Our lives are what happen in between those two moments, in between that first call to follow Christ and that final goal of shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory.
It starts with the call. In one way or another, Christ calls all of us, all people, to follow him.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? It means every other claim on us, on our time, on our love, on our commitment, on our hearts and minds and souls and strength, every other claim, comes second. It means we have to turn away from anything that might separate us from the love of God and turn to Christ.
For Nathanael in our gospel reading, it means letting go of his prejudices against people from Nazareth so that he can follow Jesus.
That is a good lesson for us on this Martin Luther King Day weekend and in the wake of the racial unrest of the last several months. Following Jesus means recognizing that God speaks to us through the experience of surprising people, even people from places like Nazareth.
For others, following Jesus meant leaving their jobs and their families. That was the case for James and John, fishermen who worked with their father. When called, they immediately left their nets and their father to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19-20).
But not everyone abandoned the lives they were living when they were called. Jesus called Zacchaeus, who was a tax-collector and a sinner. Surprisingly, Jesus does not ask Zacchaeus to abandon his tax-collecting. But, having met Jesus, Zacchaeus knows he cannot continue his life exactly as before. So Zacchaeus promises to give half of his wealth to the poor and to pay back anyone he has cheated. Apparently that is enough—Jesus says, “This day, salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house” (Luke 19:1-9).
But Philip is the one who most struck me this week.
In Philip’s case, we do not know what he left behind, only that he immediately answered Christ’s call and began following Jesus.
But the New Testament makes it clear that Philip struggled along the way.
When a great crowd gathered around Jesus, Jesus asked Philip how to feed them. It was a test, and Philip failed. Philip insisted that they could never afford to give all those people food. Jesus worked a miracle (John 6:5-13). Philip must have felt foolish.
Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, Philip begs Jesus to show him God the Father. Jesus marvels that Philip has been with him so long and still not learned to know him (John 14:7-9). That must have been discouraging! Not much shining with Christ’s radiance for Philip!
I always take perverse comfort in reading about the struggles of Jesus’ disciples. Like them, I try to follow Jesus. And like them, I struggle along the way.
But I also take comfort in the perseverance of the disciples. Even when they botch it, which they do a lot, they keep going. Philip kept going.
Philip was with the other disciples in the upper room after Christ was crucified. Philip met the risen Lord. Philip received the Holy Spirit. And Philip played a pivotal role in the growth of the Church.
Philip’s real moment to shine came after persecution broke out in Jerusalem. Philip fled, along with most of the little community. But Philip kept the faith. When Philip arrived in Samaria, he shared the gospel with the Samaritans, the first disciple to do so. The Samaritans received Philip’s message with joy and were baptized (Acts 8:5-13).
Next Philip met a eunuch from Ethiopia—neither Jew nor Samaritan, but a Gentile. With him too Philip shared the gospel (Acts 8:27-38). From there, Philip continued his preaching tour into the land of the Philistines, ancient and hated enemies of the Jews (Acts 8:40).
In all this Philip inaugurated a new stage in Christian history. Before Philip, all of Jesus’ followers were Jews. Now, for the first time, non-Jews are included. To the best of our knowledge, Philip was the FIRST to preach to Samaritans, the FIRST to preach to Gentiles.
After that, we lose sight of Philip for many years. But Philip does not disappear altogether. Philip gets one more mention.
On his final trip to Jerusalem, Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, stopped in Caesarea, where he stayed with Philip and Philip’s four daughters, all of whom were prophets in their own right (Acts 21:8).
After that, Philip does disappear.
But we can say a lot about the Christian life as Philip lived it.
(1) Jesus called Philip. (2) Philip struggled. (3) But with the help of the Holy Spirit, Philip gradually emerged as a great Christian leader and took the Church into entirely new territory. (4) Finally, when Philip could no longer lead in the same way, he continued to support the next generation of Christian leaders, in the persons of his daughters and Paul.
It may be too much to say that Philip ended his life shining with the full radiance of Christ’s glory. But Philip did shine.
And we who have been called to follow Christ, we who struggle on the way, can take comfort in the fact that Philip learned to shine, because it means we can too.
Philip teaches us one more lesson as well: to do God’s work as best we can all along the way.
Philip’s greatest accomplishment was surely to bring new peoples to Jesus. And Philip’s greatest successes came after he had spent years with Jesus, witnessed the resurrection, and received the Holy Spirit.
But Philip’s work in the world began long before he was fully mature in his Christian faith.
Philip’s work begins in our gospel reading. Immediately after his call, the very first thing Philip does is share the good news with Nathanael. When Nathanael expresses skepticism about Philip’s new-found faith, Philip does what we should all do. Philip does not try to persuade Nathanael. Philip just says, “come and see.” Philip invites Nathanael to encounter Jesus for himself. And it is enough.
Later, but still during Jesus’ earthly ministry, some Greeks express an interest in meeting Jesus. They approach Philip. And Philip does not turn them away. Instead, Philip goes to Jesus (John 12:20-22).
As Philip struggled, as he doubted and questioned and did not really do all that good a job of following Jesus, still in the midst of his struggles, Philip brought people to Jesus.
And that is Philip’s true greatness. Not only did Philip grow over the course of his Christian life, not only did Philip shine with some of the radiance of Christ’s glory. Philip also shows us that we can do God’s work while we are still on the way, long before we really shine. All we have to do is invite people to come and see. That is itself to shine with a little of the radiance of Christ’s glory.
And so, on this day, I give thanks to God for the ministry of Philip, for Philip’s growth towards the radiance of Christ’s glory, and for Philip’s example of doing God’s work even as we struggle ourselves. May we follow Philip’s example.
In Christ’s name. Amen.