“Follow me”. What is Jesus the Christ calling us into? Are we to follow him to some location? Are we to follow him into the religion called Christianity with its rituals, belief system, moral code? I don’t think so. He had nothing to do with the formation of that tradition—it didn’t exist when he was walking the earth. Now, don’t get me wrong. Our tradition can be part of a wonderful spiritual journey. What I am simply pointing out is that you can be what is called a “good Christian”—take part in the rituals, adhere to its moral code, and believe its stories—and still be missing the mark—still not answering the call—because that tradition, those traditions, in and of themselves, will not take you where the Christ is. After all, what we call Christianity is inseparable from western culture—it is inseparable from the protestant work ethic, consumerism, our notions of good and bad, etc. i.e., it is part of the old pattern, it is, for many of us, part of our conditioning, part and parcel of what early Christians called the old self.
So, what do those words, “follow me”, mean? With those words we are being called into the kind of relationship with God that Jesus had—if the world’s 2 billion Christians had truly followed Jesus into that, the world wouldn’t look like it does. In plain English, when the Christ says “follow me”, we are called into a new, higher, consciousness. But we are not only being called into something, we are also being called out of something. That is really what a church truly is: the Greek word we translate as church is ecclesia—which means called out and to. When the divine calls us we are called out of one thing and into another. Both of our readings today are about answering the call—hearing the voice of the divine as it says, pay attention, follow me.
As I have mentioned before, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a person, he calls that person to die”. Bonhoeffer was a theologian with an exquisite understanding of scripture—and it is my opinion that he nailed it there. But what does this mean—“Follow me, and die?” Literal, physical death? No. Although, under extreme circumstances it has cost people their lives. But really what “Follow me” means is “follow me” and die to the old self, the old person, the old consciousness. In the earliest Christian letters—we hear language like, take off the old self and put on the new self. That is first century Christian speak for moving out of one stage of consciousness and into a new higher stage. What did the early Christians mean when they talked about living in this new consciousness, this new Christian life? First of all, it is a radical change of direction, his disciples left their jobs and their homes—in fact in Mark we hear they left all to follow Christ. This can stand for all who follow Christ, for to follow Christ means to be called out of the old pattern, to discard the old pattern, and when we discard the old pattern we stop being what we were conditioned to be, we stop being what the culture or society is: acquisitive, competitive, ambitious, and power-seeking. First century Roman controlled Palestine was this way and our consumerist culture certainly is. To help us understand what discipleship meant, to help us understand what discarding the old pattern meant for Jesus and his first disciples we can turn to some often ignored scripture. First Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”. Obviously, this does not mean that we are to literally hate our family of origin or life itself. But, what it does mean is that we must see, and understand, our conditioning, our conditioned selves. We must see, objectively, where and who we come from if we are to transcend or lose the old self, the old pattern, which the Christ is calling us out of. Matthew 10:34 also speaks of this requirement for discipleship. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” What? What is he talking about? Remember, the church is called out…again this is a harsh statement meant to grab our attention. This is about being called out of one’s comfort zone. We are being called out of our old self—and the roots of our old self, our old pattern, are in the conditioning we receive through the family and the society. Follow me, I am calling you out…I am asking you to leave behind the authority that the old self is bound by. If we don’t leave that behind we remain too self-centered to love selflessly as the Christ did. This is the whole point—for us to be able to love as the Christ did—a person who emptied himself of all ego.
As I said earlier, of course we are not literally meant to dislike or even ignore our family—I know plenty of people that have run away from their families—only to still be controlled by their childhood experiences. This is about truly being free, not being bound by our early experiences, as well as our self-defensive reaction to them; this is about being free in Christ as Paul said. This freedom is the Good News of the Christ.
When have you been called out of the old way of living—out of the old self—out of your old pattern? When has Christ called you? When has Christ asked your old self to die for him? How does an old self die? How do we follow the Christ into the unknown? I have come to see that the Christ is always saying “Follow me”. BECAUSE, THE CHRIST IS ALWAYS HERE, IN EACH NEW UNFOLDING MOMENT—WE ARE CALLED. All of this informs our reading from John today.
In that text, Jesus says to Philip, “Follow me”. And then we hear Philip say to Nathanael, “Hey, we have found the one written about in our tradition”. In other words, we have found the Christ, the bringer of a new reality—the one that infinitely transcends our tradition—even while it points toward him. And Nathanael is skeptical—he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” To this Philip says, “Come and see”. This is what we all must do. We must tell others of our experience of the Christ—and we must tell them, “Come and see”—you must see this for yourself. You must see that right here, right now, there is, in the midst of all this consumerism, all this race and class division, all this conflict, all this self-centeredness and competition, there is a New Reality that we have been called into—we really do have good news—but you must experience this for yourself. We have been called out of the old reality and into the new…come and see!
In verses 47 through 51 we witness a strange encounter between Nathanael and Jesus. Nathanael is a disciple that only appears in John. And some scholars believe he is intended to be a representation of Paul. So Jesus sees Nathanael approaching and says that he is an Israelite without deceit. What does that mean? The Greek word dolos points to one that enters into relationships to satisfy his or her own selfish needs. Jesus is saying that Nathanael is someone that is free of this kind of self-centeredness. And then we find out why. We hear that Jesus started working in Philip’s life while Philip was sitting under the fig tree. This phrase “sitting under the fig tree” is a synonym for the place where Rabbis studied the Torah (Spong). We are hearing that Nathanael is free of this self-centeredness because Jesus has already known him or called him. Nathanael has been called out of his religion of origin—called out of his familial and cultural conditioning—and called into freedom, called into life in Christ.
In verse 51 we hear remarkable language—language that points toward this amazing new life. We hear that Nathanael will see the heavens opened. In other words, we hear that Nathanael will have the same experience of God that Jesus himself had at his baptism. Nathanael has been called out of the old self and into a new consciousness—a Christ consciousness, a consciousness beyond self-centeredness and the fear and greed that accompanies it. That is what our tradition refers to as being born again or eternal life. Now that, is good news.
We are the ecclesia, we are being called out. Jesus is always standing before us saying “follow me”. Will we go with him? Let it be so.