At my licensing service in January the Bible passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that was read out spoke about St Paul urging us to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. I thought it might be helpful for us to look more closely at the nature and implications of that calling as we reflect on today’s Gospel reading, in which we learn of the account of Jesus’ calling of Philip and Nathanael.
In case you hadn’t appreciated there was something very different about the way in which people became disciples of Jesus compared to how people might become followers of a Rabbi. You see, in Jesus’ day, only Jewish boys who achieved academic excellence could present themself to a well-known, respected, and acclaimed Rabbi and seek to become one of their followers or disciples by engaging in a higher level of learning known as Bet Midrash – which literally means “house of study”. The student would tell the Rabbi that he wanted to become his follower, his student and begin to engage with more intense study. But before that could happen, the Rabbi would interview the student and ask lots of questions, to find out the child really was of sufficient academic standing. Each Rabbi wanted to teach his thinking, his philosophy, his interpretation of Scripture and needed to see if the child had what it takes to be his disciple.
In contrast, people became disciples of Jesus in a very different way. They didn’t choose to follow Jesus – instead, they were chosen by Jesus. He specifically sought out people who he wanted to be his disciples – in this case Philip and Nathanael. Jesus called THEM. They wouldn’t have gone beyond early stages of education, they hadn’t achieved academic excellence, and therefore they wouldn’t have made the cut for any Rabbi. Jesus didn’t choose people who were great orators, people who held great political power and influence or people who had amassed great wealth. Jesus chose ordinary everyday people as his disciples because he could see a deeper potential within them, who in the power of the Holy Spirit went on to change the course of human history. He has called and invited us too, to become his disciples. He constantly asks us that question “will you follow me?”
God always does that. Have you noticed how God has a habit of choosing the least likely people in the least likely places to accomplish his purposes? He makes the secular sacred, the ordinary extraordinary, the dark light. He chooses people who we sometimes least expect and invites them to know him, to develop the mind of Christ and be clothed in his truth. And then Jesus gives a clear mandate, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) He calls us do to that together; in unity, with one mind and one accord.
We don’t know a great deal about Nathanael except that he was from Cana in Galilee. Remember it was in Cana that Jesus did his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding feast. Nathanael’s name means “gift of God”, although as a disciple he is often referred to as Bartholomew. He, like so many others, was sceptical of the thought of a Messiah or Saviour coming from Nazareth. In some respects that’s understandable – after all, Nazareth was one of those backwater villages with a population of less than 200, and it was hard for anyone to imagine that the Saviour of the World could possibly come from such a place. We know that Jesus spent his boyhood years in Nazareth before beginning his earthly ministry when he was about 30. After moving his home to Capernaum, Jesus returned to teach in the synagogue of Nazareth twice more, but was rejected both times by the people. On one occasion the townspeople were so outraged at Jesus that they tried to throw him off a cliff to his death. Not exactly something that sells Nazareth to us as a place is it?
We are also told that Nathanael had been under a fig tree. Such trees could be tall and provided fruit. But they also acted as shade from the blazing sun. The spreading branches and thick leaves were an ideal place of shade and shelter. It wasn’t unusual for a person to sit in the shade of a fig tree to reflect, contemplate and to wrestle with the issues of life. It was also a place from which Nathanael could observe what was going on around him; he could see what Jesus was up to from a distance. John makes it very clear though that Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree. It might have been that Nathanael was troubled or conflicted; he would have heard about Jesus of Nazareth and now he was able to see him for himself. Was he seeking guidance? Was Nathanael wrestling with the truth that Jesus is the Messiah? Is it because of this honest wrestling, this element of doubt, that Jesus is able to say that Nathanael is a true son of Israel?
We can be just like that in life too; we find our “fig trees” in life where we can sit and observe what is going around us, where we can grapple with things and try and get our heads together. I am sure you all have such special places; this Church might be such a place for you. And when we do grapple with things and try and make sense of life and what is going on, it is reassuring to know that it isn’t wrong to doubt. It is good to be honest with ourselves, to be real. Real people have real doubts, real people are part of this wondrous mess that life can be sometimes be, real people are people just like you and me. Real people are the people that Jesus calls. Real people are the people invited to “come and see”.
We may not see Jesus standing right before us as Nathanael did, but he is with us all the time. When we have an encounter with Jesus, he often speaks right into our heart and shows that he knows us intimately which we are reminded in the words of today’s Psalm “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.”
Like Nathanael, we may find ourselves asking “How do you know me?” But the truth is there is nothing about us that Jesus doesn’t know. Whatever experiences we have had in life, there is nothing that Jesus doesn’t know. There’s no point in pretending with God. And he comes and calls us because he loves us despite ourselves and he delivers the goods; he doesn’t let us down.
This place of meeting, this church building can be a place for all of us to sit and shelter from the pressures of everyday living. It can be a bit like an oasis in the desert. This isn’t simply my church – it is our church, the church of this parish and all the people who live here. Here we are offered that space, safety and opportunity to consider the questions of life; and I’m not talking about the little questions like what colour socks should I put on today, I am talking about us trying to make sense of why we are here, how do we grapple with the very real challenges that we face, and what does our future have in store for us? Jesus longs to engage with all of us, those of us who are sitting under a fig tree or in a church or wherever.
You may be feeling like Nathanael with doubts and questions whether you are here for the first time or if you are regular member of the congregation. But I tell you this; if you are looking for answers, I truly believe you are in the right place. You are in a place of prayer, a place of healing, a place of forgiveness, a place of love and a place in which you are valued beyond measure.
Nathanael got it. He said to Jesus “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” As we think about Nathanael’s response, and how we may have been sitting under our fig trees watching life go by and trying to make sense of it all…no matter where you are in your life right now, I offer you an invitation. If you would like to respond to Jesus, maybe for the first time, or even to recommit yourself to his calling now I invite you to get in touch and I’ll pray for you. But for now, let me close with a short prayer…
Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that you call us to be your followers, that you look beyond our weakness and see potential in us.
We are willing to turn away from all that might be wrong in our life.
We want to put you first and go where you lead in the future.
Thank you for dying on the cross so that we might be forgiven.
Come into our life this day; Come in as our Saviour and Lord: Come in to be with us for ever.
Thank you Lord Jesus. Amen.