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Come And See For Yourself

 

 John 1:43-51          Genesis 28:10-17

 

“Faith is an experiment which results in an experience”, many preachers used to say a few years ago. Myself, I have never liked the expression. Anyone with even highschool training in science knows that experiments are carefully controlled set-ups designed to prove something about nature.  But life isn’t a carefully controlled set-up.         Therefore life has little in common with laboratory experiments.   What’s more, life, human existence in all its grandeur and depth and mystery and wonder, can’t be reduced to nature.  To be sure we human beings do have one foot in the world of nature; i.e., we share much with our second cousins, the animals.  But we also have one foot (better, head and heart) in a higher world. We transcend nature in a way that the animals don’t. I don’t like the expression, “Faith is an experiment which results in an experience.”

There is another reason why I don’t like it.  What is the experience which is supposed to follow from the experiment? Is it some kind of intrapsychic fireworks or frenzy or ecstasy?  I’ve seen many people, but especially younger people, who have been urged, “Try Jesus for the best experience of all”.  Then they try to work up a religiously-fuelled experience, never satisfied with the experience they have (whatever that may be), always comparing their rather mild experience to someone else’s intense experience, or at least comparing it to the intense experience they think they are supposed to have. Eventually they give up on it all, sadly turning away from the church which has disappointed them, even bitterly denouncing faith as fraudulent.

I dislike the expression, “Faith is an experiment which results in an experience”, for yet another reason.  Any “experiment” in life is going to result in an experience of some kind. Driving an automobile at 200 kph will result in an experience of some sort: either the exhilaration of ultra-high speed, or the distress of being arrested, or the pain of colliding with a bridge abutment.  These are all experiences too.

The purveyors of street-drugs are quick to tell young people that experiments with angel-dust and nose-candy result in a terrific experience. And so they do.

When we move from the sensational to the apparently profound the problem remains the same. Everyone is faced with a cafeteria of options for believing and living.  Christianity is one item in the cafeteria, along with the New Age movement, hedonism (maximization of pleasure), nationalism, eastern religions, existentialism, you name it.         When younger people especially look over the cafeteria-offerings, which one are they supposed to select as their experiment?   Since all of them result in an experience of some sort, how prefer one to another?

And yet I don’t pretend for a minute that a clergyman like me, saying, “Forget the cafeteria; Jesus is the way to go”, is going to persuade very many people either. Then how do people become disciples of our Lord, follow him through life, all the while finding their conviction growing that in following him they have set out on the sure and certain route and desire to look nowhere else? We can be helped in understanding just how this happens as we probe our Lord’s encounter with Phillip and Nathanael in the first chapter of John’s gospel.

I: — Phillip says to Nathanael, his neighbour, “We have found what all of us are looking for; we have found the one who addresses the unspoken longing of every human heart; he is the satisfaction of every thinking person’s quest; he’s from Nazareth.”

“ Nazareth !” Nathanael explodes; “Can anything good come out of Nazareth ? What did that one-horse town ever produce?” Nathanael is plainly sceptical. And there’s nothing wrong with being sceptical.  The opposite of being sceptical is being gullible.  I’ll take the sceptical person every time.  The sceptical person, the “doubting Thomas”, the man or woman “from Missouri ” is less readily damaged herself and inflicts less damage on others.

Gullible people, readily “taken in”, are always being played for suckers.  Because they are always throwing themselves after anything that sounds the slightest bit appealing, they are always on the edge of throwing themselves away. Again and again they are left jaded, discouraged and embarrassed.  It’s far better to be sceptical.  “Nazareth has never produced anything worthwhile that anyone can recall”, is Nathanael’s ice-cold reply to Phillip’s enthusiasm, “and I don’t want to run after this fellow you say you have turned up, only to be left looking like a gullible fool.”

And yet scepticism, carried to the extreme, renders us immobilized.  If I am ceaselessly sceptical then not only will I not purchase what is pushed at me through slick advertising, I won’t purchase anything. If I’m forever sceptical of the automobile salesperson, I am going to be stuck with walking everywhere. If I’m sceptical of every last woman, I’ll never be married.  We can’t live like this. If we are going to avoid being frozen in 100% paralysis, then at some point we have to suspend our scepticism.

II: — How does Nathanael come to suspend his?   His friend Phillip says to him, “I know you are a ‘doubting Thomas’, but come and see for yourself.” Nathanael trusts his friend enough to put his own scepticism “on hold” for the moment. Phillip himself had met Jesus on the recommendation of Andrew and Peter.  All four men lived in Bethsaida and knew one another. We suspend our scepticism upon the recommendation of someone we know trust.

I didn’t always think this way. I used to think that scepticism was to be hammered out of one’s head by rigorous logic. People were to be argued out of their unbelief and into faith.  Let me say right now that I don’t think faith to be illogical; I don’t think that coming to faith means pickling one’s brains.   Nevertheless, to say that faith is reasonable isn’t to say that people can be argued into it. Still, I used to think that they could be, they should be, and I was the one to do it.

When I lived in residence at university and was schooled in philosophy I relished the daily after-supper entertainment.  Before serious study got underway for the evening we customarily had an intellectual joust. I was good at intellectual jousting. Bold and brazen I took on all those who argued against faith and slew most of them. Some students were easier to argue into silence than others.  (Generally it was easier to turn inside out someone from the social sciences than someone from the natural sciences.)   I have to tell you, however, that not one of the students I hammered intellectually was won to the kingdom (as far as I know).  Public defeat did nothing to overcome their scepticism.  Instead, their attitude was, “Shepherd, you may have won this round through your verbal footwork, but we aren’t impressed, we aren’t persuaded, and we remain unconvinced as to the truth of what you tell us.”

