January 14, 2018
John 1: 43-51
The Miracle of Being Seen
When you’re raised in the church, you learn a number of rules about the Bible, both spoken and unspoken. First, don’t put it on the floor. You don’t want anyone to step on it, you don’t want it to get dirty, you don’t want to put it underneath that latest Michael Connelly or Nancy Drew mystery that you’re reading. Likewise, don’t throw Bibles in the trash. A couple of years ago when we were doing our big church clean-out, Mary rescued a crate of Bibles that someone had thrown in the dumpster. Now, they were water-damaged, and yellowing, and it was hard to imagine just who would read them or where we could give them away. I believe I gave my pastoral blessing to let those mortal husks go — but it didn’t seem right. Second rule: don’t write in them. In seminary I was shocked to learn that many devout folks consider it perfectly OK to underline and highlight Bibles - especially paperbacks — as you would any book that you were studying. And third, read it in a serious voice. Don’t make fun of it, or laugh — it’s the Word of God. The Bible needs to be treated with reverence.
Now I’m all for treating the Bible with reverence — both the paper and the binding as well as the words within. It is a Holy Book, a unique and authoritative witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, as we say in one of our creeds. But this reverence can also keep us from hearing how strange some of these stories are. How unbelievable, even comical, they must sound to first time readers or to those who don’t read them through the eyes of faith. This is one of those stories.
Nathanael was Jewish — like the other eleven disciples - and he lived in the region of Galilee. We don’t know where exactly, but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t Nazareth, a small village of maybe a couple of hundred people that was never mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. So when Philip told Nathanael they had found the one about whom Moses and the Prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth, Nathanael was skeptical — can anything good come out of Nazareth? But perhaps because Philip was from Bethsaida, a more respectable town, Nathanael was willing to go along when he said, “Come and See.” And then we have this fascinating encounter. Jesus says: “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael accepts that description and asks him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus, says “I saw you under the fig tree” and somehow that leads Nathanael to confess that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel! How he made that leap from ordinary Nazorean standing in front of him to the Son of God and King of Israel is unexplained, mysterious, and even funny. Was Nathanael high? Jesus hadn’t yet done anything that would suggest divine authority: he hadn’t healed anyone, or fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, or changed water into wine, or risen from the dead. Jesus simply said that he had seen Nathanael — and that was enough to turn Nathanael into a believer.
Now there’s always something mysterious about coming to faith: whether it’s a sudden conversion or a slow-growing trust that begins in childhood. The reasons are not always evident, even to us: we may point to a moment of grace or a Biblical passage or a dramatic healing in our lives, but healings and scriptures don’t automatically lead to faith or convince others. Not even the “big miracles” of Jesus - like raising Lazarus or rising from the grave - convinced everyone who saw or heard of them. Ultimately, faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We may be more or less open to it, but it’s not our doing. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to understand. And John says he has written of all the things that Jesus did so that we may come to believe. So what was it about this encounter with Nathanael that brought him to faith?
Jesus saw Nathanael; that, apparently, was the key. That may not sound like much. Anyone could have seen Nathanael under the fig tree. But Jesus would not have seen him with the same eyes, the same knowledge, or the same heart as anyone one else. Jesus would have seen him completely. Jesus would have seen everything Nathanael ever did or said or felt or thought (including those insulting words about Nazareons). Jesus would have seen everything Nathanael had been and could be. Jesus would have seen the truth of Nathanael — including the truth that Nathanael was made in the image of God. A sinner to be sure, but a sinner of God’s own redeeming, a sinner invited to “Come, and See.” Jesus would have seen Nathanael through the eyes of divine love. And perhaps it was that love — that informed, clear-sighted yet hopeful love — that was the miracle Nathanael needed. The miracle of being loved while fully known. Maybe that’s what led Nathanael to follow Jesus, and to proclaim that he was the Son of God.
The good news is that Jesus, the Risen Christ, sees each one of us in truth and love — more truthfully, more completely and more lovingly than we see ourselves or each other. For our eyes, ears, hearts and minds are clouded by ignorance. They’re distorted by fear. They’re filled with half-truths and fictions that we’ve been taught from the cradle. They’re warped by greed and anger. Sometimes our faulty vision is turned against ourselves; sometimes it’s turned against others. The President’s comments this week were an especially egregious example of seeing people through the eyes of sin. They were especially destructive, given his power and arrogance. But he’s not the only one. We’re all limited in our understanding, all in need of redemption and invited to repent. All invited to trust in the loving gaze of our Savior. All invited to follow him and to see others through his loving eyes.
Just like Nathanael. We don’t hear a lot about him, specifically, in the rest of the gospel. But we know one thing: before he encountered Jesus he thought Nazareth was a xxxxhole. Nothing good could come out of it, including those Nazoreans who were trying to immigrate to other parts of Galilee. But after he found Jesus, he learned it was the home-town of the Son of God. Good did come out of Nazareth -- it was not the place he thought it was. His opinions of Nazoreans undoubtedly changed. And Nazareth would not have been the only place on his xxxx list. Samaria, and those who lived there, were generally understood to be a problem. So when Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well the disciples were astonished, but then they had to rethink their understanding of Samaritans, and women. For if we truly follow Christ, we begin to see through the eyes of love. Because we’ve been fully seen and loved, we no longer need to denigrate others to feel whole. We see more clearly those we thought were enemies, or less than us, or alienated from God.
But developing a Christ-like vision, like all discipleship, requires discipline. It requires prayer, that the Holy Spirit may illumine our eyes and ears and hearts. It requires self-examination and learning — learning we’re invited to do at tomorrow’s teach-ins, at the program on the 20th, or through books, listening and conversations. Seeing the world through Christ requires courage and faith and forgiveness - including self-forgiveness. But if we do so, the world will change. Miracles will abound. For when we see each other in truth and love, violence, hate and needless suffering will be unacceptable. Justice and peace, the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., indeed the Kingdom of God, will be closer at hand.