Sermon for Lent 3 Evensong Sunday 24 March 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 28.10-19a; John 1.35-51
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Words from our first reading, which tells of Jacob’s vision as he slept while fleeing his brother Esau’s vengeance for cheating him out of both birthright and paternal blessing,
After that vision of the ladder between heaven and earth, and the Lord’s promise of protection and a future which will be a blessing to all peoples, Jacob sets up a stone and consecrates it with oil, and calls the place Bethel – “House of God.”
That image of the ladder between heaven and earth, between God and his creation, is taken up in our reading from John’s Gospel; a passage densely-packed with themes which will be developed as the Gospel unfolds.
It begins with the Baptist pointing a second time to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” That term is left unexplained for now: Its meaning will become clear when Jesus dies as the Passover lambs are slain for the celebration of the people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Jesus is the Lamb of God who saves the world from the bondage of sin and evil. It is an image deeply embedded in Christian liturgy and devotion: in the Agnus Dei of the Mass and; in hymns like “Just as I am” with its “O Lamb of God I come.”
Andrew and an unnamed disciple – possibly the Beloved Disciple, John the Evangelist – responded to the Baptist’s prompt. They “followed” Jesus. Here we have one of the fundamental words of Christianity. As the gospel progresses, what at first seems to mean only a simple movement, is shown to have more and more profound levels of meaning, until at the end. Peter will come to learn, by way of denial and humiliation and repentance, what following really means and then be summoned by the risen Christ to: “Follow me” (21.19). The whole gospel can be seen as an exposition of what it means to follow Jesus. For now that is hidden from the disciples. It will only be revealed when Jesus has completed his work and the Spirit rests upon the disciples as it had on Jesus at his baptism.
Jesus asks: “What are you looking for?” Again, a question which points far beyond its immediate setting. It represents the whole human quest for meaning and purpose; a quest which can only be satisfied by the God who has so made us that we seek the answer.
It is John’s witness which directs these disciples to Jesus, and his witness was itself the action of the Spirit. God’s initiative precedes and evokes our search: “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” as Jesus will say in his ;ast discourse in the upper room(15.16).
This does not mean that our role is a passive one. We are questioned, challenged, called upon to take responsibility for the direction of our seeking. In all the accounts of Jesus’ teaching and practice, this probing and questioning is prominent: “What do you think?” What do you want me to do for you?”
The two say: “Rabbi… Teacher, where are you staying?” A simple request for an address, introduces another fundamental word in the Gospel. We learn as we go on that the goal of all human seeking is that place where Jesus “abides” in the Father and the disciples “abide” in him. (Chapters 14-15). For the moment, Jesus is only the “Rabbi” who might teach them the way to God, not himself the one who is the “Way.”
He replies, “Come and see.” The knowledge of that true abiding which is the goal of the human journey is never simply a matter of theory. The challenge to faith has to be accepted. Faith is not a second-class substitute for knowledge: it is the indispensable precondition for knowledge. This is true in every sphere, but supremely so in knowledge of God. A personal invitation has to be accepted on trust if we are to have the possibility of vision.
The two accept the invitation and have their first experience of abiding with Jesus. It is enough to make Andrew into a witness to Jesus. It is no longer a second-hand witness, dependent upon that of John, but one based on personal experience: “We have found the Messiah,” he tells his brother. That understanding of Jesus is partial and imperfect. It will need to be corrected and filled out. But for now it is enough to serve its purpose – to bring Simon Peter to Jesus. Witness may be defective – human witness to Jesus always will be – for no human being – however impeccably orthodox – can convey the full reality of the one “through whom all things were made?”
In John, the first disciples are drawn to Jesus not by his explicit recruitment, as in the other Gospels. It is God himself who sends them, for “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6.44). They are the Father’s gift. The name “Nathanael” means “Gift of God.” it is not found in the other gospels, but it applies to all the disciples. They all have this in common, even though the ways by which they come are different. Every true conversion is always an act of God.