As a matter of fact most people won’t be argued out of their unbelief.  Then how do they emerge from it?  Different factors, many different factors, work together to bring them to the one whom Phillip had met and whom he now recommended to Nathanael.

An important factor is our own transparency, our singlemindedness.  Upon the recommendation of Phillip, Nathanael started toward Jesus. Our Lord saw him coming and exclaimed, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile” – no deceit, no duplicity.  To be honest with oneself, to be without wiliness and cunning is to have taken a giant step towards truth.  If at present we are able to believe so little about God that we appear to believe nothing about him, believing only that we ourselves must be transparent, without duplicity, then we have unknowingly taken a giant step towards faith. You see, to be sincere in one’s quest for truth is to find that truth comes forth to meet us. God grants truth to transparency.

Transparency, however, isn’t the only factor in the mix that moves us from unbelief to faith. Another factor is sitting under the fig tree. When Jesus said to Nathanael, “Here is an Israelite as transparent as the day is long”, Nathanael replied, “How do you know me?” Jesus came back, “Even before Phillip recommended me to you, I saw you under the fig tree”. In Israel of old the fig tree was the symbol for the salvation of God.  People sat under a fig tree when they reflected upon the salvation of God, when they reflected upon it so as to quicken their longing for it. When Jesus said to Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree”, he meant, “I looked into your heart, and I saw that deep down you are concerned about the salvation of God and every aspect of it.  Your consuming concern is God, his truth, his way, his triumph.  I know that you long for God’s restoration of a world the fall has rendered false, a world evil now torments.         I know that you long for God’s restoration of men and women who were created to be his sons and daughters and are currently living like orphans. I saw you under the fig tree.”

At this moment Nathanael cried out, “You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.” At that point Nathanael’s scepticism evaporated completely.  He moved from healthy scepticism to healthier faith.

Remember: he wasn’t argued into faith. He wasn’t moved by a barrage that left him unable to reply yet still unconvinced in his heart. Instead there were several factors moved him from unbelief to faith: a friend whose recommendation he could trust, his own transparency and sincerity, his concern with matters that are oceans deeper than sports scores and interest rates; namely, his concern with the salvation of God and his place in it – all these factors fused together and were made fruitful by the approach of Jesus Christ himself.  Together they moved Nathanael to become a believer.   This is how people become believers today.

III: — Lastly we should ponder our Lord’s promise to the newest disciple: “You will see heaven opened, and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.  Here Jesus brought forward the old story of Jacob and his dream.  Jacob lay down to sleep and dreamt of angels ascending and descending upon a ladder that linked heaven and earth.  When Jacob awoke he exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place…. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jesus adapts Jacob’s dream, replacing the ladder linking heaven and earth with himself; he is where God “houses” himself; he binds heaven to earth and earth to heaven; he acquaints us with God just because he himself isthe outpoured heart of God and the face of God.  At the same time he acquaints us with a restored humankind and a restored creation just because he himself is this.

 

I can say without hesitation or qualification that Jesus Christ is indeed all that he promises to be. He is truth and way and life.

Jesus Christ is truth. As truth or reality he exposes illusion and fantasy and falsehood for what they are.  As I read novels or biographies I read them through the spectacles of God’s truth. And as I do this, I discern both reality and illusion not only in the characters of novel or biography, but also in the writers themselves.  In turn I am moved afresh to pursue truth in my own life, repudiating the seductive illusions, the enticements that lap at me as surely as they lap at you.

Jesus Christ is life. Since he has been raised from the dead, death cannot overtake him; neither can death overtake us who love him.

For years I have been intrigued by a peculiar awareness that looms in forty-year olds and grows as they age until it becomes haunting.  It’s the realization of their mortality.  When someone much older, someone ninety or ninety-five, dies, even dies easily, people much younger are disturbed, I have found.  The elderly person’s death has swelled even more their awareness not only of their own mortality but of the transience of everything about them – children, spouse, parents, careers, savings, aspirations. It’s all going to be swallowed up in death. Except – to love him who is resurrection and life is to know two things: first, our coming death is nothing more than mere biological interruption, nothing more than a momentary disruption of the order of a petty nuisance; second, everything about us that has reflected the goodness of the kingdom of God, will be brought with us through the momentary interruption. Jesus Christ alone is resurrection and life; to love him is to be the eternal beneficiary of what he is in himself.

Jesus Christ is way. The road of discipleship leads us to a glorious destination.  The road we walk in faith never winds down into a swamp, never lands us in quick-sand or dead-end.  Of course it’s not always an easy trek.  Any suggestion it might be is routed by one reading of the gospels or of John Bunyan’s masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress.

Yet as challenging as discipleship is, the challenge will never be greater than the reward.  And if in a moment of discouragement we are tempted to think that this way, the which our Lord himself is, is too challenging, a quick glance at other roads – meandering, desert-riddled dead-ends – will keep us following him who has pioneered the way ahead for us, now accompanies us on the road, and simultaneously cheers us on from the finish line where he awaits us.

Twenty centuries ago a man named Phillip said to his friend Nathanael, “I have found someone you should know.         Come and see for yourself”.  Phillip’s recommendation inched Nathanael past his scepticism.  Nathanael saw for himself, with the result that Jesus Christ became the truth and wonder of his life as well as his eternal destiny.

Come and see for yourself.

 

                                                                                            Victor Shepherd          

July 2006