So for the past month since Christmas we have been reading and reflecting on the story of Jesus early life. Last week read about his baptism in the Jordan by John. This event is essentially the beginning of Jesus ministry.
But as we talked about last week it has been controversial throughout the history of the church by those who have asked, “why did Jesus submit to baptism “for the forgiveness of sin” if he was without sin?
I think this is the wrong question. In his baptism Jesus steps into the common and inescapable experience of living in a broken, sin-soaked world. The question at stake is not about Jesus’s personal “sinfulness” but the structural sin in which we live. The question we need to be asking in response is what does it mean to declare genuine and costly solidarity with our neighbors in a world that is structurally, wholly, and jointly “living in sin.” Our financial, political and commercial systems are set up to divide us, to benefit some but exclude others. And we can’t belong well to each other if we’re busy erecting walls between “our” piety and “their” sinfulness. We are in this together. We are in all of this together, Jesus declares.
There is something profound to me that Jesus begins his ministry with surrender and solidarity.
And now this week we are reading about the calling of the first disciples. We are reading from the gospel of John and his version is a little different from the ones we are probably more familiar with, the ones we usually read at this time of year, in which Jesus calls the fisherman from the nets.
This reading will begin a series from John which will lead us up to Lent (which begins in two weeks) and then through Lent and Easter and the season after Easter. I have decided to do this as the lectionary does not actually have a year for John. There is one for Matthew, Mark and Luke, which we have been reading the last few years, and the readings from John are slipped in there. But as I was thinking about our year and and reading some of those readings from John I just had this sense (perhaps and hopefully a prompting from God) that it would be worth spending a bit more time in John.
And so the plan is we will be reading John through to Pentecost. The one exception at this stage is the First Sunday of Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent we always read about Jesus 40 days in the wilderness. And those of you who have been here for awhile will know that the church calendar that leads us through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter to Pentecost is a rhythm that guides my life and thus this church’s life. And as John does not have this story we will have to jump back and over to Mark for that.
So a very brief introduction to John. John is most likely the last gospel to be written. Probably somewhere between 80 and 90CE. I imagine most of you who have read it will have noted it is quite different to the other three gospels that are referred to as the Synoptic gospels.
John’s gospel has always been considered the more “spiritual” gospel. He uses a lot of metaphor, analogy, symbolism, paradox and irony. Rather than having Jesus move from Galilee to Jerusalem, John has Jesus moving all over the place. I do not think John’s version is less “truthful.” It is just that he revolves his narrative around a series of long conversations rather than geography, which is a perfectly legitimate way to tell someone’s story. He is going deeper than just what happened, but explores why this happened. In John there a 7 miracles, called signs. There are 7 I am statements but no parables. These are all explored in depth.
His key figures are quite different. Nicodemus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha, the woman at Samaria all play central roles alongside the 12. When it comes to the 12, he is less Peter-centric than the Synoptics.
Which I guess brings us back to the story today. Peter is here but probably the more significant part of this story is Nathanel.
As I said in the newsletter a key theme of this passage is seeing. This is certainly a theme in John’s gospel as a whole too. John uses the symbolism of light a lot and there is clash between those who can see and those who cannot.
The story opens with John who watches Jesus walk by and declares to his disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” His two disciples who heard him, follow Jesus, who asks them, “what are you looking for? And Jesus, ever invitational, invites them to come and see. And then they invite others to come and see.
For most of the disciples the response is almost immediate but not Nathanael. Nathanel hardened by prejudice it seems is not interested. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” he says. This tendency to discriminate against people based on where they come from has certainly not disappeared in the 2000 plus years since Jesus. Just this week I was reading about a student from Mt Druitt struggling to get into the University of NSW. For those of you not familiar with Syndey Mt Druitt is in Western Sydney, on the other side of the so called “Red Rooster Line.” Apparently, research based on census data has shown that life expectancy goes down dramatically as you travel west in Sydney. At its most extreme, the gap between average life expectancy in an Eastern Suburb of Sydney (that is the ones closer to the coast) and Mount Druitt is 20 years. The Northern beaches of Syndey have a notoriously bad public transport system. Rumour has it, this is intentional to make it harder for people from the West to get there. But each city across this country and the world has a Mt Druitt, I am sure you can all think of the ones in your home town. Alice Springs in not immune either, and out place based prejudices are reflected in our school zones.
Philip however, does not get into a debate with Nathanael about this. He doesn’t attack him for his bias. He does not return to the others to begin a smear campaign about Nathanael and tell everyone why he should be cancelled. Perhaps he knows something of Nathanel’s story and why he might be saying this and that perhaps a strong response might create further division. Rather he simply says “come and see.” And perhaps because of this Nathanael is able to push himself beyond his initial response and he goes and sees.
On seeing him Jesus says, “here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Like all of us Jesus had a choice about what he saw when he looked at Nathanael. He could have chosen to see and name his narrow mindedness or his carelessness or perhaps even his laziness (just sitting there under the fig tree) but rather Jesus chose to see and name an honesty, a genuineness, a seeking that must have also been part of Nathanael’s character. Jesus knows something healing, something holy, happens to us when we are deeply seen, known, named, and accepted.
However, I do not think Jesus does not challenge Nathanael. When Nathanel asks Jesus how he knows him, Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree.” Is this Jesus way of saying, I saw you, I heard you, I know what you were thinking about me and where I am from but you were wrong? Is this why Nathanael then proclaims seemingly out of nowhere “Rabbi, you are the Son of God”?
Of course I cannot read their minds. Perhaps this is not what is going on at all in this rather strange conversation. But it seems to me that somehow Jesus was able to offer Nathanael grace and accountability at the same time. And in doing so instead of Nathanael getting defensive and angry or melting away in shame he is able to see the truth of himself and Jesus. Jesus named the quality he wanted to bless and in so doing it he cultivated it as well.
At the Bible Study this week we were reflecting on just this question. In these ever more divided times how do we do this. Offer the grace that is at the very heart of our faith, the hope that all people and all situations, no matter how hopeless and broken can indeed be transformed and redeemed. While at the same time acknowledge and tell the truth about the pain and the trauma that is in our history. That is caused by violence, corruption, oppression and exclusion. How do we ensure that grace never makes our communities, our institutions, our churches unsafe or offer abusive and corrupt leaders easy passage back to leadership?
The balance between grace and truth is complex and hard. But as I contemplate the difficulties in our world right now I think it is the balance we need to offer each other. As I contemplate my own life and heart it is the balance I need people and God to offer me. It is the balance that Jesus calls his disciples to. As we journey through John we will encounter this over and over. It is the balance that Jesus seems to get right every time.
And so let us too over and over again take up the invitation to come and see Jesus. To seek to do as he does, to see as he sees.
And let us sing, open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you.