Next day, however, Jesus does call Philip directly. He obeys – and at once becomes a witness; going off to tell Nathanael: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” As yet he knows Jesus only in terms of the law and the prophets, but again his witness, though partial, bears fruit.
Although Nathanael is sceptical – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – he does respond to Philip’s “Come and see.” Intelligent scepticism is not condemned: it is the necessary balance which distinguishes between genuine faith and foolish credulity. There is a lot of bad religion around, and we need to be able to distinguish it from the good. But scepticism cannot have the last word, or we never learn anything new.
Nathanael asks how Jesus already knew him. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
I sat on tenterhooks this morning during Fr. Michael’s sermon with its sweeping overview of the place of figs and fig trees in Middle Easter culture, both ancient and modern. Would he pre-empt what I was going to say this evening? Well, fortunately, he didn’t.
In rabbinic thought, the fig tree was a symbol for the study of scripture: the more you search it the more figs you find, so it is with the scriptures; the more you study them the more you find in them. This suggests that Nathanael was a student of “Moses and the Prophets,” and so sceptical of claims about Jesus. It’s not just that Nazareth was an insignificant place, but that it is never mentioned in the scriptures; and certainly not as the birthplace of the Messiah. But, when Nathanael hears of Jesus’ foreknowledge of him, he abandons his earlier reading of the scriptures and acclaims Jesus of Nazareth with the highest title his Jewish faith could bestow: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”
Yet not even this title grasps the full reality: “You will see greater things than these….Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The double use of the Aramaic word “Amen” – Verily, truly, in John, at the opening of a saying is a characteristic of Jesus. He is the one in whom the utterly reliable “Amen” of the Father, God’s “Yes” to his creation, is spoken.
All the titles used so far by the disciples are capped by the one which Jesus used most of himself – “Son of Man.” At its simplest it just means a human being. But it echoes the prophecy of Daniel (7.14) which promises that universal dominion will be given to “one like a son of man.” It challenges the hearer with the implied question: “Who do you say that I am?” The “You” spoken to Nathanael is plural. The question is addressed to all the disciples. It is addressed to all of us.
Jacob, deceitful and full of guile as he was, had learned in a dream that the place he had camped was in fact Beth-el, the place of God’s dwelling, the place where God was no longer hidden behind the vault of heaven, but where there is actual revelation, traffic between this world and the life of God. It’s worth noting that God does not just appear to the devout but to a scoundrel.
But that was only a dream. Those who will come – with their varied and stumbling efforts to say who Jesus is, – will see in the “Son of Man,” in this concrete human being and the events which happened to him in Judea and Samaria and Galilee in the days of Pontius Pilate, the unveiling of the hidden presence and glory of God. Where Jesus is, there is Bethel – the house of God.
If you were a church-crawler decades ago, you may remember that Jacob’s words were often to be found on church doors. They are read, too, on the dedication festivals, when we give thanks for a church building and what goes on in it. In our tradition, we love church buildings: to us they are houses of God, they are the gate of heaven. We know that “the Lord is in this place.” He is there in the taberncacle in the Blessed Sacrament. Churches are not just convenient places to meet in but sacred spaces. They are endowed with a sacramental quality drawn from font and altar, from art and iconography; from the worship celebrated and prayers offered here.
But not everyone agrees: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” They ask with Nathanael. The world asks it of the Church as a whole at the moment. And within the Church there are many voices asking it of churches of our tradition: “Can anything good come out of Margaret Street?”
The implied reply is: “Not much.”
We seem to them more concerned to preserve our traditions for ourselves and our own comfort zone, than to witness to Jesus Christ. We do not seem to make the transition from being told to “Come and see,” and being able to say “Come and see” to others, to family members, friends, neighbours, as Philip and Andrew did.
We may protest that we do not know enough scripture or theology, that we are not skilled in the techniques of evangelism – but remember that neither Andrew nor Philip nor Nathanael were already perfect in these. That did not stop them witnessing to Jesus, and God used their imperfect means to bring people to Jesus; to bring them to the house of God where as they abide in his presence, Jesus will enable them to grow in faith and understanding so that they too will be able to say: “Come and see.”