"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Saturday, January 14, 2012
Sunday Sermon: Nathaniel meets Jesus
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathaniel asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathaniel replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
As you know we’re in the season of the church year called Epiphany. This is the season when the spotlight is on Jesus, to show him more fully: to reveal, perhaps, aspects of who he is which we have not seen before, or which perhaps we have forgotten or not given due consideration.
In today’s Gospel this incident in the life of Jesus reveals one man's spiritual journey – Nathaniel’s: a man who went from a throw-away comment about Jesus being a nobody from nowhere to an encounter with that same Jesus that changed his life. The name Nathaniel, incidentally, means "given of God," yet Nathaniel didn't fully understand the implications of his name. His life had of course been "given of God," but he had no idea how true that was until he met Jesus. And when he did meet Jesus, he also met the Nathaniel he could be. It is as though Nathaniel never saw himself and his potential to be a different person until he confronted Jesus and I’ve heard other people say similar things about how they have become truly themselves since their own meeting with Jesus.
There are people we know who somehow draw out the best in us. Just being present with them creates a desire within us to be the best we can be. Most of us can remember a teacher who inspired us. We would give our best because this teacher was someone we wanted to do our best for. I remember such teachers in my own youth and I hope that in years to come some of today’s young people will remember me in that same way.
As we take a walk through this story of Nathaniel's call we learn more about what being a disciple is all about.
On the surface, it would seem as though the life journey of a Jewish man who lived 2000 or so years ago in a world radically different from our own, would have very little relevance for our lives today. We are from different times, a different culture, different lifestyles, different problems and different ideas about religion, life and living.
Yet, the story of Nathaniel contains some powerful spiritual concepts that can bring new meaning and renewal to our own spiritual lives but we have to make that practical application or the story remains just that, a story. It must have the power to touch us and to inspire the desire to change within us – a change that the Holy Spirit accomplishes.
We live in a world that has little time for religion. That’s not to say that people aren’t religious but modern expressions of spirituality no longer encompass what many of us would recognise as a Christian faith. My pupils are terribly cynical about religion. They argue that it’s not rational, that it can’t be proved; they dismiss what is certain, for instance the historicity of Jesus, as some age-old conspiracy. “They could have made it up.” they assert although they are less sure who “they” are or why “they” would have done that. Science and technology, they tell me, have all the answers. And yet some have a vibrant faith - of sorts, but it’s very much a-la-carte. “Yes I quite like Jesus but I also believe in reincarnation and karma.”
They don’t really work together. I tell them.
“I don’t care. It’s what I believe and I find crystals very helpful too. They channel my life-force.”
Good luck with all that then.
Life today is very individualistic and that’s true of religion too. I can reject it completely – usually, I have to say without really understanding or having got completely the wrong end of the stick. Alternatively, if I don’t like any bits of Christianity – judgement, for instance - I can edit them out and replace them with something more palatable. “We’re all entitled to our own opinion” my students tell me repeatedly.
No doubt you’ll have heard of the movement to have Jedi recognised as a religion. If enough people write Jedi on the census then the government will have to recognise it, so the received wisdom goes and so, every ten years thousands of otherwise sane citizens identify themselves as Jedi on an official form. The fact that there is no recognisable theology, liturgy, leadership or structure doesn’t matter in the slightest. I can be whatever I want.
And I’m not answerable to anyone.
“I’m a Jedi you know.”
Really? How interesting. What does that mean?
“It’s my religion.”
Yes but what does it mean? What’s it all about?
But I digress: there are three dimensions in the Nathaniel story that reach across the centuries and speak to us today of the true nature of discipleship rather than the mishmash of ideas that is so common today:
• We are Invited
• We are Known
• We are Promised.
We are Invited
Nathaniel wonders if any good can come from Nazareth because it is a place of no importance, perhaps a little like the portrayal of Bradford as a city that exists purely to make other cities feel good about themselves according to the American writer Bill Bryson in his book "Notes from a Small Island". In fact, historians tell us that the place is never ever mentioned outside of the New Testament until the third century. It was clearly a place of absolute obscurity. If Jesus was supposed to be the promised one, the one foretold in Scripture, it seemed to Nathaniel that the place of origin of the Messiah would be a more significant town, with more to commend itself, than a place like Nazareth.
But Philip didn't defend Jesus or his claims; he didn't throw up a lot of arguments. He didn't try to argue Nathaniel into his own confession that the Coming One had finally appeared and was walking among them. He simply said, "Come and see." He disarmed Nathaniel's defences and got his attention and Nathaniel's curiosity got the better of him and he let Philip lead him to this Jesus.
