Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
One of the Bible’s great strength is how human its characters are depicted. Yes, at times, glaring personality flaws and failures are glossed over. But - when narrators and editors are at their best - biblical stories gush forth with gritty, unedited humanity. Take, for instance, the Nathanael story just proclaimed as the Gospel, which falls within the context of the poetic prologue that acclaims Jesus Christ as the Word-made-flesh and how this Word-made-flesh begins drawing people from different walks of life into a countercultural movement of love.
Jesus encounters Nathanael’s brother Philip and says, “Follow me.” Philip then finds his brother and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Everything up to this point seems normal, doesn’t it? And then it becomes even more normal. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In that moment, Nathanael reveals a wealth of things not only about himself and his biases against Nazarenes, but about any human being in his situation. Nathanael’s pithy and clever reaction to Philip’s declaration about Jesus is the first resistance to the Word-made-flesh mentioned in John’s Gospel.
Textually, there is almost no way to divorce Nathanael’s expectations about how God supposed to show up in the world. When faced with the prospect of the promised Messiah coming from what he would consider a less-than-desirable place, Nathanael balks. In the King James Version he says, quite properly, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Now, if you’re like me, you want to defend Nazareth’s against Nathanael’s bias. You want to take Nathanael aside and detail for him how well the bread in Nazareth is made, how hard the people work, how close-knit the village of four hundred people is.
Philip, however, did not take Nathanael’s bait. Instead of biting, he offered an invitation to Nathanael: “Come and see.” You, Nathanael, might be skeptical of Nazareth’s ability to bear good human fruit, but please don’t make that judgment until you’ve met Jesus. Not that meeting one person from one place is a sufficient enough deterrent to engrained regional, racial, ethnic, or economic biases, but it can be a starting point for transformation. And what the narrator of this story is seeking to do is expose biases all of us might hold when confronted by the living God-made-flesh. Philip’s invitation to “Come and see” Jesus disarms Nathanael’s bias about Nazareth. As I said before, one of the Bible’s great strengths is its ability to depict its human characters as just that: human. This strength is reinforced by the challenge of expanding our definition of not only what is human about us, but who gets to be considered human at all. There is much discussion in scholarly and popular circles alike about the Bible’s depictions and mandates for war, genocide, and violence of any kind.
One of the guiding questions when analyzing violence on any level and of any kind, at any point in history is, “When, exactly, did one group begin to understand the other group as subhuman?” People close to these matters will tell us that violence never just happens, but begins with questions like Nathanael’s. When we are comfortable posing question like “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, we are setting the stage for further forms of aggression and dehumanization to occur.
This has been seen over and over in analyses of anti-Semitic German progroms executed throughout the fourteenth century that find their manifestation in this century and the last: a concerted, if incremental, effort to chip away at the humanity of whole communities, regions, and nations. Of the sly, understated cut at people from that neighborhood over there, or those people from that country. In the words of Adam Serwer, senior editor at The Atlantic, “It is a convenient trick to rob a person of all they have, even their own body, and then mock them for their poverty, and blame it on their nature."
Instead of meeting Nathanael’s bias-soaked and seemingly sophisticated skepticism with a word of rebuke, Philip did what we said earlier: He offered an invitation. That invitation to “Come and see” is offered three other times throughout John’s Gospel: First by Jesus after his new disciples ask where he is staying, then by the Samaritan woman after her conversation with Jesus at the well, and finally by Mary and Martha when Jesus asks them where their deceased brother and his deceased friend has been laid. God’s self-expression to us in Jesus is always an invitation to “Come and see”, to taste and intimately know and be immersed in and be overwhelmed by God’s fleshy, dusty love.
The Incarnation, God taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, is not an argument or a debate. but a deeply personal encounter and experience, as Nathanael soon realized. When he finally encounters Jesus, Jesus disarms Nathanael by telling him something about himself. “How did you know this about me?”, Nathanael then asks. “Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” This epiphany - of not only being seen by Jesus, but truly seen by Jesus - shakes Nathanael to his very core and prompts him to confess Jesus as God’s Son and Israel’s king. Yes. The one whose hometown Nathanael trashed is the same one who saw Nathanael as he was: a whole and complex human being who is loved and cherished by the living God.
Much more could be said about recent comments making their rounds in the twenty-four hour news cycle, but I will say this: The good news of the Incarnation is that God eschews pomp, pageantry, and power in order to bring our attention to those neighborhoods, communities, and peoples others have written off. To write off, stereotype, or unnecessarily categorize whole peoples is to desecrate the Word-made-flesh who comes to us not as a rule, but as an invitation, not as host, but as guest. A challenge of the days, months, and years ahead will be maintaining a center that is - in the words of theologian Ruby Sales - both “tough-minded and tender-hearted”; toughness about systemic evil and sin and tenderness regarding every person and community impacted by it.
In these days, we hold the posture of Philip close, as we confront provincialism, racism, and xenophobia in all their forms, inviting the world to, “Come and see.” Come and see this Jesus, this Word-made-flesh, this Person who shows us what God is like, who forgives us and expands our sense of meaning, who saw us under the fig tree and loved us even then.
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Saint John's Cathedral