John 1:43-51 (NRSV)
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 Nathanael 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.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael 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.”
Our daughter started getting serious about looking at colleges when she was a sophomore in high school. Since she really didn’t have a particular focus about what she was looking for in a school at that point in time, we visited a bunch of schools, trying to find the one that made her feel like she could see herself living there. I remember people give her lots of advice about which schools would be best, after they asked her that age-old question, “So, have you decided where you are going to college?” The most common category of advice she received was to be sure to choose a college that would help her in her chosen vocational career. Things like, “this is the best school for this degree,” and “choose this college because the alumni network will help you get a job after graduation.” Many people offered her that advice as critical and central to her decision-making process; asserting that her choice would forever mark her as being FROM that school. Their reasoning centered on how a particular place would make all the difference when she graduated and entered the world in her chosen field.
Being from a place like Nazareth didn’t exactly lend credibility to Jesus’ ministry; as he traveled, teaching and challenging the religious and social status quo. Today’s gospel reading speaks to this directly, as Nathanael asks Philip the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael doesn’t know a thing in the world about Jesus and likely little or nothing about the folks in Nazareth either. Philip was likely a fisherman, since he lived in the fishing town of Bethsaida and was a friend of Andrew and Peter. So maybe Nathanael and Philip were fishing buddies. Those particular details don’t make it into this story….just the invitation by Philip to come and see Jesus. Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus comes with very little build up….he was found by Philip, who told him only one thing….“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And accepting that invitation from Philip put Nathanael face-to-face with Jesus.
This gospel is the only one of the four gospels where Nathanael is referred to as one of Jesus’ disciples. And it is in today’s reading that we see his transformation from unknowing doubter to follower of Jesus. Maybe you can relate. In our home, one of us is most decidedly a skeptic who needs lots of information and options before making decisions. Thank goodness for that, because the other one of us would otherwise tumble headlong into whatever exciting and shiny thing happened to grab her attention! But Nathanael goes along with Philip anyway, even though he didn’t seem to think much could come of the opportunity to meet this Jesus. And Jesus recognizes Nathanael’s character immediately. He sees Nathanael as someone without deceit –someone who innocently approached Jesus and who was NOT there to give Jesus a hard time. And Jesus says as much to Nathanael, and then tells him how he already knows him. It was all Nathanael needed to hear.
And just like that, Nathanael is transformed. Jesus reveals who he is to Nathanael in less time than it took us to brush our teeth this morning. Nathanael becomes the first of the disciples in the Gospel of John to REALLY KNOW who Jesus is. We know this because he immediately calls him Rabbi – a sign of respect for Jesus as a Jewish teacher. He then calls Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel. He makes a distinction that heretofore has not been made, linking the humanity of Christ with the kingship of God. This link is the first move in this Gospel to connect Christ to the reign of God over all creation. Something good indeed was coming out of Nazareth for us all.
So why did Nathanael even ask if anything good can come out of places like Nazareth? Places where people have less power and influence? Places where people don’t look like you or talk like you or don’t live the way you do? Intellectually, we know those kinds of questions come from a place of insecurity and fear, rather than from the actual reality of the place or the people.
I have a clergy friend who continuously reminds his parishioners how the most beautiful and powerful things often come out of places of brokenness. So it was with Martin Luther King, Jr, the commemoration of whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow and who is a saint celebrated in the church on April 4th, the anniversary of his assassination. As he worked relentlessly for justice and equality for our African American sisters and brothers, it is not too hard of a stretch for us to imagine that he may have had times when he wondered what good could come out of such broken places. He recalls these feelings in the text known as his “vision in the kitchen,” from his book Stride Toward Freedom. He wrote:
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Good things come from all places because God created us and called us good. And who are we to ever disparage a place or people, or consider them as somehow inferior to us or anything less than good????? In the closing lines of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nathanael, “you will see greater things than these” and “you will see heaven opened and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” And Jesus is talking to us all with these words. The “you” that we hear in these verses is not the singular usage in Greek, but rather the plural. Think of it as “y’all will see greater things” and “y’all will see heaven opened and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” With a heart like Nathanael, innocent and willing to step headlong into something that makes no sense or is inconvenient to us or out of our comfort zone, we too will be a light to the world. Like Nathanael and like Martin Luther King, Jr, we too will hear God calling us to serve others and to live into our calling as created and saved and redeemed children of God.
What good can come from Nazareth, indeed. It is not our homes and countries of origin which define us. It is not our family heritage that gives us our worth. Even our vocations are not the way that we are known to Christ. Rather, it is how we are created and choose to live out our Christian calling and faith in the world. Tomorrow, over 90 of our parishioners are signed up to serve in our community. And I know the rest of you will be holding us and those we will be serving in prayer, either with us at our Morning Prayer worship at 8:30am in the chapel or wherever you are throughout the day. This is more than just a bunch of service opportunities – these needs and so many others exist in our community every single day. Dr. King had a vision of a Beloved Community, and the Episcopal Church is working hard to live into that vision. We at Chapel of the Cross have committed to putting our faith into action, to reaching out into the community; into places and with people who are depending on us to live into our calling as followers of Christ. Like Nathanael, we may not know what to expect. We may have some trepidation and even some fear of the unknown. But Christ assures us today that we will see great things, including the face of Christ in those we meet tomorrow and every other day in our daily life and work.
Good things come from God in creation, and we are called to work with Christ to redeem and restore creation. It all starts with the Philips of the world….who tell the Nathanaels of the world about Christ in the world. At our kitchen tables, and in our own times of doubt and wonderings, we too can pray to God for strength to do what God is calling us to do. And then Christ, the Rabbi, the Son of God and the King of Israel, shows us the one true way again and again. AMEN.