Philip: The Careful Realist

Philip was the first person to whom Jesus extended his famous invitation, offering him the most basic form of salvation when he said, "Follow me." It was soon after Jesus met Philip that he made this simple though life-changing proposal: "Come join me. Share the rest of your journey with me," and Philip did just that. Such immediate acceptance of a life-altering offer seems out of character for Philip, because later passages in the gospels show him to be a cautious and deliberate man who was typically slow to make decisions. This essential invitation to the Christian life is worth examining more closely, and the first thing I notice is that Jesus does not call us and then send us out into the world to rely on only our own resources. It is most reassuring to realize that the Christian life is not a solitary journey, because Jesus asks us to follow in companionship with him.

In the Middle Ages, theologians used to talk about the "prevenient" grace of God, which refers to the grace that "precedes" us from the beginning of the world. I have fond memories of my professor of historical theology stepping back graciously whenever he came to a door with me and saying, "Prevent me." This was his humble way of saying, "Go before me." We are blessed immeasurably by the promise of Jesus to go before us wherever he invites us to go. He promises that we will never find ourselves alone because, if we choose to be aware, this One goes with us. This tremendously comforting promise offers us access to a profound dimension of wisdom and can take away the terrible loneliness of life. "Follow me," said Jesus, "I will go ahead of you. I will not abandon you." How blessed we are to be invited into such an amazing pilgrimage, accompanied by divine wisdom and energy for the rest of our lives.

The first thing that Philip did after encountering Jesus was to generously share his discovery with Nathanael, his friend from the village of Cana. Philip's neighbor, Andrew, had the same impulse to share the good news of Jesus when he went directly to tell his brother, Simon Peter, "We have found the Messiah." (John 1:40-41) One of the most consistent themes of my life is the conviction that generosity is the deepest characteristic of God. We see this noble quality of God throughout Holy Scripture. At the bottom of reality is a spirit of generosity, and when you and I are spiritually healthy we want to share the good things that happen to us and turn them into gifts for others. I believe this is a vital part of what it means to be made in the image of God; and when Philip was invited by this Generous One to follow him, he must have felt that this news was much too good to keep for himself, so he shared the gift of Jesus with Nathanael. I think we are never closer to the primal joy of existence than when we let the flow of grace come into us gratefully and move out through us generously. For it is when our blood stops circulating that our bodies get sick; it is when money is hoarded and does not move through the economy that a financial depression sets in; and it is when bodies of water are stagnant that they cannot sustain much life. These examples suggest to me that the true richness of being made in the image of God can thrive only in a spirit of generosity.

One of my favorite stories was told by Anthony de Mello about a holy man who reached the outskirts of a village one night and settled down under a tree, and I quote De Mello:

The sannyasi had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and said, "The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!" "What stone?" asked the sannyasi. "Last night the Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream," said the villager, "and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk, I should find a sannyasi who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever." The sannyasi rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. "He probably meant this one," he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. "I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it." The man looked at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond. Perhaps the largest diamond in the world. It was as large as a man's head. He took the diamond and walked away. But all night long he tossed about on his bed, unable to sleep. The next morning, at the crack of dawn, he woke the holy man and said, "Please give me the wealth that made it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily." (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p.183)

I have often heard it said, "There are no pockets in a shroud," for death is going to make generous givers of us all. We came into this world with absolutely nothing, receive everything we have in this life, and we're going to give back everything at the end of our lives in history. This should give us our best clue as to what is really important....

I imagine that Jesus sensed Philip's spirit of generosity that led him to share his good news with Nathanael. Now Nathanael's first reaction was skeptical, when he said to Philip, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip's response showed that he was wise in the ways of diplomacy. Instead of arguing with him, Philip had already learned from Jesus the best way to handle situations like this. So he said to Nathanael the very same thing that Jesus said to two disciples of John the Baptist, which was, "Come and see." He simply invited his friend to experience Jesus for himself. We cannot argue people into the kingdom of God. We love them into the kingdom. We cannot make people into converts through intellectual debate, because that usually evokes resistance or defensiveness. The way to draw people into the circle of Jesus' company is to love them as Jesus did. Such love becomes the magnet that draws people. Jesus said, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." (John 12:32) He would do this, not by a display of intellectual brilliance, but by that unconditional love that was the essence of who he was and what he did. So Philip did not say, "Come and argue." Instead, he invited his friend to come and see for himself.

