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Epiphany 2, January 15, 2006
John 1:43-51, Carl E. Roemer
(->current sermons )

This story of the calling of Phillip and Nathanael (which in Hebrew means "God gives") raises many questions for the reader.  Why is Nathanael sitting under a fig tree?  Was he some kind of dawdler and slouch avoiding work and living off the handouts of others?  Why, when he is invited by Philip to come and see the promised one, does he ask could anything good come from Nazareth?  What was wrong with the place?  Why does Nathanael so quickly change his mind about Jesus when Jesus told him he had seen him under a fig tree?  And what does Jesus mean when he tells Nathanael he will see angels ascending and descending on himself?  Why does Jesus call himself the "Son of Man"?  Just as importantly, what does all of this have to say to us?  Is this only a story about how Jesus gathered disciples?  And finally, why is this Gospel reading appointed for this, the second Sunday in the season of the Epiphany?

Let us first take a walk carefully through this story and so begin to answer some of these questions.  

First of all, if we back up a little bit to the story preceding this one in John's gospel we see that two of John the Baptist's disciples left John and followed Jesus.  One of these was Andrew, who recruited his brother Simon to become a disciple of Jesus.  Jesus gave Simon the name of "Peter."  So it is likely that both Phillip and Nathanael were also disciples of John the Baptist because they came from the same city as Andrew and Peter.  There is a connection then between all of these men.

Nathanael wonders if any good can come from Nazareth because it is a place of no account.  In fact, historians tell us that the place is never ever mentioned outside of the New Testament until the third century A.D. in the writings of the Jewish Rabbis.  The name also appears no where in the Old Testament. It was obviously a place of absolute obscurity. If Jesus was supposed to be the promised one, the one foretold in Scripture, it seemed to Nathanael that the place of origin of the promised one would be a more auspicious town with more to commend itself than a place like Nazareth.  Bethlehem would be a better place to claim as your home from where the great king David originated.  And the Prophet Micah also prophesied that Bethlehem would be the place of origin of a coming mighty ruler of Israel (5:2).  "You went to "Broome Community College?" asked the graduate from Harvard with a slight but obvious sneer in his voice.  

But Philip doesn't defend Jesus or his claims; he doesn't throw up a lot of arguments to bolster his convictions.  Philip doesn't try to argue him into his own confession that the Coming One has finally appeared and is walking among them.    He merely says, "Come and see."  He disarms Nathanael's defenses and perks his interest.  So Nathanael's curiosity gets the better of him and he lets Philip lead him to this "Jesus of Nazareth."  My friend says, that's a great movie. Go!"  I go.

As soon as they find Jesus, Jesus exclaims, "Look, an Israelite without guile!"  Here is a man who is without deceit, one who is straight forward, honest and sincere.  Jesus sees him and looks directly at the core of his character.  Jesus knows him before meeting him; he sees through him, as they say. And how does Jesus know him?  He had already seen him "under the fig tree."  Nathanael is no slouch 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 knows the Bible, knows the way of the Lord, seeks diligently to be his man and to be bound by his word.  Indeed Nathanael is without guile because he has come to Jesus.  Jesus also calls him an "Israelite."  That is the name of the people of the covenant, those who seek to be God's faithful people. He is without guile because he has left off the study of the Scriptures to come and see if their fulfillment has actually arrived.    At the last supper Jesus tells his disciples:
". . [Here] is. the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him [but] you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you."
Jesus knows that the Spirit has led Nathanael to come to him.  He will now recognize Jesus for whom he really is and make a bold confession of  his faith in Jesus.  Nathanael is overwhelmed by the power of Jesus' miraculous knowledge about him.  He confesses that Jesus is the unique teacher of Israel, the "Rabbi," that he is God's own Son, and Israel's promised king.

This is the  deeper meaning to Jesus' knowledge of Nathanael and that Nathanael now grasps: Jesus knows his own and the ones 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."(10:27)
Suddenly Nathanael, sees the whole world, his life, his own self and all of Scripture he had studied so diligently in a new and different light.  Suddenly he perceives that his life, his present and future, are bound up together in the life of Jesus.  

Now we reach the high point of the story.   Up until now everything was tentative, doubtful , unresolved and uncertain  How would Nathanael respond?  What will come out of this encounter with Jesus.  Now we hear the clarion call of the good news about Jesus.  Now the full thrust of the Gospel sounds forth and is proclaimed..  Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see ever greater things: the heavens will open and the angels will ascend and descend on the Son of Man.  

Jesus is referring to the old story of the patriarch Jacob, who had cheated his brother Esau and ran away in fear for his life.  He beds down in the wilderness at night using a rock for a pillow.  In his sleep the heavens open and the angels of God ascend and descend on a ladder that reaches to the gates of heaven itself.  God speaks to him and says that he will make good on his promises and make of him a great nation that will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. When Jacob awakes he declares, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen 28:17).
He names the place "Bethel," the "house of God."

