Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
The text for our
reflection this morning comes from the gospel of John, the first
chapter, and in that chapter, John introduces us to John the Baptist,
who proclaims Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away sin of the
world. And then Jesus begins to call his Disciples, first of all Andrew,
who then goes and gets his brother Simon, who then Jesus names as Peter.
And Andrew says to him "We have found the one for whom we have been
awaiting, the Messiah".
And then that 'call' story continues in the last portion of chapter 1,
verses 43 through 51:
The next day Jesus decided to go
to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now
Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.
45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him
about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus
son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can
anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come
and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said
of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’
48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus
answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called
you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You
are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe
because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will
see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very
truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of
God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
Well, there are many
themes in this text that I could spend some time exploring, but with an
interest of the time and the playoff games this afternoon :), I'll
refrain from all of them, and focus just instead on one small aspect of
the text, and that is this idea that Nathaniel would see greater things
Nathaniel is a very intriguing figure in the Gospel, even if a very
minor character. He is the first to express skepticism about Jesus,
though certainly not the last. Can anything good come from Nazareth?
I love Eugene Peterson's translation, or paraphrase, "The Message", in
which it reads Nathaniel saying "Nazareth? You've got to be kidding!".
Nathanael shows his prejudice in pre-judging Jesus sight-unseen based on
a stereotype. Given that this is Martin Luther King weekend, that seems
like a very good theme to unpack just a little. How often do we hear,
and perhaps even we ourselves make similar kinds of prejudicial
Doug bales is the Coordinator for the Egan Warming Center, so I've been
spending a lot of time with Doug this last year. Doug shared with me
just this last week that a woman called him up and said to him "I'm
against the homeless!". Huh? Like they were a political party or
something. How are you against the homeless?
I wonder if she read the Heart-to-Heart column this week -- did you read
it? Yesterday's column was written by a homeless man who talked about
how his faith in God and humanity had been strengthened by the
compassion shown to him by complete strangers. Angles unaware.
I wonder if all those who are disgusted by the homeless and the
spectacle they created at the Occupy Eugene camp read the article about
Samantha Garvey. She was the young gal, 17 year-old teenager, homeless,
who was informed in the shelter where she and her family were staying
after one of her parents had been put out of work because of the illness
or injury, she received notice that she was a semi-finalist in the
prestigious National Science Competition sponsored by Intel Corporation.
I mean, what does it take to change preconceptions and prejudices that
we have about the homeless?
Jean Stacey is a retired professional businesswoman, moved here to
Eugene, retired from her career in Florida. She got involved in the
Occupy movement and she discovered through that a new side to the
homeless that she was unaware of, and the attitudes that they encounter
living on the street. She spoke about her experience at the City Club a
couple weeks ago, and I wanted to share a two-minute clip from that, as
she talked about the attitudes:
By the way, that line
she gave about eating breakfast with the homeless, that was inspired by
the breakfast we serve here, where many people do sit down to eat
I was standing in the back of the room, it was packed at the City Club
when she spoke, and next to me was a gentleman who I presumed to have
been homeless, and as she identified for this very middle-class crowd
there at the Hilton what it was like to be homeless, I saw tears
streaming down his cheek. At one point he had to step out and go out to
the hallway where he wept.
Here's the thing about Nathaniel that gives me hope: his prejudice
against the people of Nazareth did not stop Jesus from welcoming him
with open arms. Nathaniel was kind of like that character played by
Clint Eastwood in the movie Grand Torino -- he's a ratchety old racist,
but he's also a decent man who's willing to sacrifice everything for his
Southeast Asian neighbor he begrudgingly befriends and ultimately saves.
So Nathaniel changes
his tune once he actually meets Jesus. Would that every person who has
ever judged someone because of their place of birth, their color of
skin, their sexual orientations, their religion, or their economic
status have that opportunity to meet the one who breaks through barriers
and stereotypes to reveal the child of God that is in each of us.
Jesus doesn't reveal all that much to Nathanael -- "I saw you sitting
under the fig tree" -- and yet that's enough to impress Nathanael, that
here is the one, the Messiah. And Jesus replies 'You haven't seen
anything yet', like turning water into wine or healing the blind are
raising Lazarus, even Jesus' own death & resurrection. All of which
Nathaniel would, I suppose, experience along with him, but can be
inferred in this rather cryptic saying of Jesus about angels ascending
and descending upon the Son of Man. I mean, what is that?
It's nothing to be understood literally, it is a mystical reference to
the unveiling of the Kingdom of God which Nathanael will see revealed in
the teaching and actions of Jesus, if not yet eventually fulfilled on
earth as in heaven.
And here's the peculiar thing about Nathaniel -- he appears so prominent
here at the beginning of the gospel story in John, this skeptic turned
believer, yet he does not appear again in the entire story until the
very end. After the resurrection, there with Disciples fishing along the
seaside, Nathaniel is named as being one of the 7 in the group. And not
only that, he does not appear in the other three Gospels at all, or
anywhere else in any of the New Testament writings.
Now, some scholars question whether or not John may have created
Nathaniel for this story. Others try to explain the discrepancy between
the list of the Disciples in John and Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by
suggesting that maybe he's really Bartholomew, and he has a second name,
like Simon Peter (Bartholomew Nathaniel). It's just silliness, frankly,
so don't pay any attention to that.
I think Nathaniel is very real, and very distinct from the twelve. I
think Nathanael is every man, every woman, who has had their doubts,
their skepticism's, their prejudices revealed and redeemed by Christ,
the living word of God among us.
You see, I think we are the ones to whom Jesus says "You will see
greater things than these".
Martin Luther King was one who told us that, that we would see greater
things to come. On that night before his assassination, remember, he
told that church in Memphis that God had taken him to the mountaintop,
that he had seen the promised land. And even in the midst of all the
troubles and the trials and the problems and the turmoil and the
fighting and the division that he could be happy. He said "Only when it
is dark enough can you see the stars". And he could see God at work in
the struggle of the people to be free. And that is why on the last night
of his life he could say "I may not get there with you, but I want you
to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land, and I
am happy tonight, I'm not worried about anything, I'm not fearing any
man, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord".
To see the possibility
of what can be, the promised land, in contrast to what is, is to see the
glory of the coming of the Lord. And because Jesus has taken us, like
Martin Luther King Jr., to that mountaintop, we are a people who know
that there are greater things to come. Because we have seen the promised
land, the coming Kingdom of God in the teachings and actions of Jesus.
And so we can see a world where every child is fed and every family is
housed. And so we know that there are greater things to come.
We can see that place where no woman need fear walking alone at night
and no man need prove his manliness with physical force or power over
others, and so we know there are greater things to come.
We can see swords turned into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks,
and nations that will not learn war anymore, and so we know that there
are greater things to come.
We can see the poor that are blessed rather than cursed, the naked who
are clothed rather than shamed, the unemployed given jobs and the sick
given healthcare, and so we know that there are greater things to come.
We can see people of God united by their faith rather than divided by
their differences, and so we know that there are greater things to come.
We can see a time when schools are funded and prisons are ended, when
immigrants are welcomed and foreigners are befriended, when youth are
treasured and seniors are honored, and enemies are loved and families
are healed, and so we know that there are greater things to come.
Because we can see such a time, God's time, the coming Kingdom of God,
we know there are greater things to come.