Rev. John Morrison
Readings: John 1:43-51 (NRSV) with reference to Psalm 139.
I’ve been with you just over a year now. Kristine and I arrived the week before SMAD2020 and SMAD2021 starts tomorrow. Two Sundays after SMAD, with most Church and Community Centre groups about to commence for the year, pre-COVID, I was the preacher. And I preached on the first of our three church goals – “Led by the Spirit we will explore what it means to follow Jesus today.” My theme was discipleship.
It’s been quite a year since – “unprecedented” as everyone seems to say. But we’ve been glad to share it with you. More about that next week though, on our final Sunday.
As it happens, today’s Gospel reading is also about discipleship. So, things have come full-circle, and in my last sermon with you I want to further explore that theme with you. From a different passage to a year ago with different insights for us to consider together.
One of the things I find interesting in today’s Gospel reading (John 1:43-51) and the preceding verses (1:35-42) is the connection between seeing and discipleship, a connection that operates at various levels.
John the Baptiser is with two of his disciples, Andrew and another one who is not named. John the Baptiser sees Jesus and he says to them: “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” He’s effectively saying: “See him! He’s the one I’ve been telling you about. He’s the one.” They leave John the Baptiser and follow Jesus instead.
This is a distinctive in John’s Gospel. The Synoptic Gospels focus on the first disciples leaving their careers as fishermen. John emphasises that they leave their previous religious affiliations.
John’s account says that Jesus saw them following and enters into conversation with them. He ends up saying to them: “Come and see”, and they do.
The next day Jesus finds Philip and says “Follow me” and he does. Philip gets it. He sees who Jesus is. He recognises him as the promised, long-awaited Messiah. We know this because he goes and finds Nathanael and tells him: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and about whom the prophets also wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathanael’s reply is sarcastic and cynical. There is a dramatic contrast between Philip and Nathanael at this point. Philip – keen, enthusiastic, believing. Nathanael – doubtful, reticent, cynical. “Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nazareth was a small, out of the way village in what many Jews considered to be an uncultured, impious backwater. Nathanael’s remarks reflect that view and display an underlying level of prejudice and discrimination.
Prejudice blinds. It curtails rational thinking and prevents us from perceiving the full reality. It’s hard to win an argument against prejudice, and Philip doesn’t try. He just says to him “Come and see.”
Come and see this Jesus from Nazareth. See for yourself. To give him due credit, Nathanael was willing to do this, despite his prejudice.
As Nathanael approaches Jesus, Jesus sees him. Jesus says to others, but loud enough for Nathanael to hear: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Nathanael asks: “Where did you get to know me?” and Jesus replies that he saw him – saw him under the fig tree before Philip called him.
There is something in this exchange, a veiled dynamic, that we aren’t privy to and presumably the Gospel writer wasn’t either for there’s no explanation. But it was profound for Nathanael and it brings a marked change in his attitude.
Previously cynical – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Now believing – “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
What we have here is a remarkable transformation that comes about because he is willing to explore even his prejudices. I think that is such an important attitude to have, not just at the commencement of the journey of discipleship but all the way along. We all have our biases and pre-conceived ideas and prejudices – our blind spots – not just about Jesus but about all sorts of things.
However, discipleship is about following Jesus and learning from him.
It is about laying open our prejudices before him and being willing to deal with them.
It is about embracing the possibility of transformation, as Nathanael did.
The opposite scenario and outcome is illustrated by the Pharisees that Jesus so often clashed with. Their prejudices prevented them from seeing who Jesus really was. Jesus said they refused to see and called them blind. Their blinding pre-conceptions eventually led them to hand Jesus over to be crucified.
Nathanael took the other way. A vital impetus to his transformation seems to be his recognition that Jesus saw him and knew him. “Who am I?” is one of the great existential questions that confronts us all. Tied in with that are issues of identity, significance and worth.
When Jesus addresses Nathanael, he doesn’t comment on his prejudice or negativity or any other flaw. Rather, he singles out his lack of guile or deceit, his honesty. Jesus sees Nathanael’s strength and what could be. Along with this is Jesus’ acceptance of him and the invitation to be one of Jesus’ disciples.
There are echoes here, probably deliberate of one of the greatest tricksters in the Hebrew Scriptures – Jacob, the supplanter. He tricked his brother into handing over his birthright. He tricked his father into giving him the firstborn’s blessing that Esau should have received. He went on to trick his uncle Laban. God saw what Jacob could be and changed his name to Israel, and he became the father of the nation.
A paraphrase I came across of Jesus’ initial words to Nathanael had: “Here is an Israelite with no Jacob in him. Here is not a chip off the old block.”
Today’s psalm (138) is a beautiful poem affirming that God, as our creator, sees us perfectly, knows us completely, inside out, and abides with us.
This encounter between Jesus and Nathanael suggests similar things, though rather more indirectly. The Divine Son of God sees us as we are, knows us, calls us, and is with us. As disciples, our identity, significance and worth are ultimately found in him. We come to see Jesus, and find he sees us.
As followers of Jesus, we too are to see people; to know them; to see the Divine spark of the Creator; to envisage what could be. There’s an old Hasidic tale that I think illustrates this well. I read it in this book that Belinda gave me at the beginning of last year – “Spiritual Direction” by Henri Nouwen, in a chapter entitled “Who am I ?”
The rabbi asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?”
One of the rabbi’s students suggested: “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?”
“No,” was the answer of the rabbi.
“It is when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student. “No,” the rabbi said.
“Please tell us the answer then,” said the students.
“It is then,” said the wise teacher, “when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us.” (p.109)
Towards the end of John’s story of Nathanael’s call, Jesus says to Nathanael: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”
Then the story ends with Jesus saying to Nathanael and the others present: “Very truly, I tell you (plural), you (plural) will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
The language here alludes to a dream that Jacob had on one occasion when fleeing from Esau- a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. It was an assurance that God was with him. He called the place Bethel, “house of God”, the place where God and people meet.
The only other occasion when Nathanael is mentioned in Scripture is in the very last chapter of John. He is one of the 7 disciples who were out fishing when a man on the shore told them to cast their nets on the side and they caught a net-full. We are told that at breakfast on the beach, Nathanael and the others didn’t need to ask the man who he was because they knew he was Jesus resurrected.
Jesus himself had become the ladder between heaven and earth, and the place to meet God was with him.
Nathanael had made the right choice 3 years before and had stuck it out. As Jesus broke bread that morning on the beach and handed some to Nathanael, I imagine Nathanael received it with immense thanksgiving that he was a disciple of Jesus. There would continue to be many challenges ahead, but he could face them remembering that he had seen Jesus, and that Jesus had seen him, and knew him, and loved him, and would be with him.
Friends, as I close, just let me say that there will no doubt continue to be challenges ahead for you too, even though 2020 is over. But take heart! You too are seen, known, loved, and not alone. You’re on the right track as you continue to be his disciples and to explore together what it means to follow Jesus today.
May the Lord continue to guide you, teach you, and bless you.