I have lots of friends who swear that Wicked is their favorite musical. They know all the songs, they have seen the show multiple times, and they reference lines from the characters. The cult around the musical feels just like that – a cult. When I confessed that I had not ever seen the show, my friends were aghast. “You HAVE to see the show!” they would exclaim. To be honest, they were so passionate about Wicked that I had almost decided that there was no way the show could be that good – surely I would be underwhelmed. But finally, after much cajoling, I went to see the show with some friends. And all of a sudden, I got it: the witty humor, the creative back story, the emotional narrative, and the moving music. I could not stop thinking and talking about the show for weeks.
Though we have all had encounters with people who are passionate about something – the latest show, a newly released movie, or a favorite restaurant – I imagine that few of us are as passionate about church. We just do not have the same fervor about church as we do about other passions in our life. Somehow, being publicly passionate about those other things seems more socially acceptable than being publicly passionate about church. Our initial concerns are usually about social stigma. We do not want to become that person that people avoid because we are always babbling on about church. Our fear may also be about what to say. How do we explain to others what draws us to this place and makes us spend a good portion of our time here? Or maybe we have lost some of our passion about church. Perhaps we come to church out of habit or some longing, but we are not so jazzed about church that we are rushing around, telling friends and strangers alike, “You have to come and see my church. It is awesome!”
Though we may not be running around like excited new Christians, the disciples of Jesus did in the early days. In our gospel lesson today, we are told that when Philip meets Jesus and begins following him, he finds Nathanael and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And when Nathanael scoffs, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip is undeterred. Philip excitedly insists, “Come and see.” You can almost imagine Philip’s big grin and irresistible enthusiasm. “Come and see,” he says. This is his simple invitation. Come and see. The words are warm and inviting. The words are gentle and hospitable. The words, “Come and see,” are not some forceful demand or even a judgmental threat.[i] There is no, “or else,” at the end of Philip’s invitation. His invitation is light and easy: Come and see.
That is our greatest fear when we talk about evangelism. Because we have such a meaningful relationship with God and the church, we do not want to be associated with Christians who judge and condemn. We would never be that Christian on a street corner telling people that they are going to hell unless they repent. In fact, those are the very people who sometimes make us paranoid to even admit our faith in public. Or maybe we have friends or family who were hurt by the church, and although we still feel drawn to the church, we want to respect their pain. I have lost count of the number of my own friends and family who have had those negative experiences: divorcees who felt judged or downright excluded when they wished to be remarried, women who wanted to be priests but felt that sense of call when the church did not affirm the ordination of women, or lesbian and gay friends who just did not feel welcome or treated as equals in the church. The list is extensive and even if our church experience is not like that, we fear being associated with “those Christians.”
The challenge for us is that we get so caught up in the “what ifs” of sharing our faith that we forget the really wonderful things about our faith. Philip reminds us today of the simple joy of our faith and our relationship with Christ. Take a moment to think about your favorite thing about the life we share in this faith community.[ii] I do not want you to worry about some elaborate theological explanation of your faith. I just want you to think about your favorite thing about your experience here at St. Margaret’s. Maybe your favorite thing is the community, and the warm welcome and inclusion you have felt here. Maybe your favorite thing is the way that the worship experience connects you to God or opens up new truth for you. Maybe your favorite thing is the way church is like an oasis, a place where you can breathe in the midst of the chaos of life, and find some sense of peace. Or maybe your favorite thing is something else altogether. But think about that favorite thing that keeps you coming back here week after week.
Now, imagine sharing that favorite thing with someone else, and inviting them to come and see for themselves. Before you panic, I want to reassure you. I am not asking you to go to someone and persuade them to become a Christian. I am not even asking you to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith.[iii] I am simply inviting you to invite someone you know to come and see that aspect of our congregational life that you enjoy. When we have talked about evangelism before, many of you have told me about how you do not really have any friends you can invite to church. Actually our excuses are numerous (and yes, I say “our” because I have the same excuses too). We may worry that our friends live too far away, or maybe they already have a church community, or maybe you just do not like to mix your friends community with your church community. Many of you have turned to me and either said, “Well, isn’t it the priest’s job to grow the church,” or “That is what our website is for.” And the answer to those things is yes. Yes, the rector plays some role in people’s attraction to a church and certainly many seekers find us through our website. But the number one way that people come to a church is by personal invitation. Every study I have read says that the number one way to attract people to your parish is through personal invitation.
The good news is that the personal invitation is not as scary as the invitation sounds. Just look at Philip. When Nathanael scoffs and says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip could have had any number of responses. As one person argues, “Philip could have given Nathanael some of his own opinions. He could have said, ‘This Jesus knows a lot about the Bible.’ Or he might have said, ‘There is something about this man Jesus that draws me to him.’ Even when Nathanael expressed skepticism about ‘anything good coming out of Nazareth,’ Philip might have listed some successful people from Nazareth.”[iv] But Philip does none of that. His offer is warm, simple, and gracious. Come and see.
The beauty of our gospel lesson is that Philip’s testimony to Nathaniel is not that impressive. His testimony would not win any academic awards or even impress most people. But his invitation does get Nathanael to in fact, come and see.[v] And that is what our gospel is inviting us to do today too. Not to come up with some master plan or some convincing argument. But to think about the one thing that draws you to this place, and then simply share that one thing with someone else. Your closing argument will then be easy. Come and see. I cannot imagine a better gift that you can give to those you know than to let them see the one thing that gives you life, gives you joy, and gives you passion; and then to invite them to come and see. Amen.
[iii] Michael Rogness, “Commentary on John 1.43-51,” as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2314 on January 14, 2015.
[v] Ted A. Smith, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 263.