Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

It’s a mystery worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

And I think by saying that, I mean that it’s a sort of minor mystery, told in a way that makes it seem somewhat more dramatic that it really is, with a sub-plot or two thrown in, with seemingly authoritative voices added to the narrative to give it an air of realism. Add a compelling title, and you have all the makings of a bestseller.

Let’s call it the “Nathanael Code” or maybe “The Nathanael Prophecy,” and try to unpack what’s really happening here at the end of the first chapter of John. Who is he? And what happens to him? And what are the secret symbols in the narrative that only Tom Hanks as Dr. Langdon could identify?

Well, let’s start with Nathanael himself. We know three things for sure: He’s a friend of Philip, who first tells him about Jesus. He receives some of the earliest and best praise from Jesus, described as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” And he is fond of a certain fig tree, which seems to have more meaning than simply a shady spot to rest.

And that’s about all we know. He appears here as the disciples are being called, but he’s not on the list of disciples. He receives high praise and seems to accept the invitation to follow Jesus, but disappears from the story until the very end of John’s Gospel, when he is named as among the group who make the miraculous catch of fish. There he’s named as Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, as in the water-to-wine Cana.

In between, he doesn’t appear, and those who have been thinking about this from the earliest days came up with a simple fix: Nathanael is really Bartholomew. Like Simon Peter, Nathanael is set among those with two names used interchangeably. The evidence for this is pretty thin, so you have to decide for yourself. You see, Philip introduces Nathanael to Jesus, making them friends. And every other reference to Philip includes Bartholomew, making them a pair. And that’s it.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a future Dan Brown novel, but it does underline an important point in the story: it’s not the details of their story that matter, or what happens to them later on, but their interaction with Jesus. The early church used up a great deal of parchment trying to fill in the story of the twelve, trying to give each a meaningful middle and end, when in fact we know very little. If Nathanael is Bartholomew, he may have travelled to India, he may have ended up in Armenia, he may have been martyred by being beheaded, or crucified upside down, or some other means that would change this sermon from PG-13 to R.

In the same way we don’t know the details of his story we don’t know why he is patron saint of bookbinders, butchers or Florentine cheesemakers, but he is. In many ways, we can call this a gift of the Holy Spirit: that someone for whom so little is known can inspire countless believers over time. But it is his interaction with Jesus—his interaction as under the name Nathanael—that stands out. We pick up the story at verse 47:

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

In the same manner that ancient writers were spilling ink to develop traditions around the disciples, scholars try to find symbolic meaning in the text. Here we have the phrase “under the fig tree” which seems to have deeper meaning in the story. If the answer to the question “how do you know me” is “I saw you under the fig tree,” then maybe we need to look at the fig tree.

Some argue that “under the fig tree” is coded language for study, the shade of the fig tree being a preferred place for prayer and contemplation. Others argue that the fig tree is a symbol for peace and prosperity, suggested by Micah 4, and that Nathanael’s presence under the fig tree is a symbol of the age to come. Still others point to the fig tree in other great religions: the Buddha achieved enlightenment under a fig tree, and Mohammed wished to see a fig tree in paradise.

Or maybe it’s just a fig tree. And Nathanael is just someone Jesus called, who traveled with Jesus, who may not have been in the first twelve, but certainly in the next twelve. At the very least, he can be placeholder for the countless people over time to whom Jesus might say “Here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.”

But before we talk about that, we should talk about placeholders. Do you know about placeholders? When I was a kid there were a handful of things always worth waiting for: the bread truck, heavy-laden with those little sugary donuts, the occasional trip to the dump to look for treasures, and anything that came in the mail from the Perfect Pen & Stationary Company.

You see, my dad was a small-business owner, and we received sample promotional items from Perfect Pen on a regular basis. Appropriate to the name, we received mostly pens, and they most often included a placeholder printed on the side: “Your name here.” You Name Here was useful in that it allowed you to see what the printing looked like—how it appeared on the pen.

So a placeholder is a temporary substitute for something permanent, a way to indicate that a place has been reserved for something that will follow. And even saying these words out loud leads me to wonder about Nathanael and all the other early followers that we know so little about. What if they are simply placeholders, names that hold a place until someone else comes along?

Imagine this: You are invited to come to church, invited to explore a life of faith, not because your life is a wreck, but because you already do the kinds of things church people do. You help your neighbours, you give to charity, you canvass for worthy causes, you drive your friends to shop or see the doctor, you stand up for people who are being treated unfairly, you try to be kind to the less fortunate, you never want to gain from the mistakes of others. You have no deceit. You are Nathanael.

And you’re not that rare. You’re special, in that you do all the things I mentioned, but you have lots of friends who are just like you, so not that rare. Like Nathanael, you are the kind of person that Jesus might point to and say “here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.” Yesterday it was Nathanael, today it’s you, and tomorrow it will be someone else.

In other words, a placeholder. This is not meant to somehow diminish Nathanael or all the other people listed around Jesus. It’s just that when someone near the centre is so vaguely drawn, so ill-defined, it gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in the story, or better yet, to see others in the story who have only a passing knowledge of Jesus and his love.

So perhaps there is no mystery around Nathanael at all. Maybe the fig tree is just a fig tree, to misquote Sigmund Freud. Nathanael is just a placeholder name for all the future Nathanaels who will lean in when someone says “the meaning you’re looking for, the glue that will hold things together, I think you will find in Jesus the Christ.” He’s the source of the compassion you already show, the author of the love you know, the maker of all that is good and treasured—come and follow, come and follow.

May we find the courage to make the invitation that we first received. May we see Nathanaels all around us, and may God give us the words to share. Amen.


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