Lessons for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Year B): 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Jesus extends his famous invitation to Philip, “Follow me.” “Come, Philip. Share the rest of your journey with me.” And Philip accepts the invitation but notice: What is the very first thing that Philip does? Right away, with no interlude, Philip goes to share the news with Nathanael. A similar response happens in the immediately preceding scene when Andrew has the same impulse to share the Good News with his brother, Peter: “We have found the Messiah.”
There is a real spirit of generosity in these two men. They could have left and followed Jesus without telling anyone else; but, instead they choose to begin their stories with a generous sharing of the good news of God’s presence in the world.
Nathanael’s initial reaction was one of skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip responds rather diplomatically. Instead of arguing or guilting Nathanael, Philip learns from the Master, using the very same words that Jesus used with Andrew. So he said to Nathanael the very same thing that Jesus said to two disciples of John the Baptist, which was, “Come and see.” He simply invited his friend to experience Jesus for himself. We cannot argue people into the kingdom of God. We love them into the kingdom, showing them Jesus. Philip did not say, “Come and argue.” Instead, he invited his friend to come and see.
And in so many ways, the meeting of Nathanael and Jesus was the unlikeliest meeting. Nathanael didn’t even want to meet the guy. He was just doing it as a favor to his friend. I mean, honestly? The one of whom the prophets spoke? Some self-appointed teacher from that back woods little town of Nazareth?
It turned out, though, that this guy, Jesus, at least had a sense of humor. He quipped right back – Glad to meet you, Nathanael . . . an Israelite without deceit.
Now, it might have been a backhanded compliment. Maybe Jesus was saying he appreciated Nathanael speaking his mind–didn’t take offense at the whole Nazareth comment.
But we who are overhearing this conversation realize there’s a double meaning here. Jesus’ calling Nathanael an “Israelite” also brings echoes of the Jacob story into the conversation. Jacob of the First Testament. Jacob, the deceiver, who would be known as Israel.
But Nathanael is an Israelite without deceit. Jesus wasn’t there for the Nazareth comment. How did Jesus know what he had said? But even more–Nathanael presses further: How did he know me? Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under that fig tree, but it had to be an extrasensory seeing, a spiritual seeing . . . .
Philip was right after all. Nathanael is convinced. The traditional phrases come pouring out of Nathanael’s mouth: Son of God. King of Israel.
Jesus confirms it with yet another Jacob reference–this time to Jacob’s ladder. He says, “The angels will go up and down on the son of man.” That is, upon himself.
He’s talking now about Jacob’s experience at Bethel in Genesis 28 where heaven approached so close to earth that the inhabitants of the two realms could meet. Now in Jesus–not just in one geographical place–in Jesus, the realm of God would come that near.
It was an unlikely beginning to Nathanael’s walk with Jesus, but why not? What is more unlikely than heaven touching earth? Heaven is where love reigns. Where there is room for all God’s children at the table. Where, in the words of a friend of mine, nothing’s broken and no one’s missing. Not at all what earth is like. We know what earth is like. A glance through the morning paper shows us a world that couldn’t be more different than God’s realm of love . . . war, global warming, political gridlock, children without health care. And yet, in Jesus, the unexpected happens. And Nathanael sees it. Heaven gets a foothold on this earth.
Sojourners’ Jim Wallis says, “In Jesus, God hits the street.” Nathanael, now a follower, will walk that streets, too.
I love it that this passage comes up in the Lectionary on this particular weekend. It reminds me of another unlikely beginning.
The time is 1955. The place is Montgomery, Alabama. The issue is forced segregation on city buses. Local pastors are gathered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, strategizing. Rosa Parks has recently been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Her trial will be coming soon. A lot of ideas go back and forth, but nothing clear emerges.
Then, a most unlikely thing occurs when the young pastor of the church, new to town and unknown to the city fathers, raises his hand. The boycott has a leader. It is a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A newcomer to this circle, but like Nathanael, he has this experience in Jesus of the reign of God come near and is now an ambassador of that place – that meeting of heaven and earth – inviting others to walk on that street where the reign of God has gotten a foothold.
Most unexpected! Many years later, now very well known, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would describe his glimpse of what it looks like when the reign of God comes near. He said:
“. . . one day (he said) every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low . . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
“. . . one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
With Martin Luther King’s words, through his actions, according to his dream, we could see it, too. Because he had raised his hand, had stepped up to walk in that place where heaven and earth come near. Because he stepped up to walk with Jesus, it turned out that “one day” was unexpectedly closer than we thought.
It’s hard to follow Jesus to those unexpected places sometimes. Too often the Reign of God enters our world with a cost. Dr. King knew this, too.
From the unlikely location of the Birmingham jail, he wrote about a letter he had just received from a white brother urging caution, who said: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but. . . the teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”
Dr. King responded:
“Such an attitude stems . . . from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually . . .” he said, “Human progress . . . comes through the tireless efforts of (persons) willing to be co-workers with God . . .”
“. . . Early Christians entered a town . . . in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God . . . Small in number, they were big in commitment . . . By their effort and example they brought an end to . . . ancient evils . . .”
” . . . The time is always ripe to do right.”
Martin Luther King, who we remember and celebrate on Monday, helped a whole generation see where the ways of heaven begin to get an unlikely foothold on this earth. He helped us remember that walking with Jesus means working for justice–revealing in our midst already a world where love reigns, a realm of God’s shalom–of wholeness–where nothing’s broken and no one’s missing, where a table is spread and all are welcome.
The call of Philip and Nathanael reminds us that when we walk with Jesus, we walk in the unlikely places where heaven and earth come near. In this fragmented world, we represent God’s reign gaining a foothold here already, and we are invited to let our actions show it.
An act of simple hospitality in the midst of want – from we who live in paradise to others who live…elsewhere…a hand raised to volunteer for leadership in community witness, a tent pitched in a city park…all moments, so often unexpected–where the reign of God comes near, where we catch a glimpse of a time and place where nothing’s broken and no one’s missing, and a table is spread for all God’s children.
Thank you for Nathanael’s call and witness. Thank you for the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., and all others who have been willing to walk with Jesus in that challenging place where heaven and earth come near. Give us the ears to hear the call, eyes to glimpse your reign among us, and the courage to respond and hit the street with you. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.