The gospel story from John we heard today marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee, and the calling and gathering of the twelve disciples. And one of the first to respond to his call was Phillip, the brother of Nathanael. Phillip and Nathanael came from the town of Bethsaida - a town mentioned several times in John’s gospel - located just west of the Jordan River, near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The name Bethsaida is translated in Hebrew as “House of Fishing,” and Phillip and Nathanael were likely fishermen by trade, as was Peter who also came from Bethsaida. For some reason people from Bethsaida apparently considered themselves more dignified than those from Nazareth, even though they were located in the same rustic province, and both quite a distance from cosmopolitan Jerusalem. Perhaps it was because they lived close to Capernaum, the home of an important synagogue - the 1st century equivalent to what we’d call a Cardinal Parish. Or maybe they were just that way…sometimes people are.
Whatever the reason, Nathanael looked down his nose at Nazareth. And he was skeptical about any savior that would come from that part of the province. As a result, when Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah, his reply was, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It was a typical response. But Philip would not be put off, and urged his brother to, come and see. These are good words, come and see…like a challenge that isn’t daunting, but more of an invitation…and these words are still effective for building both churches and God’s kingdom.
We have a nice church family at Hungars…you’d fit right in. Why not come and see for yourself?
We have good music and inviting worship at Hungars…you’d really like it. Why not come and see for yourself?
Phillip evangelized his brother with three words… come and see. What could be easier or more effective?
When Nathanael met Jesus, he was greeted in an unexpected way, with more powerful language, and was immediately caught up. Jesus greeted him, saying: Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. It’s an unusual greeting, and Nathanael’s response was a challenge: Where did you get to know me?
I saw you under the tree, Jesus said…before Philip called you. The effect of this on Nathanael - and his response to Jesus - were immediate. Nathanael – amazed at the power of the prophecy, confessed a belief in Jesus as the son of God and the king of Israel.
If the response seems out of character for someone as skeptical as Nathanael, it helps to remember that in this story, Nathanael is representative of the skeptical people of Israel…those who would, in spite of some misgiving, accept and proclaim Jesus as their king and messiah. Jesus saw, and knew, Nathanael’s heart. And Nathanael was impressed. And in reply, Jesus essentially said, You thought that was something…? Well, just wait…you haven’t seen anything, yet.
Then he told Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of God. Now, I want you to think about angels ascending and descending for a moment. Who does that sound like? Jacob, right?
Out in the wilderness, a stone for his pillow, and a ladder to heaven on which angels ascend and descend. But how does this apply to Nathanael? Why did Jesus make that comparison? Jacob was in the wilderness because his skepticism concerning God’s promise led him to deceitful actions. He would have the promised blessing, but not until he permanently threw out his hip wrestling God. It’s all there in Genesis.
Nathanael is not well known in the gospels, beyond this story of his calling. We don’t know that he ever saw what Jesus promised…we only assume he did. This is Nathanael’s shining moment, and for the moment he represented the most essential demographic segment of first century Holy Land: those in Israel who would believe – in spite of all the skepticism that surrounded Jesus - and who would become the Church. Through them - through the church - God’s people would find a sort of new beginning. God’s people hadn’t seen anything yet. God was doing a new thing, establishing his Church, based on faith in what Jesus would do for His people.
Now, I suppose we might wonder what all this has to do with the season of Epiphany.
Epiphany is the season of light shed upon the mystery of God. In his incarnation, Jesus is the epiphany of God, and in his confrontation with Jesus, Nathanael experienced his own epiphany, a moment of clarity that changed his life and faith. Good news for Nathanael, but what about us? Where do we come into the story?
This story reminds us that – as we are called into belief and faith - we are connected to God, as Nathanael was. Just as Jacob was. A heavenly door has been opened to us, and will not be shut. Blessings all mine, and ten thousand beside, as an old hymn suggests.
But in spite of the epiphanies of grace we regularly witness in this life, we haven’t seen anything yet. And just as Nathanael was chosen to be a part of the powerful work of Jesus, so we also are chosen to be a part of the powerful work of the Church, Christ’s body on earth. If Nathanael represents the people of Israel in his response to God, then he represents us, as well.
He represents the skepticism that people struggle with from time to time. He represents our occasional tendency to look with condescension upon the things we can’t fathom, and people we don’t understand.
But he also represents the good in us: the willingness to believe and to practice faith, the willingness to continually move toward the experience of God. And because of that willingness, we - like Nathanael – become part of the long, long story of the people who are called to be the church…the story from John’s gospel that began with those three words…come and see.
Faith is the key. And if we think that we’ve already seen it all, that God has nothing left to show us, this story reminds us that in realm of steadfast faith and divine possibilities, we haven’t seen anything…yet.