Jesus had revealed that he understood the true character of Nathanael.  Now with these words Jesus reveals to Nathanael his own true character.  He says there is an unbroken fellowship between him and God.  The great things that the disciples will see will be the great seven signs or miracles of Jesus that John reports in his Gospel: 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 men in the desert (6:1-14), walking on the billowing sea (6:16-21), healing of a blind man (9:1-7), and raising Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44).  In these "signs" those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God who has come to save the world will see his glory, the glory that he shares with the Father.  But his real glory is shown in his being lifted up on the cross where he, as the "Lamb of God," takes away the sin of the world (1:29).  Jesus' cross  is the gate of heaven, by which a person can enter into the glory of the Father.  
" . . .and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself." (12:32)

Jesus is the "Bethel," the dwelling of God with men. In the cross one finds the true God, the true way to home, the real meaning of our life, our true origin and our true destiny.  In Jesus the promise made to the patriarchs has finally reached its fulfillment: in Jesus all the nations are blessed because now all who believe in him are united with him, and share in the eternal glory of the Father.  Thus he says to Philip at the last supper,
"He who has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9)  
In him all the world is invited to share in the fatherhood of the God of Israel and thus to share all of the promises and blessings that God has bestowed on his ancient people Israel.  This is what Jesus means when he refers to himself as the "Son of Man."  The Son of God identifies himself with all of mankind and  those whom the Spirit leads to faith he unites to the everlasting glory of the Father.  So Jesus says,
"Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (11:26)

This story illustrates the great paradox of the glory of Jesus, the great paradox of the coming of God in our human flesh.  The call of Jesus goes out and calls everyone to faith and that call includes life and death according to how the one who hears responds. The believer can see this glory of Jesus.  Those who do not believe cannot see this glory.  Thus Jesus brings a great cleaving sword into human history.   
This story of Nathanael's call tells us exactly what being a disciple is all about.  Our "post-modern" world sends out a myriad of different calls to us and would have us follow them.  One of its fundamental calls to us is to relativize everything. There is no "Truth" but only your subjective truth which is valid only for you.  Nothing has the right to claim our ultimate allegiance.  There is no authority but your own subjective, individual authority.  You are the master of your own little "universe" but that universe has no more validity than anyone else's "universe."  So you must construct your own ideology, your own life style, your own "religion."  The result of this extreme relativism is the law of a dogmatized tolerance that demands that you sit in judgment on nothing and accept any and all behavior even if it offends you and your sense of right and wrong.  Everything is allowable and deviant behavior is defined downward until morality, etiquette and social norms become expressions judged to be but quaint products of a past and irrelevant age.  "Bigotry" is the judgment passed on all those who would stand in judgment of others who, in a previous time, would have been found guilty of grave offense.

Our western society is caught in the throes of an extreme rejection of the Christian faith and the person who stands at its enter.  Oh, Jesus may have been a good teacher who has given us some interesting ideas.  But can any good come from One who calls us to stake our whole existence on himself, calls us out of our individual worlds and to follow him to his cross?  Our culture finds that offensive and labels it as a neurotic need to bring punishment on oneself.  The person of Jesus is, as always, the great cleaving sword of humanity.  He divides those who come to faith in him from those who reject him.  It has always thus been so.  John's Gospel reports that
"He came to his own and his own people received him not but to all who received him, who came to faith in his name, he gave power to become children of God.." (1:11-12)

Some years ago a young man, whom I shall call Todd, came to me for some  counseling.  He was married with two young children.   Both he and his wife had been able to advance well in their chosen careers and were making a tidy combined income. But he and his wife were having a falling out.  They were having money problems which is one of the great marital destroyers.   He seemed on less than congenial terms with his own parents.  He said he had no close friends and when asked if had anyone that he admired he said no one.  He found most people to be out after only their own self-interest.     His anger expressed in terms of his wife's spending habits smoldered under all he said. That anger had frequently burst forth by  using harsh and degrading words toward his wife and toward her family.  Both had been raised in Christian homes.  But they both had rejected Christianity and never went to church.  The church was full of hypocrites, he said.  He asked some question about Jesus but he answered that there was no proof for anything about the Christian faith and it was all only my opinion anyway.

Here was a man who outwardly had it all: wife and family, a rewarding and lucrative career, all of the creature comforts of the age, who had been given great spiritual resources but had rejected them all and was standing on the verge of the collapse of his family.  He was living a life deeply embedded in his own self, estranged from others and yes, even estranged from his real self.  He had drunk deeply at the well of our culture's philosophy of relativism in order to defend himself from really opening his heart to others and to the One Nathanael called the "Son of God."  He One who can integrate our lives giving them purpose and meaning and especially put us on the path that leads to the heart of a loving, heavenly Father.

There is a temptation for us to become cynical, to lose our way in life, to say that how I live my life does not matter because I'm as good as the next guy and its none of your business, anyway.

Epiphany is the season that is designed to reveal to us the deeper meaning of the person of Jesus Christ, to understand him more deeply, to love him more sincerely, and to walk with him more intimately. This second Sunday after Epiphany tells us in particular that even though we might be fraught with doubt, sunk in the pursuits of our daily regimes, trying to secure our lives in this world or encapsulated in our daily responsibilities that there is One who sees us and knows us even better than we know ourselves.  

Nathanael might say, "Fall with me at his feet, worship this One who gives us the fullness of life, confess with me, that he is the Christ, the One who was to come into the world to redeem us.  Here is the One who knows you, who has given his life for you and bore away your sins so that to enter his fold means life that is abundant.  Then you can go back to your daily lives filled with grace, mercy and peace.  Oh, yes, this band of disciples is less than perfect (we all abandoned him when push came to shove) but it is in that fellowship of the Church that he is manifested so clearly, his presence so brilliantly, his works so abundantly.  It is there where our vocation as his people becomes so apparent.  There we can confess our estrangements and be enfolded anew in our great Master's fellowship. Yes, come and kneel at his table, eat and drink the supper of his Body and Blood.  Now you will see that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God and that you have life, real life, in his name."


(the Rev.) Carl E. Roemer, Th.D., STS
2232 Jacob's Ladder Road
Becket, MA 01223