Sermons That Work

We Encounter Enthusiasm…, Epiphany 2 (B) – 2009

January 18, 2009

Today’s gospel reading is a delicious story. We encounter enthusiasm, prejudice, and extraordinary insight all in one short story. It is sometimes good for us to remember that we get above ourselves when we regard the people of our Lord’s day as being so inferior to ourselves as not to be taken too seriously. Obviously we know a good deal more than they did about all sorts of things. Yet we share not only a common humanity but those very same traits that enliven and sometimes sully our day-to-day lives. Philip and Nathanael are not unlike you and me, prone to bursts of enthusiasm and almost unconscious prejudice.

Philip’s encounter with Jesus was obviously dramatic and life changing. Jesus was direct. He met Philip and told him to join Jesus’ small band of followers. There may have been more to the encounter that added to the extraordinary excitement that sent Philip off to find Nathanael, but however long or short the encounter, Philip was hooked. So off he ran to find his friend.

Nathanael thinks Philip is crazy. To a pure Jew, the inhabitants of Nazareth were not only country folk with a country accent, they were a racially mixed community. The same sort of prejudice that we encounter, and perhaps exhibit in unguarded moments, caused Nathanael to blurt out, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?”

It is interesting that the writer of the fourth gospel includes this detail. There’s no attempt to whitewash the resumes of the disciples. Despite our stained-glass windows and their depictions of the first Christians, we encounter them as real people, warts and all. How could Jesus choose people who demonstrate the same failings we meet in human beings in our daily lives? How could Jesus choose us?

Philip risked rejection when he tackled Nathanael. He risked being embarrassed. Today, in our setting, he would risk being accused of trying to force his religion on others, of being “evangelical” or even a crank. Yet Philip seemed to be sure that if he could get Nathanael to meet Jesus, he would be convinced that even if this Jesus was the son of Joseph from Nazareth he was also the person Jews had hoped for since Moses.

Jesus saw in Nathanael a character that was totally honest and probably blunt, “an Israelite in whom is no guile.” That description is about all we shall know about Nathanael, except that he was probably also called Bartholomew – and that he had a low view of people from Nazareth.

We usually associate St. Peter as the follower of Jesus who blurted out that Jesus was the Messiah, the one yearned for, the one sent from God to establish the Kingdom. Yet in this story, a new convert, amazed that Jesus knew where he came from – under the fig tree where Philip found him – blurts out, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Jesus answers Nathanael by recalling the story of Jacob and Bethel, who placed his head on a stone, dreamed that he wrestled with an angel and saw angels ascending and descending on what seemed to be a ladder. This all seems pretty obscure to us, but to a faithful Jew, the story of Jacob is one of redemption and calling, of God reaching into a human life in a transforming way. Bethel means “the place of God.”

In our baptisms, we too encountered the living God. A “Philip” cared enough about us to bring us to the place where God is, the thin place which was there was a font or basin filled with water made holy by priestly blessing, our Bethel. Perhaps our Bethel is the church where we worship today. In our baptism, Jesus or “God with us” looked into our souls and judged us to be the person he was calling. Like the disciples, like Nathanael, we had the potential to be, or were if we were baptized as adults, the sort of person Jesus calls to be his intimate followers.

A great Anglican theologian of the 16th century, Richard Hooker, described all worship as our encounter with angels ascending and descending. Or to put it simply, it is the action in which we participate in the worship of heaven and experience the sort of fellowship we hope one day to experience after death.

But the thrust of our lessons today is that we are now “in eternal life” as the priestly absolution puts it in the Eucharist. We are forgiven our sins in order that we may be kept in Eternal Life. In forgiveness, in being looked into by Jesus just as Nathanael was looked into, we encounter the power to be changed. Jesus looks at us and says, “I saw you in your garage” or “I saw you at the supermarket.”

We are challenged to blurt out our faith that even though Jesus was from northern Israel centuries ago, he is the Son of God and he is our King. With that challenge comes the bounden duty and service of representing Jesus to others. He calls us because he knows us. To him, “all hearts are open, all desires are known and from him no secrets are hid.” He sees our potential and our prejudices, our talents, and our sins; and chooses us.

That is amazing. If the Messiah can be born in the backwaters of Nazareth in a mixed community, anyone can live in Jesus as he lives in us.

Jesus calls us to be Nathanaels, whose prejudice about people in the past, whom we look down on in our 21st century hubris, can be changed by an encounter with the Lord. Today we encounter Jesus at the font in baptism and Sunday by Sunday in bread and wine, those simple elements, like a stone, in which we may encounter the living God.

Such an encounter calls us to engage people in the totality of their being, whatever their race, background, class, wealth, or poverty, and to bring them to Jesus. Bringing people to Jesus is evangelism, but a whole evangelism for Jesus cares about poverty, disease, hurt, grief and sin, and calls us to be agents who cooperate with him as his Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven.”

We do this by becoming the presence of Jesus and as we touch life where we find it and become healers, feeders, lovers, and redeemers.

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Christopher Sikkema


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