Seeing is believing.
This is the bedrock upon which the advertising world rests. A salesperson at the Godzilla Hawg Shop can talk to you about the 2021 Kawasaki Z125 Pro until he’s blue in the face. Won’t matter much. You have to see it to believe it. You have to try it before you buy it.
“Won’t hurt to take a look,” he says. And you look, and he tells you that “this baby’s less than $3,000, has a 37-inch seat height, only 225 pounds – a 125cc single-cylinder machine of aggressive style and raw power. Want to take it for a ride?” Of course you do.
Few people buy a house unseen. When house-hunting, we might tour several homes before signing the papers. It never hurts to take a look. And when we look at the amenities in the kitchen, the spacious en suite bathroom in the primary bedroom, the cabinets in the two-car garage, we’re sold.
But in a COVID culture, we’re able order a lot of stuff online. What if we want to look at the product before buying it? If we go to a brick-and-mortar store, we can touch things, feel them, look at them, test them. E-commerce is iffy. All we have is a hope and a prayer.
Until recently. Many e-tailers now allow us to “try and buy.” We select the items on the website, then choose “pay later” at checkout. After checkout, the order ships. An email confirmation then informs us when payment is due. Once we receive our items, we’re able to log on and pay for the items we wish to keep. If an item doesn’t fit or work out, it is returned.
Before we buy in, we need to get in. Before committing, we need to experience. We want to look, we want to touch and we want to see.
This is precisely what the apostle John says happened in the relationship the disciples had with Jesus. They looked, they touched and they saw. This matter of looking, or taking a look, is at the heart of today’s gospel reading. The expression “Come and see” is mentioned twice, once by Jesus and once by Andrew. Later, Jesus will say simply, “Follow me,” and at the end of Matthew’s gospel, he simply says, “Go …” There’s no “come.” There’s no seeing involved. The seeing part is over. Now, it’s “Go … into all the world.” Let’s return to this later. For now, we have to remember that “try and buy” is at the heart of our faith.
You might imagine a conversation in the Trinity of the Godhead. The point is made that providing the Law has not worked. Sending the prophets has not worked. “These mortals need to see us in the flesh! Nothing else will work.”
The Incarnation is — understood in this way — simply a divine surrender to the axiom that “seeing is believing.” So, God decides that being robed in fleshly form is not only a good thing, but an absolute necessity. People need to be able to see and touch the Divine. And so they do. Even the author of this gospel reports in 1 John that those who were with Jesus saw and believed: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3, emphasis added).
“And oh, did I mention that we saw, heard, touched and looked at Jesus Christ, the Son of God? LOL,” he might have added if he was texting today.
Our faith rests in part on the idea that even the Godhead believed that for the great plan of salvation to work, humans needed to see God in the flesh and in action.
Now, this God-in-the-flesh whose name is Jesus (“for he will save his people from their sins,” Matthew 1:21) is beginning His ministry. He’s been living, we assume, with His parents for 30 years. But the time has come. He visits His cousin John, the charismatic, somewhat eccentric prophet living in the below-sea-level area of the Dead Sea. Jesus is baptized by him in the Jordan River. Jesus then heads for the hills in the desiccated Judean wilderness, where He prays and studies Scripture and has a harrowing encounter with the Prince of Darkness himself.
But, surviving this, He is now back on familiar turf in His own neighborhood, putting together a crew for what would be an incredible three-year adventure. The first two members of the cohort, according to John’s gospel, are Andrew and probably John himself, and they start to follow Jesus without being invited to do so. Their master/teacher had been John the Baptist, and when he identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (v. 36), the two of them left the strange-looking prophet and started to follow Jesus. When Jesus noticed them hanging around, He engaged them in conversation. They asked Jesus where He was staying, and He said, “Come and see” (v. 9). Try and buy.
Then, in our reading, Philip, who was invited to follow Jesus by Jesus Himself, runs into Nathanael (also called Bartholomew) and says in so many words that he has found the Messiah. Nathanael, like the future disciple Thomas, is initially skeptical. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46). So Philip says, “Come and see.”
This invitation is a simple template for evangelism. It was a part of Jesus’ initial recruitment of disciples. As such, it is not a bad idea to emulate the formula that He used. There are two action verbs in this three-word invitation: “come” and “see.”
