Scripture: John 1:43-50
In some ways it was a bit of being at the right place at the right time. After all, when the Netflix documentary Tiger King premiered on March 20th of last year which was a time when a lot of people were looking for something to do. It turns out a lot of people watched it. By Netflix’s numbers 64 million households streamed Tiger King in the first month it was out. In the first week alone, Netflix users logged 5.3 billion minutes watching Tiger King. However, just coming out people might have been spending more time watching stuff is not the reason why the series that followed the rise and fall of Joe Exotic succeeded so incredibly. There is a good chance that even if you personally did not watch it, you probably did hear about the series last spring. A lot of people’s exposure to Tiger King was likely similar to mine. Friends on social media started posting about it. At a time when people were social distancing and staying away from each other, Tiger King seemed to do the impossible. It generated word-of-mouth buzz. As more people shared their views on whether Carole Baskins killed her husband or not more and more people decided they needed to tune in and see what this was all about. There was not a lot of marketing or hype behind Tiger King before it came out, its success was almost entirely because during a time of social distancing it gave people something to talk about.
Due to the unique set of circumstances that surrounded, Tiger King managed to achieve for Netflix the holy grail of marketing: Word of mouth. Companies pour millions and millions of dollars in to creating commercials and advertising campaigns, but research has shown that time and time again the most effective way to advertise a product is through word of mouth. When people tell other people about something, which is a lot more effective than any multi-million dollar advertising campaign. This morning’s scripture illustrates that a similar principle exist in our faith as well. The only way the gospel truly spreads is if we are willing to go to those who do not yet follow Jesus, and authentically say “come and see.”
We see the first example of this in this morning’s scripture. This morning’s scripture takes place fairly early on in the ministry of Jesus. He is just getting started, and according to the gospel of John, Jesus has not gone public yet. He had yet to do any major miracles or do anything to start garnering a crowd. Yet, in the interactions Jesus was having, he was making quite the impression. We do not know Philip’s backstory. Given that Bethsaida was a small town, he probably knew Andrew and Peter. Some scholars think the original Greek even implies that it was Andrew or Peter who brought Jesus to find Philip.
It feels like we only get a part of the story in this scripture. There are clearly details that are left out. Something must have occurred that made Philip a believer, there was a reason why he said yes when Jesus said “follow me.” We do not know the details, but after encountering Jesus, Phillip was convinced that Jesus was the messiah. I love what Phillip does next, he immediately seeks out his friend to tell him they had found the Messiah.
Nathaniel is a disciple that I think many of us can relate to. If you personally are not like Nathaniel, then you likely know someone like him. He was a skeptic. His very first instinct upon hearing about Jesus is to sarcastically ask how anything possibly good could from Nazareth. He immediately dismisses the possibility that someone as important as the Messiah could come from a Podunk, middle of nowhere place like Nazareth. Yet, Phillip is undeterred. He does not back down to Nathaniel’s dismissive comments. Instead he invites him. He tells him “come and see.”
I think it is for easy for us to undervalue the claim that Phillip was making. After just one meeting, Philip believed Jesus to be the messiah. Philip believed that he was the one that Moses wrote about, the ones that prophets had promised. Philip believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of proclamations that were over a millennium old. At this point the Jewish people had been awaiting the messiah for centuries. It is no wonder that Nathaniel was skeptical, because that was quite the claim. However, Philip believed this with such conviction and assurance that he could say “come and see” knowing that Jesus would not disappoint. That is exactly what happened! Jesus did not disappoint. Again, it feels like we only get the briefest summary. There has to be more to the interaction between Jesus and Nathaniel. It ends though with Nathaniel declaring that Jesus is the messiah and becoming his disciple.
From this point in the gospels, the reach, influence, and touched lives of Jesus spreads. He does it all without social media accounts, an advertising budget, or a marketing team. In the gospels, people were attracted to Jesus by word of mouth. They came to Jesus because someone else invited them and said “come and see.” The early church grew by the exact same model of “come and see. As churches we are not into marketing, we are into inviting. We are about telling people to come and see. In reaching out to Nathaniel, Philip had an advantage over us in that he was able to show him Jesus Christ in the flesh. However, we can still invite people today to encounter the person of Jesus and experience the love of God through the body of Christ. As we consider what it means today to invite people to “come and see” I think there are two key pieces we really need to keep in mind.