We have a second glimpse of Philip when Jesus and the disciples encountered a large group of people in the Galilean wilderness. (John 6:1-14) Jesus had compassion on them, and began to teach them and heal their sick. (Matthew 14:14, Mark 6:34, Luke 9:11) As the sun was going down, the disciples came to him and said, "Send the crowds away, so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves. (Matthew 14:15) They did not want to take the responsibility for trying to feed that many people, nor risk the problems that might erupt in a restless, hungry crowd. They must have been very surprised when Jesus answered, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." (Matthew 14:16) Jesus asked Philip how they could buy bread to feed everyone, and John's gospel comments, "He said this to test him, for he knew himself what he was going to do." (John 6:5-6)

Philip told Jesus that, even if they spent all the money they had, they could not buy enough bread to feed even a little to each person there. (John 6:7) Philip's reaction was entirely practical and human, but Jesus may have hoped he would have a sense of greater possibilities because Philip had witnessed Jesus heal many people, perform amazing miracles, and he had been present when Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. (John 2:2) With this in mind, I can make more sense of Jesus singling Philip out to test him, perhaps to raise his consciousness of how much more is possible with Christ than Philip's grasp of the facts had led him to assume. Philip was probably the kind of person who would call his limited sense of potential "realistic," and Jesus was calling him to a higher faith in the power of divine energies. Philip had not learned yet that, ultimately, despair is presumptuous, because it is saying something about reality and the future that we cannot know. Who can predict what is impossible for the One who can raise the dead to life? Nobody expected Easter.

The last place we see Philip is in that great passage at the Last Supper, when Jesus was preparing his disciples for what was about to come. He spoke the words you have probably heard at many funerals, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." (John 14:1-4) Here is that same incredible promise that we can count on him and he will not abandon us.

But Thomas asked, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" (John 14:5) So Jesus went on to put it even more clearly, "No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also...." (John 14:6) Yet, in spite of all Jesus had taught them and this unmistakable clarification, Philip asked for even more: "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." (John 14:8) Jesus' response must have been filled with genuine frustration and sadness as he said, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9-10)

We may think of Philip as a slow learner to have been with Jesus for three years without understanding that he was in the presence of God, but the idea that the Messiah was both man and God was a radically foreign concept to first-century Jews, and we owe Philip a debt of gratitude for his dogged inquisitiveness because Jesus' response to him has blessed Christians for twenty centuries: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9).

Jesus was telling them that when they looked at him, they were looking at the essence of the Holy One. The unique distinction of the Christian religion is this wonderful gift of the incarnation: the One who inhabited the heavens assumed the form of a human being and came to us for our salvation. God became what we are, so that we can understand what God is. The answer that Jesus gave to Philip, "The one who has seen me, has seen the Father," puts the unique central claim of the Christian religion in its very clearest, most powerful form, which is incarnation, the coming of God in flesh and blood. It is the most incredible act of mercy and the most redeeming and enlightening of all events. The Eternal chose to enter time and space to become what we are, and this sets Christianity apart. To the question that humans have asked from time immemorial, "What is God like?" - the Gospel answers, "God is like Jesus."

In time, these words must have worked their way deeply into Philip's consciousness because it is generally accepted that he became one of the great missionary preachers of Asia, and he was martyred for his faith. Philip had a long way to go when he first encountered Jesus, but the invitation to come and follow began a remarkable pilgrimage through which his life was transformed.

I close now with the words that John wrote and said so often:

Depart now in the fellowship of God the Father, and as you go, remember by the goodness of God you were born into this world, by the grace of God you have been kept all the day long even unto this hour, and by the love of God fully revealed in the face of Jesus, you are being redeemed. Amen.