“Jesus is from Nazareth!?” Nathanael said, “Nazareth!? Can anything good come from that place?” With Nathanael as my namesake I have to feel a little sheepish about him bursting onto the scene like this and dishing out disrespect on Jesus and his hometown. Not the finest moment of history’s Nathanaels. Fortunately that’s not the end of the story with the disciple Nathanael. But this beginning is important.
It’s important that when Nathanael first hears about Jesus of Nazareth, his response is a sneer. We don’t know much about ancient Nazareth – it’s not very noteworthy. All archeologists can tell us about it is that it was small, poor, and wasn’t tidy about their trash. So maybe people from other places talked about Nazareth like it was trashy – some kind of armpit or cesspool … not to mention a more vulgar and insulting term that’s been in the news lately. That’s the kind of place where Christ is from, Jesus of Nazareth. Really!? Nothing good comes out of a place like Nazareth, let alone the Messiah.
So that’s how it begins – the encounter between this particular apostle-to-be, and Jesus. This is the first step in how someone came to follow Jesus, to discover how God is at work through him, and to be transformed. So let’s walk through this story, step by step. Philip comes to Nathanael and tells him about Jesus. He’s excited. He believes this guy is the fulfillment of God’s promise. Nathanael responds with disgust, disgust that’s almost just for it’s own sake. It’s pure mean-spirited prejudice. It’s only purpose is to puff himself up. But Philip doesn’t get hooked into that mean-spirited response. He could have hit back. Instead, his response to Nathanael says something about what Jesus is about. Philip says simply, “Come and see.” See for yourself. You don’t know who this person is. But you don’t have to take my word for it. And you don’t have to go with your knee jerk reaction. Just come meet this person for who he is. And that must have taken Nathanael aback Because he does agree to come with Philip and see Jesus for himself. And when he does come, when Jesus sees him approaching, Jesus sees him for himself. Jesus sees Nathanael and says “Here is someone in whom there is no deceit.” Jesus looks into the depths of his soul and see’s honesty. Jesus sees purity of heart. The first thing we’ve seen about Nathanael is the poison he has in him, this meanness that, let’s face it, is all-too-human. That meanness is drawn out to the open. The first effect of Jesus is that sin comes to the surface. But then Jesus looks through that, looks deeper and sees that which is sacred within this disciple-to-be.. And Nathanael is surprised to be seen like this. “Where do you know me from?” He asks Jesus. Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip invited you.” There is a lot packed into this statement. First of all Jesus shows a kind of spiritual way of knowing Nathanael. Space and time don’t apply. He sees him as he is in a private moment. “Before Philip invited you.” That’s saying “I know how you responded when Philip invited you. But I’m not judging you for that. I’m seeing beyond that to how you are in the secret chambers of your heart. Sitting under the fig tree, here, is a powerful image, a symbol. The fig tree means good fruits that come through living in a wise way. It’s a way of saying that someone is devoted to the Torah, to Moses’s testament of God’s revelation to him. Sitting under the fig tree is a symbol for the kind of wellness that comes when we live in harmony with God and with each other. The ancient Prophet Micah said that when we all surrender to God’s justice, everyone will “beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree” (4:3-4). Sitting under a fig tree is part of the biblical vision of peace, prosperity, and justice. So, Jesus is saying, “I see that in you. You are part of that vision. You are pure in heart.” And Nathanael in turn sees that in Jesus. The scales fall from his eyes and he sees, “Here is the one Anointed by God to fulfill God’s vision for humanity, to lead us to holy fulfillment. And then at the end of this encounter you’ll see that Jesus says, basically, “Well, if you’re impressed now, then you just come and see what else I’ve got in store.” The image here, the heavens opening, evokes the way God was revealed to their ancestor Jacob: The “heavens open to show God’s messengers ascending and descending upon the Child of Humanity.” The division between heaven and earth dissolves.
So the story of Nathanael becoming Jesus’ disciple starts with meanness, bitterness, prejudice. And Christ’s love exposes that as just ego-puffing performance. His love burns it away moves deeper into the soul, where there is still purity of heart, where we can open with Christ’s help to the tremendous cosmic scope of God’s Mystery and to the promise that by following Christ we participate in a holy Way that can fulfill a holy vision. But we’re not asked to just take someone’s word for it. We are invited to come and see for ourselves. And when we do, we find that we will be seen for ourselves, seen with the eyes of a Love Supreme, a Love that sees deep down past all the lies and delusions, down to the deepest purity of our hearts, where that of God dwells within.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered January 21, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)