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.
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
The brain is one of the greatest parts of the created self. Its complex design, its capacity to take in information and attempt to make sense of it, and its role as the driver of our thoughts and actions are fascinating and mysterious. One of those very unique aspects of our brain function is our spatial awareness. Spatial awareness is the ability to make sense out of what we encounter. Our spatial awareness helps us connect data points as we create mental images and maps of the world around us. When it is functioning appropriately, we can find our way around town, pick the right entrance at the mall, and choose the most direct route to our destination. When something is off, or we are missing a significant data point, our spatial awareness can lead us in the wrong direction or down unsafe paths. And feeling lost is one of the worst feelings in the world.
This Sunday is the celebration of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the grand finale if you will, before we start the new liturgical year with Advent I next Sunday. A brilliant way to understand the authority and intent of the kingship of Christ is in the reading this week from Ezekiel, even though the incarnate Christ had not yet been revealed. Through the words of the prophet, God is revealed as the shepherd of God’s people. And we Christians know that the great shepherd of the flock is revealed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus. The prophet Ezekiel is living amongst the exiled Israelites, a people who have been rescued from slavery but have wandered and felt lost in the desert for what surely must have seemed like a lifetime. His prophecy is a message of hope to a lost people.
We may not physically live in a geographical desert today, but we are often a lost people ourselves. We rely on our spatial awareness to do something for us that the created self simply cannot do. Although we are created by God, we are lost without Jesus, who is both our great shepherd and our king. Jesus will search for us, rescue us from ourselves, and lead us to the kingdom when we cannot find our way. For it is in God’s kingdom that we are redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ. When we are safely under the kingship of Christ, we sit at God’s right hand. And we never find ourselves lost again.
God created humanity and calls us through our baptism into covenant. It is within that covenantal context that we are “fed with justice” as Ezekiel says. This justice is like no human justice at all, but rather is a justice that forgives us our sins and reconciles us with God though we cannot ever deserve such gifts. And a reconciled people are then called to go out into the world and extend that justice to others through love. Today’s Gospel writer conveys what that is to look like, as we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. For we are all members of the body of Christ, found and claimed by Christ our King.
Here is a little glimpse into the history of St. Matthew, the saint whose feast we keep today. In the liturgical calendar, the Feast of St. Matthew is celebrated every September 21st, to honor St. Matthew and his dual roles as an Evangelist and an Apostle. The title of evangelist comes from his assumed authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, although scholars have cast significant doubt that he was the actual writer himself. He is also among the lists of apostles found in each one of the four books of the Gospel. The story we heard today about his calling by Jesus to be an apostle is a story that is mirrored in Luke and Mark, although he is only called by the name Matthew in today’s reading from the Gospel of the same name. His vocation was as a tax collector, one of those jobs that is certainly not popular today, but was seen as downright scandalous in the days of Roman occupation, particularly if the tax collector happened to be Jewish. It was a position that Jews viewed as disloyal at best, and significantly corrupt and immoral at its worst. So it might not be clear why we have a feast day to honor one of the most famous tax collectors and not-necessarily-authors-of-a-gospel of all time! Now, I have never been a tax collector…I wouldn’t know how to even begin doing the math necessary for a job like that. But I did spend the majority of my vocational career as a school principal. When I would answer the “what do you do for a living” question with “I’m a school principal,” it would inevitably prompt a story in return. That story might be a negative one, about their experience with their principal if they were a student who was often in trouble; or they might have shared an story full of emotions about their own child’s experience with a principal at their school. More often than not, the story was not about how much everyone loves school principals, especially if they have ever answered the phone and heard the principal’s voice on the other end of the call! While nowhere near the vilification of the role of a tax collector, and to be fair, most of my interactions with parents, children, and teachers were overwhelmingly loving and positive, I do have some sympathy for Matthew and his role in society. But this reading is not really about Matthew and what he says. In fact, you may have noticed that Matthew never even speaks at all in today’s pericope. He simply gets up, and follows Jesus when Jesus says the words, “Follow me.” And the sinners in this story….I wonder who the sinners really are? The Pharisees are sure they know….those tax collectors and other ruffians are sinners for sure. But Jesus’ message of mercy, and calling of those who are sinners, rather than those who are righteous, paint another picture entirely. It is said that Matthew followed Jesus, leaving behind his vocation as a tax collector but bringing with him a pen, bringing with him the very best of himself and turning his back on the parts that are not needed in a relationship with Christ. Each of us has gifts and talents that were instilled in us and that we have either nurtured ourselves or been led to explore and practice. Now, what can we do with those gifts to serve God in God’s kingdom? Rather than spending time looking around in judgment as the Pharisees did, we are called to follow Christ. There is no room for parsing out who we deem deserves to be called and who does not. There is no need for classifying others as outsider Christians, or looking toward some who are following Jesus with disdain as if they don’t deserve such to have such an honor. Instead, there is space at the dinner table with Jesus for each and every one of us. We only need to step out in faith as Matthew did and join in the feast. I leave you with the words from the Motto of The Daughters of the King, a religious order of women who devote themselves to prayer, service, and evangelism. In hearing it today, may it honor the life of St. Matthew and all of us who yearn to follow Jesus: For His Sake… I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The image of fire invokes strong responses from people. Being warmed by a fire on a cold winter’s night is a comforting feeling; seeing a fire burn through a hillside during fire season strikes fear in our hearts. The heat of a fire can keep you alive and it can take away your life in a flash. Vivid images, both positive and negative, come from just hearing about the word fire.
