My preacher-friend in Portland says that when we look at today’s readings, we “find God all up in our business.” In one reading, God is waking a sleeping boy in the middle of the night to give him an important (if unpleasant) job to do. In our Psalm we hear of a God who, again, “just generally [knows] every darn thing there is to know about every single one of us.”[i] And in the passage I have just read from John’s gospel, Jesus appears to be looking right through Nathanael, who is never the same again.
This week we are hearing about the opening days of Jesus’ ministry, and here we find Jesus gathering a group of disciples around him. We throw that word around a lot, “disciples,” and I thought maybe I’d better look it up in the dictionary just to be sure I understood what it meant. (A small warning here: I went to a preaching conference this week, and nothing brings out the bible-scholar-word-nerd that I am like going to a preaching conference. By which I mean to say, we’re going to get into the words today.) The word disciple: I thought it meant, basically, “follower,” and that’s’ true, as far as it goes. But what interests me even more than definitions are etymologies—I love knowing, in effect, who are the parents of a word. “Disciple” comes from a Latin word that means “pupil,” but that word comes from two different words that mean, “to take apart.” So, a disciple is a follower, but one who has taken apart the teachings of the teacher, and found them to be sound, and is following on that basis. A disciple is someone who has done her homework.
Jesus is inviting people to follow him, to become disciples. His exchange with Philip is simple: “Follow me.” And Philip follows. Like any good follower, Philip tries to find other people to follow too—maybe he is shy about enlisting in the Jesus movement all by himself. Or, maybe, he sees in Jesus the answer to a question he knows Nathanael is asking already, a question something like, “Where is the Messiah?” Whatever his reasoning, he drafts Nathanael to come along.
Nathanael is skeptical. His skepticism has to do with what he already knows about Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. I have heard similar responses when I invite people to come to Binghamton for First Fridays. Can anything good be happening in downtown Binghamton? There’s really only one good answer to a question like that. “Come and see,” says Philip.
We might wonder why on earth Nathanael should be so skeptical about Nazareth. Well, let’s just say, it’s pretty much Nowheresville, Palestine. It’s small. It’s unimportant. It is not mentioned in the bible (Philip and Nathanael’s bible, that’s the Old Testament to you and me). It’s not mentioned as center of worship, or a place from where the Messiah will come, for instance. It’s not mentioned at all, until the Christian (that is, the New) Testament. Saying someone is “from Nazareth” is not a ringing endorsement.
But Nathanael goes along with Philip, little knowing the kind of person he is about to encounter. Jesus’ opening salvo to Nathanael is playful. It’s challenging. The first thing Jesus says to Nathanael is “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus is playing with words here. The word “Israel” is another name for “Jacob,” whose name means “leg-puller,” as in, “Are you pulling my leg?”[ii] Jesus is telling Nathanael, “Hey, I know where you come from, and I’m not judging you.” He is implying, of course, that he knows full well how skeptical Nathanael is, and that it’s fine, it’s cool.
Nathanael is taken aback. “Um, have we met?” he asks. “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Now, this is the first we have heard of a fig tree in John’s gospel. And it is possible Jesus saw Nathanael under a literal fig tree at some point. But one thing we should take into consideration any time we read the gospel of John is that he speaks quite often in symbols and metaphors. In Jewish lore, it is believed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil from Genesis—the tree that got the first man and woman and serpent in so very much trouble—it is believed that it was a fig tree. And, for that reason, Jewish scholars engaged in studying scripture were said to be “gathering figs.”[iii] Jesus is saying to Nathanael, “I know you’re a fig gatherer. I know you’ve been doing your homework. I know you won’t just go along to get along, or follow along to be a pal. I know who you are, and what matters to you. And so I say to you what Philip said: Come and see.” And Nathanael does. Oh, he does.
God’s all up in Nathanael’s business, as evidenced by Jesus knowing, uncannily, unsettlingly, exactly who he is and what he is and what will help him to know where and how he is called. My question is this: what helps us to know who we are and what we are and where and how we are called to participate in God’s work? If we take the words of the psalm seriously, we believe that God has searched us and known us, every last darn thing there is to know about us. But how does that translate to us knowing where and what and how God wants us to be in this world?
In 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference developed and enacted a campaign to show the world the unjust, inhumane treatment African American people were subjected to in the city of Birmingham, AL. But for Martin Luther King Jr., one of the chief strategists and organizers of the campaign, it was critical that those engaged in this action know who they were and what they were and where and how, specifically, God was calling them to do this work. So he developed a commitment card, to be signed by everyone who would participate. Over time, the requirements have come to be thought of as a kind of “Ten Commandments” of Christian social justice activism. Here are those ten commitments:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation not victory.
3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and the captains of a demonstration.
The genius of the ten commitments is this: not only would all those involved in the Birmingham campaign have clear and specific guidelines for their own actions; they would also know who they were and what they were and where and exactly how they were called to do this work of bringing justice and reconciliation. They would be steeped in the knowledge and love of Jesus, whom King believed to be the first and most excellent culture-changer. God searches us and knows us and calls us. The Birmingham campaign workers would spend their days seeking to know God, and to live out that knowledge in their work. It’s so simple, really. Disciples need disciplines, actions to help them, daily, to take apart and put back together the heart and soul of what they are about.
“Come and see,” says Philip. God searches us, and invites us to come and see for ourselves what immersion in God’s way would mean for us. “Come and see,” says Jesus. God knows us, and longs for us to know God, more intimately, more deeply, with more real consequences for our lives and actions. “Come and see,” I say. Jesus is all up in our business, gathering disciples still, plucking us from under our fig trees and behind our desks and sinks and snow-blowers to travel along with him a while. Let’s do it. Let’s go together. Come and see. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Martha Spong, pastor of North Yarmouth Congregational Church, Portland, ME, in her introduction to the “11th Hour Preacher Party” at RevGalBlogPals, January 15, 2012. http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.com/2012/01/11th-hour-preacher-party-fearfully-and.html.
[ii] Adele Reinhartz, “The Gospel According to John,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 160.