I have been reading a wonderful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer these past few weeks. The youngest of 8, he decided in his early teens he would study theology, finishing his doctorate in Berlin at age 21, in 1927. He went on to write and teach and serve the church, providing crucial leadership in the face of a German Christianity that was largely co-opted by the Nazis throughout the 1930s. He brought a ferocious intensity to his scholarship, calling the church to take discipleship seriously. As he wrote in his seminal The Cost of Discipleship: "When Christ calls a [person], he bids [them] come and die." He led an underground seminary during the beginning of the war, and was eventually arrested and executed for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He decided that to do nothing in the face of such evil was far worse a sin than the violence this plot would entail.
In 1930, Bonhoeffer was invited to study at Union Seminary in New York City. While he was astounded at the remarkable variety of life and experiences in New York, he left disappointed in both the church and theological education in America. He found us too casual about our faith, lacking the vigor in thought and in faithful living that he felt our Lord demanded. This extended to us preachers. The following summer he reported on his experiences at Union for the German church authorities who sent him. Among other damning conclusions, he wrote: "In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or it is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life."2
John begins with majesty: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John works his way in slowly, telling us about the light he brings, full of grace and truth, building so carefully he doesn’t mention Jesus’ name until verse 17. "No one has ever seen God," John writes in the following verse. "It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known." This Word, God’s own self-revelation, walks right up to John the Baptizer by the river Jordan, a dove descending as His ministry begins.
And the first thing Jesus does tells us something important about who He is. Two of John’s disciples start walking behind Him. They ask what he is doing; he invites them to ‘come and see.’ Andrew then recruits his brother Simon Peter. The same recruitment happens in today’s text. The next day, Jesus finds Philip and says, "Follow me." It is really important to note that it is Jesus who does the finding. The key word translated here is eurisko (eureka!).3 And Philip can’t help but share it. Even though Jesus is the One who found HIM, he grabs his friend and says, ‘hey, we have found him, that One of whom Moses and the prophets spoke.’ He has come.
Nathanael’s not buying it. He is first distracted by location. Nazareth? Nazareth was a village of 200-400 people, out from Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee. Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures.4 It’s like saying the Messiah came from Bahama,5 or from Stem. What good comes from there? Yet Philip’s answer is ‘come and see.’ Philip doesn’t argue or threaten or try and cajole him into committing his life to Jesus. He might give us a model for good evangelism. First, we say come and see. Come. Check this out. Come to church. Come learn, come serve. Let me show you some people that, while far from perfect, are trying to live this faith together.
Jesus walks right up to Nathanael, complementing him as one who sees truth, in whom there is no deceit. Nathanael jumps back – how do you know me? Jesus simply says he saw him under the fig tree. And Nathanael immediately proclaims, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" While this serves as evidence of Jesus’ omniscience, I think there may be more going on here. Echoing the fig tree Jesus curses because its not bearing fruit, my friend Joe Clifford writes, maybe Nathanael’s fig tree has something to say about people being who God creates them to be. Remembering the fig tree Adam and Eve grab to hide their shame back in Genesis 3, maybe being seen under the fig tree has something to do with the One who knows us, as Psalm 139 reminds us, the God who seeks us and knows us and claims us. In other words, when Jesus says, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ maybe what he is saying is, ‘I know your deepest desire. I know what is in your heart of hearts. I am the One you’ve been waiting for."6
He then points us to a greater vision. Even after Nathanael’s profession of faith, Jesus pushes back. Do you believe just because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? My goodness, friend. Wait until you see what is coming! Lamar Williamson notes that while Jesus first addresses Nathanael in the singular you, in verse 51 the YOU is plural. Jesus is no longer talking to just him – he is talking to John’s readers, he is talking to the church.7 I will do even more among you, Jesus says, you will be a part of more than you can imagine.
You will see greater things than these. Can you imagine it? Our dear educator Nancy Rozak walks in my office and says she is so overwhelmed with volunteers at MP2 that she is turning people away. Monica comes in with a roll of papers in her hand – ‘the choir loft is TOO full, and here are some plans for a second level for seating.’ But way beyond this place, you will see greater things than these. Newt Gingrich would say in a speech the Democrats in the Senate have a good idea, and President Obama would say how he really likes the way Mitt Romney is talking about the economy. Imagine it…disciples chipping in to help, neighbors checking on neighbors, working in partnership with people different from them – different races and backgrounds and sexual orientations – to create the vision of the beloved community of which Dr Martin Luther King Jr. spoke – as we follow this Christ with every ounce of our being.
But we’ve got a long way to go. I spent three hours on Wednesday down at city hall listening to folks argue about how we are going to organize a city/county Homeless Services Advisory Committee. The posturing was disappointing. I learned that, as of November, 470 homeless kids were enrolled in Durham Public Schools. I passed 3 accidents rushing back in the rain to a stewardship committee meeting. I absolutely love the people on the committee but, as you’ll hear more about in a bit, we aren’t where we need to be. We have a long way to go. The kids were a pain going to bed. The front page of the paper Thursday morning was a shot of teenagers at a funeral, friends of the girl killed in a drunk driving accident in Raleigh on Saturday night. Jane Wilkerson’s funeral on Thursday, Josie Humphries last Friday, people we love. I bet you’ve had days like that, when things pile up and the stress mounts, as people we love get sick and die, as jobs disappear and those we look up to disappoint us. And I wondered about Nathanael. He only appears one other time at the end of John, and isn’t in the lists of disciples in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.8 We don’t know anything about him. He could be us. But he could also be there to remind us that it’s not about us at all, but about the One who calls. Nathanael might have had good reason to be skeptical about Jesus. Who did he think he was, anyway? Until He looked him in the eye…and says, I know you. I know your pain and your fears, the dreams for which you reach. And He presents Himself. Love embodied, offering comfort and strength and calling us, even in those darkest days, to come and to follow, to dare to dream.
Nathanael said, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God!" And Jesus said, hold on. Just you wait. You haven’t seen anything yet…
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I am grateful for this sermon title, which comes from the Rev. Joe Clifford’s paper on this text at the 2011 meeting of The Well, Austin, Texas. Joe serves the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.
2. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). The chapter on his year in NYC is on pages 99-118. This quote comes from p 106.
3. Also from Joe’s paper.
4. Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), year B, Volume 1, p 261-263.
5. Pronounced Bah-hey-mah
6. Clifford, again.
7. Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), p 20.
8. Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16. F.L Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p 1131.