Usually, we work out the “come” part by asking our friends and neighbors to come to church. This is not a bad thing. But what is it that they “see” at church? They see a lot of other Christians. They may see a worship band up front singing songs they’ve never heard before and that are difficult to sing. Or they have a book in their hands with songs that were written 200+ years ago. It’s all very strange. This is what they “see.”
Jesus’ invitation to Philip and Nathanael was not to visit a house of faith, but a house of friends. As a template for evangelism, the invitation to our friends and neighbors might better be an invite to “come over to our house,” where they will be able to “see” us as real people, not actors. They might see us (who are believers, Christians, disciples and followers of Jesus) in our natural environment, just being who we are: Real, authentic, caring, loving people who follow Jesus.
Basically, we’re saying to others, “Try and buy!”
Still, inviting people to go with us to church is not a bad idea or a wrong idea. The thing is, God is an inviting God. God is always inviting us to be in fellowship. Extending invitations is a very God-like thing to do. It’s what God does. Therefore, the “invitational model” is one we should copy.
But if we ask someone to come, we’d better make sure there’s something to see, and that they don’t see the wrong things.
There’s a dominant gene in Jesus’ foundational DNA combination of divine and human nature … one that is touchy about the human need to see as a prerequisite for believing. Jesus clearly gets impatient about this very human tendency. Yet, it’s who we are. We need to try before we buy.
Although Jesus invites Philip and Nathanael to see before buying in (“Come and see”), He doesn’t seem happy about it in this reading. When Nathanael wonders aloud how in the world Jesus knows him (like, “Have we met before?”), Jesus says something about seeing him under a fig tree at a certain time on a certain day. Nathanael is rightly impressed. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49). But Jesus says, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” (v. 49). Perhaps this impression that Jesus always seems grumpy about the seeing/believing dialectic is one that is overlaid on the text because of Jesus’ famous interaction with the disciple Thomas recorded toward the end of John’s gospel.
There’s always this tension. Jesus understands that humans need to see in order to believe. He just doesn’t like it. He would prefer humans to believe in order to see, a sentiment echoed by Saint Anselm (1033-1109), who said (paraphrasing Augustine): “I believe in order to understand.”
If this were not true – that Jesus understood our need to see in order to believe – why, in the next chapter, would Jesus begin His ministry at a wedding party and transform water into wine? Think about it. Of all the possible ways that the Son of God could have announced His presence on earth among mortals, changing water to wine is His opening act? John writes, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (v. 11, emphasis added). They saw and then they believed. Jesus knew this about us from the get-go. Despite His “don’t tell anyone” statements, He knew that the crowds often followed Him just in case Jesus might perform a miracle in front of their very eyes. Miracles inspired or gave birth to faith. No question.
John even writes at the end of his gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31, emphasis added).
Unfortunately, many of us have poor spiritual eyesight. It’s not that God is not showing up; it’s just that with the cataracts of daily obligations, distractions and general unease, we often miss the signs. We don’t see God when God appears or when there is a sign of His presence. No wonder we sing, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord … I want to see You …”
Jesus not only says “try and buy” (“come and see”) in this reading, but He says (to Philip): “Follow me.” In John’s gospel, Philip is the first one to be invited and the first one to be on board with a verbal invite from the Lord Himself.
At the end of John’s gospel, Jesus invites the crew to have breakfast. “Come and dine,” he says (21:12, KJV). But it’s not a typical breakfast; it’s a working breakfast. There’s business to discuss. Jesus gets to work and starts passing out assignments. Perhaps some of the disciples already had their marching orders. But not Peter. And you know the rest.
So to what does Jesus invite us?
If we use John’s gospel as a source, Jesus invites us:
- to see where He lives.
- to observe the signs and wonders He performs.
- to stay and pray.
- to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
- to feed the flock (a life of service).
Let’s accept the invitation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to take a look. It can’t hurt. Let’s stop what we’re doing and think about what Jesus is inviting us to do, or to be. Perhaps we’ve been followers of Jesus for many years, but we’ve never really considered what – specifically – Jesus has invited us to do. It’s possible we don’t have a clue as to our role, our mission, our ministry.
Jesus says, “Come and see” – try and buy – and it’s an invitation that could change our lives.