christ. We have more opportunities for communal prayer. In addition to a weekly celebration of the Divine Liturgy (as well as Vespers and Matins), we have opportunities to gather for pre-Sanctified Liturgy and the Akathist to the Theotokos. We are encouraged not only to intensify our prayer life during this time, but to discipline our bodies with fasting and to reach out to our neighbor through almsgiving. (e.g. For instance, the Antiochian Archdiocese runs the “Food for Hungry Program” during this season.) We are encouraged to expand our understanding of the Biblical message through the daily reading of Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah as well as the numerous retreats offered at this time of year. We are encouraged to reflect more personally on our Christian lives through confession and spiritual direction and reconcile with ourselves and others through the communal celebration of Forgiveness Vespers and Unction. Reconciliation may not always be easy, but with the support of our community we can begin the process and continue our walk with Christ.
The Church also gives us guides for our journey. We have Christ and we have the community of Saints and Prophets. In fact, before this Sunday came to be associated with icons, it was known as the Sunday of the Prophets. This understanding is still embedded in our liturgical texts. For instance, one of the stichera at Vespers for this Sunday proclaims that “The Prophets bore the fruit of eternal life; they paved the way of the Lord. By their words they proclaimed [Christ]; by the deeds they honored [Him]…” (Vespers Stichera). Today we celebrate the coming of Christ in human form as the basis for being able to depict Him in icons. He came to be our guide on this pilgrimage, to show us the way to become more and more God-like.
Our walk is not without its challenges. The Sundays of the Cross and Ladder of Divine Ascent (celebrated on the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Lent, respectively) show us that it is filled with trials and tribulations along the way. But, it is also filled with joy in our yearly the celebration of the Resurrection. As part of Antiochian Women’s Month, some of the women of our parish will be previewing aspects of this walk with Christ through the lens of the Gospel message of the day. We invite you to “come and see.”
Let us gird ourselves for our Christian journey, asking God, as it says in one of the prayers for the 8th Day after Baptism, to “illumine our heart with the light of Your countenance [or face/support]. Maintain the shield of our faith unassailed by the enemy…uphold us by Your grace [by the Seal of the Spirit] and show mercy on us through the multitude of Your mercies.” (re: Baptismal Rite, p. 160)
** Prayer references found in Service Book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church according to the user of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 1987.