15 January 2012 / Epiphany 2A - Psalm 139/John 1:(31-42), 43-51
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills
Come and See
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it... 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. So begins the First Chapter of the Fourth Gospel. It ends with angels ascending and descending upon the son of man. Much of this chapter has to do with declaring who Jesus is, and how we are to respond to his presence among us.
Our portion records the second of two days of Jesus gathering disciples. The way in which John sees this happening, however, is that someone like Andrew meets Jesus, and is so excited he goes to find his brother Peter. Then in Galilee Jesus finds Philip, invites him to "follow me," and then Philip finds Nathanael. This is what disciples do throughout the gospel of John - they, not Jesus, go out to gather more followers. Disciples, like Philip, are constantly reaching out to new people and saying, "Come and see!" This is the normative pattern for growing the Christian community, says John. No slick marketing schemes, no seductive programs - one person experiences Jesus in his or her life and invites others to come and share that experience. The text means to challenge us, asking, "Just how often do we do this?"
Another discipleship theme is the recognition of Jesus' identity - from verse 35-51 Jesus is called "Rabbi"(v38), "the Messiah"(v41), "him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote"(v45), "Son of God"(vv34,49), "King of Israel"(v49), "Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth" (v45), to which Jesus adds his own, "Son of Man"(v51). All contribute important attributes of who Jesus is: one who fulfills scripture, one who answers Israel's hopes for a future leader, a new king like David or a prophet like Moses. All attributes people were looking for in the first century, and none of which or even all of which sum up who Jesus is. And none of them is identical to what the prologue has already told the reader, that Jesus is the Word-made-flesh, and the Word is God, and the Word is Light, and the Light is the life of the world!
We pray today to be illumined by this Light through Word and Sacraments so that we might "shine with the radiance of Christ's glory." It is easy to forget - Jesus is the Word, Jesus is the Sacrament. When asked at a liturgical conference how many sacraments there are, a nun replied, "Two: Christ and his Church. There are currently seven manifestations of these two sacraments that form the life of the Church." We are the Body of Christ, we are the sacrament of Christ for the world. Again the text means to ask: Are we shining with the radiance of Christ's glory?
The call of Nathanael by Philip stands out. It is the first time that witness to Jesus is met with resistance. "We have found the one....Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth," says Philip. What Nathanael thinks he knows about Jesus - that he is from Nazareth - is enough to determine what he can expect of Jesus ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") This too becomes a theme in the Fourth Gospel - people's preconceptions about Jesus can stand in the way of people's experience of Jesus.
Not much has changed in that regard. Not only do we all come with our own preconceptions about Jesus, but we all harbor preconceptions about one another. Note carefully that Jesus, on the other hand, who has every reason to be insulted by Nathanael's remark sees only the good that Nathanael can be and is - an Israelite without guile, as the King James had it, or without deceit, as we get it today. Nathanael is appropriately flummoxed - how do you know anything about me at all?!? Still somewhat antagonistic. Jesus starts talking about one of his favorite go-to topics, fig trees, indicating only that if you are the Word of God and you are God, you are expected to know these things!
Besides if you think my knowing that there is good in you for the building up of God's kingdom is something, you ain't seen nothing yet. You will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This is a reference to the Son of Man language of the book of Daniel, and to Jacob's vision of angel's ascending and descending a ladder, or staircase - something like the ziggurats of central and south America. Which is to say, this is where earthly and heavenly, human and divine, meet. Jesus uses traditional Old Testament language and imagery to announce that God is in the neighborhood. This is what "the Word became flesh" ultimately means - God with us, Immanuel.
It is interesting to note that William Temple's translation regarding Nathanael has it, "Behold an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob." Jacob is the very prime representative of guile and deceit - he who was born grabbing his brother Esau by the heel in an attempt to be the first-born, he who stole his brother's birthright, he who was accused of stealing his father-in-laws best animals - Jacob who after wrestling with whom? - an angel of the Lord? The LORD God himself? - is renamed "Israel" meaning something like "he who has striven with God and survived." Jacob, who is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, the archetype of the Twelve Disciples. Jacob who, through a series of credit arrangements and mortgage foreclosures leads his people, all 70 of them, into Egypt to escape famine and become slaves for the next several hundred years. Jacob the deceiver becomes the Israel of God. God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called!
Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a ladder as a sign of God's immanence, God's nearness to us. Now it is just Jesus and the angels, no intermediary structure is necessary: no ladder, no steps. Jesus is that intermediary. Jesus is the structure. Jesus who is with us even now, at this moment, in this Eucharist, present to us in bread and wine as his Body and Blood.
At the end of the day, it is all about God's nearness to us. God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. There is the story of the preacher going all over town shouting, "Put God in your life, put God in your life!"' One day the local Rabbi stopped him and said, "God is already in our lives. God is already here! Our task is simply to realize that!"
Psalm 139 says as much. There is no way that we can distance ourselves from God. No matter to what ends of the earth or sea we might go, no matter how dark the darkness is, "You press behind me and before, and lay your hand on me." God searches us out. God knows us. God is with us wherever we are. Jesus, God's Word, God's Eternal Word of Love, came to be with us as one of us. I once was told that if you read Psalm 139 once a day for 30 days your life will change.
All this seems to suggest that until we believe that God is with us in the radical and intimate way in which Psalm 139 has it, we cannot even begin to set aside our preconceptions about Jesus and about one another. And until we set aside these preconceptions about God in Christ and one another, we cannot begin to know who Jesus is. And until we know and experience Jesus for who he really is, it is not likely that we, like Andrew and Philip, will run around town urging others to "Come and See!" It all begins with accepting God's eternal love and living out of that love. We have now just a short time to do this, but it is enough to enter the Kingdom of God. Amen.