The first key piece is one that we often miss in our churches today. The American church tends to be really good at saying come and see, but we do it wrong. The default assumption seems to be if we build it people will come. For more than the past two decades the American church has really chased a model of creating a spectacle. A whole industry based around church audio-visual equipment has popped up. New worship venues are constructed more like concert halls, with state of the art sound boards, spotlights, and fog machines. For churches that have the financial ability to do so, a lot of effort has been put forth over the years to make Sunday morning a huge production. These big venues are built with the hope, which if the spectacle is entertaining and enticing enough people will come. It is not just mega-churches that take this approach. It is in smaller churches that the attitude of “if the community wants to find us, they know where we are” is most prevalent. Even smaller churches tend to plan events, even on a smaller scale with the hope that if they open the doors people will come. However, this decades long experiment has shown not to work, and this is because we are missing a key component. It is not enough to open the doors and hope people come and see, we have to personally invite them. Phillip did not say, “If Nathaniel wants to see what I am up to, he can come and find me.” No, he sought Nathaniel out. He personally invited Nathaniel to meet Jesus. Nathaniel was not some random person either, he was Philip’s friend. The invitation worked because they knew each other. We can just build it and hope they will come, we have to do more than send post cards or post flyers. The reality is today people are not going to come just because our doors are open. If we want to truly fulfill our mission to make disciples, if we are serious about wanting to see Jesus change lives, then we have to personally invite people that we know and have relationships with to come and see. I realize that in our unprecedented times, this can be a little hard right now. It is hard to invite people to come when we out of care for each other we are maintaining social distancing, but shows like Tiger King managed to spread by people saying you have to see this during social distancing. Even if we are not physically together, we still have a lot of tools to connect with people and we can still invite people to come and see.
The second key piece then is if we are going to invite people to come and see, then we need to have something to show them. What we need to show them is not a great, entertaining show. If people want entertainment they can find a lot better options than a church. This is true in even the stuff, we tend to be good at. For instance, there are motivational speakers who are much better presenters, more uplifting, and more inspirational than I will ever be. When we invite people to come and see, we need to show them what they are not going to find anywhere else. We need to show them Jesus. We need to show them a forgiveness greater than any of their guilt, we need to show them a love that is unconditional, and we need to show them a faith that can truly change lives.
We have to begin by confessing that as American Christians we have not always done the best job at this. For people who do not yet follow Jesus the words evangelical and Christian are virtually synonymous. A Barna study found that among non-Christians they more closely associated the word evangelical with a specific political ideology than with Jesus. This same study found that only 10% of Non-Christians would describe evangelicals as caring. A different research group, Lifeway research, has also looked into this. A November 2020 article published on the website churchleaders.com summarized their findings of interviewing non-Christians. The most common comment they got about us from non-Christians is that Christians are against more things than they are for. One of the collected comments was included. This interviewed person said, “It just seems to me Christians are mad at the world and mad at each other. They are so negative, they seem unhappy. I have no desire to be like them and stay upset all the time.”
We can dismiss these findings as a minority, but they speak to the fact that for too many people when they came to see Jesus they instead only found judgement and negativity. Collectively, as the American church this is a tragedy that we should repent from, and the best way to do that is to do better. We should invite people to come and see, and when they do what they should find is the very love of Christ. A love that is unconditional and a forgiveness that is absolute are the greater things that Jesus mentioned in verse 50 of this morning’s scripture. Those are the things we should be showing the world around us. The convicting question this scripture brings up for me, is if I were to invite someone to come and see Jesus, how would my actions be showing Christ to them?
I think there are two possible answers to that question which we can all put into practice. Frist, we can show people Jesus through how we love the world. When is the last time you gave of your time and yourself solely for the benefit of others? As followers of Christ we should be doing that regularly. Fortunately, as a faith community we provide opportunities to do that. Through Kid’s closet, the food pantry, and a monthly free meal there are ways that all of us can share the love of Christ with our community through serving them. Second, we can love one another. Jesus himself states later in John that his disciples are to be a living example of God’s love through how they love one another. When we invite people to come and see, they can see the unconditional love of Christ through how we care for each other. Even though we are socially distant we can do that now. We can do that today. I strongly encourage you to pick up the phone, send a text, or reach out in some way to a brother and sister in Christ and let them know they are loved.
Our mission is to make disciples and our vision is to change lives through sharing God’s love. That is only going to happen if we are willing to do more than just open our doors. We have to personally invite people to come and see. It will also only happen if when those people come they do not find judgement and negativity but they instead find Jesus. We show people Jesus when we love each other and we love them with the same unconditional love that God has for us. It is out of trying to love one another our doors are closed, but we can still practice that love today. May we do that, so that when we are able to gather in person again we can confidently say come and see. Come and see Jesus.