The Bible is full of stories about fire and the way God uses it to get our attention. Moses and the burning bush, where God makes a very clear point about what he wants Moses to go and do for the people of Israel. The story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego coming out of a furnace completely unscathed after Nebuchadnezzar attempts to get all to worship him, only to find himself declaring to the people that all should worship God alone. And the story above from Luke’s writings in Acts, describing a confusing and maybe quite terrifying day when the Lord sent the Holy Spirit to live among the people, with each person present receiving tongues of fire on them.
We can’t begin to understand the power of God and when we try, we always will fall short because our human minds just can’t comprehend the power and glory of our Father. But I would venture to say that he uses fire in those three examples to get our attention. Quite successfully, don’t you think? I’m sure that God can create any sort of imagery possible, but these three examples were transformative to those who witnessed them.
On the day of Pentecost, seven weeks (about 50 days) after Jesus’ resurrection, over 100 of his disciples were gathered together to pray. Jesus was already gone to be with the Father and a loud rush of wind entered the place where they were. Were they scared? I bet they were! Wind…then fire? Then everyone speaking in different languages and onlookers (who were those folks, I wonder???) thinking they were drunk at 9 in the morning! Then Peter addressed the crowd, reminding everyone of the prophet Joel’s words about God sending his Spirit to help spread the knowledge of God to all. I am pretty sure that quieted down the doubters!
All the different languages, the rush of wind and the fire – pretty hefty imagery. And for good reason – those 120 folks were to go out and evangelize to the world and that legacy continues today to Christians everywhere. It does little good in furthering God’s kingdom to rest on our faith while others wander through life without knowing the love of God. Evangelism is a pretty scary word for many Christians (especially us Episcopalians), but it really is pretty simple. Live God’s word in your life. Love your neighbor. Tell how Jesus has changed your life. Pray for others. No need to yell and scream, to judge or condemn; just love.
I may not have a visible tongue of flame visible around me, but I am called to do the same things as those folks on the day of Pentecost over 2000 years ago. Go out in the world and share the Good News.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. AMEN
The Mission of the Seventy
10 After this the Lord appointed seventy[a] others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’[b]
As long as I have known my Mother-in-Law, she has been a worrier. We have a joke in our house that we can just tell her our worries and she’ll free us up to live without the worry anymore, because she is doing all the worrying FOR us! But in reality, worrying just gets in the way of our close relationship with Christ, because worrying is the very thing Jesus tells these early evangelists NOT to do as he sends them to unknown destinations to spread the word of God to unbelievers in a time where it was inherently dangerous to do so. Sending them out “like lambs in the midst of wolves” speaks of Jesus knowing full well the dangers that each of us face as we carry our torch of faith into the broken and misguided world in which we live. Yet he asks us to press on, just as he directed these seventy chosen faithful when he told them to stay put, no matter the welcome.
But let’s be real. If I am in an uncomfortable setting, the last thing I want to do is to stay there! And who likes to be rejected when we try to form new relationships and step out of our comfort zones? But if we stand firm in our beliefs and listen to God as He calls us into the world to do the work of the Holy Spirit, even when we we are sincerely uncomfortable, He reminds us that we are sharing the Kingdom and our works may not produce the fruit we want, but rather what HE wants. And when you think about it, growth is uncomfortable!
Stay strong, dear followers of Jesus. For as we go out into the world, Jesus reminds us that in doing so, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” How can we want more for our world if we worry about going out into that world? We are armed with faith and love and that really is all we need to make a difference.
Father, send us out into your Kingdom to do your good works. We give our worries up to you. Guide us and protect us in Jesus’ name. Amen.