The Rev. Denise Vaughn
Have you ever noticed that often when you meet someone for the first time, the conversation seems to get around to someone asking ‘where are you from’? It’s as if we assume that, that person’s origins can explain who they are. Sometimes that has some truth to it and sometimes it does not. For example, I was born in Utica, New York and someone may assume that I’m good at winter sports. I do enjoy watching them but I left Utica when I four years old. I never have had the opportunity to snow ski and only once did I ice skate as a young girl. When we presume something, mistakes can happen. That is exactly what happens in the Gospel today which presents us with a story of someone presuming that where Jesus came from could explain who he was. Jesus was born in Nazareth, a small village of probably no more than 400 people. The Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, never mentions Nazareth much less associate it with the Messiah.
So when Philip told Nathaniel that Jesus was one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Nathaniel concluded that Philip had to be mistaken, since Jesus was the “son of Joseph from Nazareth”. The Messiah would certainly come from a more significant town and from a more prominent lineage. Yet, Nathaniel’s mistaken comment about Jesus leads to an encounter with Christ that changed his life. Nathaniel means "given of God," yet Nathanael didn't yet have a clue about the real meaning of God for his life. His life had indeed been "given of God," but it seems it wasn’t until he met Jesus that he learned how true that was. This is when he meets his own deepest, best self. It is as though he never really saw himself clearly until he saw himself in the love of Christ. It is then that Nathaniel begins to believe.
A lot happens in this chapter of John’s gospel with today’s text often called the calling of the disciples. Just before the reading for today, we find John the Baptist and his disciples at the Jordan River. At this holy place, the ancient poems said, God would arrive. It was here, not in Nazareth that the first century Judeans expected to see the Messiah come. It was at this place the people had crossed over into the Promised Land. Here at this holy place is where John the Baptist proclaimed the Lamb of God to be the coming fire of judgment. Suddenly John sees Jesus and say’s “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Two of John’s disciples hear what John said and decide to follow Jesus. When Jesus saw them following he asked them “What are you looking for? They said, Rabbi, where are you staying? Jesus replied “come and see.” In John’s vocabulary, “come and see” means “come and live,” “come and experience,” “come and be a part of the community of Jesus.” So they went and saw and spent the rest of the day with him.
Andrew, after spending time and hearing what Jesus taught, went to find his brother Simon Peter and said, ‘We have found the Messiah. Andrew brings Simon to Jesus who gives him a new name, Cephas or Peter, the rock. The next day is where the text for today picks up. Jesus and those following him go to Galilee where he meets Philip and said to him ‘Follow me.’ Philip then went to find Nathaniel and we hear Nathaniel say, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Philip said; Come and see. When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward him and Nathaniel hears what Jesus said, his encounter changes his mind. This story of Nathanael, and the call of the other disciples, is so important because it contains some powerful spiritual insight that can bring new meaning and renewal to our spiritual lives today.
This eye opening moment is what takes place when one has an encounter with Jesus Christ! What Nathanael had to say about Jesus before he met him was, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" And after he met him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God!" Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians in chapter 5, has an interesting way of expressing this: " From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way." Paul is speaking about the transformation that is a part of knowing Christ as Redeemer and Lord. In this context, there are two kinds of "knowing" when it comes to Christ. There is knowing "about" Christ. And there is "knowing" Christ.
While it is possible to know "about" Christ -- to research his life and times -- it is also possible to "know" Christ. And when we open ourselves to the possibility of "knowing" Christ, we can experience what Nathaniel experienced. His experience, along with the calling of the other disciples, leads us today to understand just how we come to “know” and follow Jesus. First, we are invited. When Nathanael makes his Nazareth remark to Philip, there is no debate. Philip does not try to argue Nathanael into the Kingdom of God. He simply makes an invitation, "Come and see." This is the same invitation Jesus made to Andrew and Simon Peter, the two disciples of John the Baptist who wanted to know where Jesus was doing his teaching. "Come and see," Jesus said to them. We are all simply invited or need to be invited to “come and see.
Second, we are known. Nathanael changes his mind when he discovers that Jesus knows him. "Where did you get to know me?" Nathanael asked. When Jesus explains that he knew Nathanael from afar, he is so amazed, he makes an instant shift. "You are the Son of God!" What a marvelous thing that we should be known by the Lord God! The Psalmist today expressed it this way, "…it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." God knows us better than anyone on earth knows us… better than we know ourselves. In light of the Psalmist’s words, we can only know the wonder of who we are when we come to “know” the One who knows us from afar.
Third, we are promised amazing things. When Nathanael expresses his amazement at Jesus’ knowledge of him, Jesus says in effect, "Nathanael… you haven’t seen anything yet!" He will see and experience much more than he ever dared to imagine as he joins the group of disciples who will follow Jesus for the next two and a half to three years as Jesus makes his way to the cross. The next time we hear of Nathanael, he is with the other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and he is a part of the most incredible experience. It is the Easter breakfast encounter with the risen Christ who had been crucified, but now appeared once again to his followers.
You and I are invited to “come and see” come and be a part of the community that follows Christ and in doing so we come to believe. In walking with Jesus, we learn who he is and as we learn who he is, we learn to “know” Christ and what it means to follow him. We learn our deepest and best selves and that we are known by the Lord more fully than we even know ourselves. God wants to be in relationship with us, reaching out to us and inviting us to reach out to God. And by the example of Nathaniel, Philip, and the other disciples, to reach out to others inviting them to “come and see.” For it is in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we see most clearly who we are and God's divine intent for our lives. And the greatest joy and experience of all is that we are promised the eternal presence of God forever. In Christ, there is an Epiphany where heaven is truly opened for us! May we respond to the one who calls each one of us by name.