There is some wisdom here for our own attempts to bring people into the circle of Christian fellowship or to a faith in Jesus. We can’t compel, argue or shame people into a Christian faith. Remember these compelling words of Christ? "Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)
In Jesus the entire world is invited to share in the fatherhood of the God of Israel. Thus he says to Philip at the last supper, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." This is what Jesus means when he refers to himself as the "Son of Man." Jesus identifies himself with all of mankind and those whom the Spirit leads to faith he unites to God. So Jesus says, "Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (11:26)
In other words, we are all invited.
We are Known
At Nathaniel’s first meeting with Jesus he discovered that Jesus already knew him. "Where did you get to know me?" Nathaniel asked.
I’m quite bad at names. I always remember faces but names are more of a problem. When I was at theological college my particular friend Richard was from Sheffield Diocese and at some function or other I was introduced to the then Bishop of Doncaster, Bishop Cyril. Months later, at Richard’s ordination, in a crowded cathedral, Bishop Cyril tracked my wife and I down and greeted us both warmly by name. I felt really special and my wife was charmed. Somehow it is always more impressive when some well known person remembers your name.
As soon as they found Jesus, Jesus exclaimed, "Look, an Israelite without guile!" Here is a man who is without deceit, one who is straight forward, honest and sincere. Jesus saw him and looked directly at the core of his character. Jesus knew him before meeting him; he saw through him, if you like. And how did Jesus know him? He had already seen him "under the fig tree." It seems such a throw-away detail but it is really significant because under the trees was where great teachers in Israel gathered students to study scripture and the law to grow wise in the way of God and to learn how to walk in his ways. Such a man knew the scripture, knew the way of the Lord, sought diligently to be his man and to be bound by his word. Indeed some have argued that Nathaniel had been a follower of John the Baptist. Nathaniel was without guile because he had come to Jesus. Jesus also called him an "Israelite." That is the name of the people of the covenant, those who sought to be God's faithful people. Nathaniel was without guile because he had left off the study of the Scriptures to come and see if their fulfilment had actually arrived.
Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit had led Nathaniel to come to him and that he would now recognize Jesus for whom he really is - is, not was - and make a bold confession of his faith. When Jesus explained that he knew Nathaniel from afar, Nathaniel was so amazed, he had an instant revelation. "You are the Son of God!" Nathaniel was overwhelmed by the power of Jesus' knowledge about him. He confessed that Jesus is – is, not was - the unique teacher of Israel the "Rabbi," that he is – is, not was - God's own Son, and Israel's promised king.
What a marvellous thing that we should be known by God! The Psalmist expressed it this way in Psalm 139 "…it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
This is the deeper meaning to Jesus' knowledge of Nathaniel and that Nathaniel now grasped: Jesus knows his own and those who will hear him, trust him and confess him. Jesus says later on in the Gospel,
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
Suddenly Nathaniel, sees the whole world, his life, his own self and all of the scripture he had studied so diligently in a new and different light. Suddenly he perceived that his life, his present and future, were bound up together in the life of Jesus - as are ours.
We are Promised
When Nathaniel expressed his amazement at Jesus’ knowledge of him, Jesus said in effect, "Nathaniel… you’ve seen nothing yet!" He would see much more as he joined the band of disciples who would follow Jesus for the next few years: Jesus turning water into wine (2:1-11), healing a man from afar (4:46-54), healing a lame man, (5:2-9) feeding five thousand people in the wilderness (6:1-14), walking on the stormy sea (6:16-21), healing a blind man (9:1-7), and raising Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44). There is an interesting word picture in Jesus' words to Nathaniel. "...you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
This picture would be absolutely clear to a Jew like Nathaniel who knew the ancient story of Jacob and how he had a dream one night. Genesis 28:12 describes the dream this way, "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." The ladder in the Old Testament is the symbol of the means by which heaven is reached and the angels are the welcoming, celebrating company of God.
Now Jesus reveals to Nathaniel that he, Jesus, is the way by which heaven is reached. The welcoming, celebrating angelic band now welcomes the one who responds to Christ in faith. Nathaniel will experience more in his life as a follower of Jesus Christ than he would ever have dared to imagine.
The next time we hear of Nathaniel, he is with a few other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee once again. He is a party to the most incredible experience any human being had ever experienced. It is the Easter breakfast encounter with the Christ who had been crucified, but now appeared once again to his followers.
Like Nathaniel, you and I are invited to be a part of the company that follows Christ. We are known by the Lord more fully than we even know ourselves. And the greatest joy of all is that we are promised the eternal presence of God.
Let’s be like Philip and share it with those we know and love and let’s be like Nathaniel in the way we recognise and respond to Jesus ourselves.