Do you remember your first words? No, not your baby words, not the “mama” or “dada” you said to the delight of your parents. Your first words as a follower of Jesus, your first Christian words. Did they come in a song when you were just a child? Jesus loves me, or Jesus loves the little children. Or when you were a bit older, perhaps? I believe, amazing grace, o for a thousand tongues? Did you call Jesus Savior, Redeemer, Lord, or maybe friend? Can you remember your first words?
Everyone knows that babies learn words by imitating the words and sounds they hear. But recently scientists have taught us that things are more complicated than that. It turns out, babies need to learn to imitate, which means the first step of language learning for an infant is for the parents to imitate the child. The baby coos, and the mother coos back. She gurgles, and her daddy gurgles, too. She cries, and her parents say, oh, oh, which sounds like her crying. When she sees her parents imitating her, she starts to imitate them back. The mommy says, mama, and she says, mamamama. The daddy says, dadda, and she says, dadadada. And of course the mother and father imitate again what the baby says, and the baby imitates her parents, and on and on it goes. This is how we learn to speak.
In fact, this game of imitating and being imitated doesn’t stop once we learn to speak. It goes on for a long time, maybe even our whole lives. You go to school, and you learn to speak the language of science, math, history, or music by trying out new words and new sentences, imitating how your teachers use them. New words become part of your everyday world: cellular mitosis, tangent and cosign, Mesopotamia, and treble clef. You fall in love and begin to use the language of romance. You risk a word that you imitate from a book, a play, or a movie: “I love you.” You experience the embarrassment when that word hangs in the air with no reply—or the joy when your beloved repeats the word back to you: “I love you, too.” You enter the workforce and learn the specialized vocabulary of your career and even of the particular company or organization that employs you. You learn to speak by repeating what you hear others say. Sooner or later you start to play the game in both directions. You teach others who are newer to the game than you are even while you continue to learn from more experienced players.
Discipleship is the most important language-learning we do. Think about it: in Jesus Christ, God’s Word imitates our human words. God’s Word puts on human flesh, enters into time, and speaks so that our human ears can hear. Just like when we’re babies, we learn to imitate God’s Word by the fact that God’s Word imitates us. And then we spend our whole lives imitating that Word, trying to make our words more and more like him, like his words. Words like grace, love, Lord, repentance, sin, forgiveness, peace, blessing, happiness, joy, faith, hope, gift. And we start to experiment with these words by finding others who we think might use them, too. We try them out on these others, and we discover that we need these other people in order to speak the right way, in order to use the words we’ve been given the way they were intended to be used. We call this church. And eventually, if we commit ourselves to learning the words of the Word, of Jesus Christ, we begin to help others learn them. We play the game in both directions. We call this leadership.
Of course, it’s not just that we are learning new words, words we’ve never heard before we meet Jesus. It’s also true that we discover we were using words we thought we knew the wrong way, and that some words take on new meanings. That’s what’s going on in this morning’s reading from John. Here is Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, God’s very presence, walking among us. And people are flocking to him, using words to talk about him that they grew up with, that, as good Israelites, they’ve known from childhood: Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel. If we were to turn back a few verses, we could add Lamb of God and Messiah. It’s not that everyone who sees Jesus understands right away who he is. After Nathanael calls Jesus Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel, Jesus doesn’t say, “Nailed it!” He says, “You will see greater things.” There’s more to come, Nathanael, more to those words than you could possibly imagine.
Notice, too, how quickly discipleship and leadership takes hold of people who meet Jesus. Traveling from the wilderness, Jesus finds Philip and only needs to say to him, “Follow me.” But the Bible doesn’t say that Philip immediately follows Jesus. Instead, Philip runs off and finds Nathanael. He’s barely met Jesus, and already he’s taking it upon himself to introduce him to others. And Philip uses the words he already knows, about Moses and the prophets and Nazareth, to tell Nathanael about this Jesus fellow. And already we can sense that the meaning of these words is shifting for Philip, that he’s saying something with them he could not have said before meeting Jesus. Nathanael picks up this shift, too, and asks about it. “Is it possible for anything good to be from Nazareth?” Nathanael is surprised by Philip’s new language, but he’s no skeptic. Philip, who demonstrates that leadership is just one path of discipleship, invites Nathanael to come and see, and Nathanael accepts the invitation. No skeptic would take a risk like that. Nathanael wants to have his words reshaped, too. He wants to discover new words like the ones this Jesus inspires Philip to say, “Come and see.”
Do you remember your first words? Jesus loves me, amazing grace, Savior, Lord, friend—how have these words changed for since you first spoke them? What new words have you learned along the way since those early days? What words do you still speak as if you had never met Jesus?
One of the reasons I think liturgical worship is so important is that it can teach us to be good stewards of the Word God gives us in Jesus and the words Jesus entrusts to the church. As important as words that just seem to spring out from us are, we don’t want to keep babbling like infants when we should be fluent disciples. Each week we meet Jesus in the Word preached and the Sacraments celebrated. Each week we meet Jesus surrounded by a cloud of words, words like thanksgiving, peace, Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, grace, sin, confess. Words we have heard our whole lives, and words that are new and even foreign to us. Words Christ himself gave to us, and words the church speaks in response. With each new encounter of Christ in worship, we learn to speak these words more fluently, more truthfully. Sometimes they become our first words. Hopefully, they become part of who we are, and by them we are transformed.
This morning we are going to install a group of people, our church leaders, who have committed themselves to a year or more of learning to speak more and more like Christ. They’re going to need to learn how to say things like call and discern and God’s will and stewardship. And they’ll face the challenge of taking words like budget and finance and contract and statistics and using them for the kingdom of God at Centre. We’re installing them in worship because they need the words of worship in order to speak these and many other words faithfully in meetings and discussions throughout the week, throughout the year. It is not an easy task, and they need our prayers.
But that’s not all. Next week is our Covenant Renewal Service. We’re going to take words, words that Methodist have been saying for over two hundred years, and by the grace of God we’re going to make them our words. We’re going to make promises, maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth, to be people of our word because we are people of the Word. So get ready, because the words Jesus spoke to Philip are now addressed to all of us: Follow me. What will your first words be? In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.