Sermon – January 14, 2018 – Second Sunday after Epiphany

Jesus changes us. Being a follower of Jesus means that we see the ourselves and the world differently. Being a follower of Jesus means that we don’t just sit idly by but that we are active participants in our world—teaching what Jesus taught, caring about what Jesus cared about. Being a disciple of Jesus means that we cannot and will not be the same. Jesus changes us. Today’s gospel reading is all about this change.  It’s a story of transformation—but not the transformation of Jesus.  It’s a story of how those who first encounter Jesus at the start of his ministry are transformed and compelled to change.

Let’s talk about Philip and Nathanael. Philip has likely heard of Jesus. He at least knew of Andrew and Peter, disciples of John whom Jesus called before them. The story tells us that Philip was from the same town. Philip doesn’t really seem to doubt that Jesus, this new rabbi is something special. Nathanael needs a little more convincing. When Philip asks Nathanael to tag along with him and Jesus, Nathanael responds with doubt and cynicism, rationalizing that “nothing good ever comes from Nazareth.” However, things change once Nathanael is actually confronted by Jesus. In just one interaction, Nathanael moves from doubter to follower, naysayer to witness. Having barely interacted with him, he is the first to call Jesus Son of God. In a near instant he is changed and transformed, repurposed as a follower of Jesus. Encountering Jesus changed him.

In order to better understand just how outrageous and abrupt this change is, we need to better understand how disciples were traditionally called at this time. See, there was a definite process to calling disciples, one that Jesus completely throws to the wind. The role of rabbi and disciple was that of teacher and student—and teachers did not just pick up random students…students were groomed and prepared.  Becoming a disciple was traditionally a tedious process and began when followers were small children.  The children who excelled in their studies, the ones who could memorize the torah and recite scripture would be chosen to devote their lives to being a student.  When they were old enough and if they were good enough they could be chosen by a rabbi to learn that rabbi’s teachings and to follow them.  A disciple’s entire life was devoted to following their rabbi. You don’t just become a rabbi later in life when you have a mid-life-crisis or need a career change. This was a life long process. The idea that Jesus would call his disciples from their ordinary lives was outrageous and there was a great amount of risk for those who had been called to actually drop everything and follow him. They would have to leave their families, their livelihoods, their pasts, and risk an unknown future— all for an unknown rabbi? These first disciples’ encounter with Jesus had to have left them so transformed that they were willing to risk everything.  They would risk everything to proclaim this man the very Son of God, the Messiah—not just material things but their whole lives.

Jesus hadn’t even formally begun his ministry. He is still relativity unknown. He hasn’t traveled many places and he hasn’t even begun his teaching or healing…  But something has affected those around him in this special encounter that they are compelled to follow and, in the process, they change the course of human history.  They have encountered the divine in Jesus and they are transformed. Jesus changes people.

As we continue through the liturgical year we will hear story after story of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth.  It is a life-altering story.  The message of God through Christ is one that leaves us transformed.  It encounters us in different ways and compels us to see/act/be changed.   To the parts of ourselves that say “you’re not good enough” encountering Jesus leads us to say “beloved, yes you are.” To the parts of our world that preach division and exclusion because of one’s race, gender, or sexual identity, encountering Jesus means that justice is for everyone and all are included, period. The parts of own selves that hold biases against people who look different than us or come from places we do not understand fall away and we are required to see others in the way that God sees them—as human, whole, and worthy of personhood. When we encounter and experience this counter-cultural message, however many times we need to, we are transformed.

On Monday we remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Lutheran Church holds January 15th, his birthday, as a feast—naming him as a saint, martyr and renewer of society.  King’s encounter with Christ left him changed, transformed.  Because of his internalizing of the message of Christ, he knew that everyone was deserving of justice, equality, and self-worth.  His encounter with Christ lead him to risk everything to demand justice for those marginalized and lead in a way that was consistent with the very peace and love of God.  This doesn’t mean that Dr. King was without his doubts, he too needed to be reminded of this transformative power of God. In one trying moment, Dr. King wrote about this encounter:

 

“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

 

Like the disciples, Dr. King’s  encounter with the divine changed the course of human history.  But as we all know, this encounter came with cost.  Because when you are transformed by God you are often put in opposition to the world. Are we willing to risk everything like Dr. King, like the disciples?

Jesus is an encounter that transforms us.  The message of Christ is life-altering.  It compels us to see/act/be changed.  It calls us to be advocates for justice in our world; it demands that we see ourselves as beloved and worthy of love; it brings us, not to complacency, but to action. And how do we encounter Jesus so that we might be transformed? We worship, we spend time in prayer and hearing these stories of Jesus’ radical ministry and God’s radical grace. We spend time with people on the margins, as Jesus did. We serve those who need help, regardless of whether or not they deserve it. We partake in our holy meal of bread and wine, strengthened by Christ’s own life. And when we fail or fall short in doing these things, we remember forgiveness and get up the next day and try to do better.  What needs to be changed?  In your life… in the world? Where is Jesus calling asking you to follow him?

 May our lives be living testaments to this transformative message of God in Christ.  May the power of the divine be so strong within us that we are willing to not only transform ourselves but our world.