Today’s Gospel (John 1:43-51) is an interesting illustration of what it means to be an evangelist. It contains the calling of Philip, which is curious from the beginning because of the way John’s account casually describes Jesus’s encounter with the would-be apostle: “Jesus decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.'” The Lord ‘decided’ to go to Galilee and merely happens upon Philip. As weird as this might strike some modern listeners, it could also be understood as an example of God’s action in all circumstances and at all times. The casualness of Jesus’s ostensible happenstance encounter reminds us of the presence of the Spirit and Christ’s action in the world wherever we find ourselves.
But what is especially striking about today’s Gospel is not even Jesus’s direct invitation. It’s what his new follower Philip does in turn.
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.”
A lot of attention is typically given to the seemingly dismissive line about Nazareth in this passage, but on the bookends of that remark stand moments of great importance for Christian women and men.
First, like Jesus, Philip “finds” Nathaniel. He appears to merely happen upon him as Jesus did upon Philip. But more importantly, Philip’s exchange with Nathaniel reveals something about what it means for us to be evangelists, messengers of the Gospel.
Philip does not confront Nathaniel with a backpack full of answers and self-righteous positions in order to convince Nathaniel that he should become a follower of Jesus. Nor does Philip respond to Nathaniel’s possible incredulity with a defensive apologetical stance, seeking again to convince this person that Philip’s own following of Jesus is the best way and what Nathaniel should do.
Instead, Philip invites Nathaniel simple to “come and see.” This invitation echoes Jesus’s response to John the Baptist’s followers who elsewhere confront Jesus about whether he was indeed “the one” or not. At that time, Jesus’s message was comparably simple: look around, see what’s happening, do you not recognize the in-breaking of the Reign of God before you?
Philip models for us what it means to be true evangelists—not loudmouths who resound like a clashing gong, as St. Paul famously put it, but people changed by our own encounters with Christ who in turn invite others to see and experience the Lord for themselves.
But how are they to experience Christ?
Today’s First Reading (1 John 3:11-21) outlines exactly what we need to do in order to help others experience Christ.
The way we came to know love
was that he laid down his life for us;
so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
If someone who has worldly means
sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion,
how can the love of God remain in him?
Children, let us love not in word or speech
but in deed and truth.
Just was we experienced Christ’s love for us, we too are called as followers in the footprints of Christ to “lay down our lives” for our brothers and sisters, to provide for the needs of those who ask for it, to show the love of God by both our words and deeds. Jesus also says as much in Matthew’s Gospel when he instructs us to care for the least among us in Matthew 25 and elsewhere.
To be true evangelists in today’s world we have to demonstrate by our lives what we profess with our mouths. Like Philip, may we invite others to “come and see” and then also provide in deed and truth what ought to be seen by loving one another and refusing no one the compassion God has first shown us.