43The 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 toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get 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 [singular] believe because I told you [singular] that I saw you [singular] under the fig tree? You [singular] will see greater things than these."
51And Jesus said to him, "Very truly, I tell you [plural], you [plural] will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
Prayer for the Season of Epiphany
God of revelation, you govern all things on heaven and earth; mercifully hear the prayers of your people, and guide the course of our days in your peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who is alive with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.
From Bosco Peters' Book of Prayer in Common
Where We Are
Last week we heard about Jesus' cousin John baptizing him from the version in Mark's Gospel. All three synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthew that view Jesus' life and ministry through a similar lens) tell us Jesus then spent forty days deeper into the wilderness than the wildness of John the Baptist's riverside assembly. Immediately after his month apart, jesus returns to community and begins his more or less formal public ministry. By contrast, although John's gospel also includes Jesus' baptism, immediately afterwards his cousin John the Baptist identifies Jesus as Lamb of God and Son of God.
From now through Transfiguration Sunday three days before Ash Wednesday we continue in the season of Epiphany with a short stretch of Ordinary Time that's about the work of the Holy Spirit alongside and within God's people. Stars and lights are primary symbols for Epiphany that means revelation, manifestation, or shining forth. Two Sundays ago for the day of Epiphany we read about the religious, ethnic, and geographic non-Jewish magi visiting Jesus. You may remember the magi found Jesus by following signs in the sky, by reading their own scriptures, and by interpreting their dreams.
Increasing light as days grow longer in the global north, recognition of God's revelation to and embrace of all people beyond the Jewish nation has made Epiphany a season to emphasize evangelism, or reaching out to others with the Good News of the gospel. Like stars in the sky, our lives and actions manifest, reveal, and shine forth the good news of God among us. It takes only a tiny light to show through the darkness.
Call and Response
Although we're in Mark's lectionary year, today our gospel reading comes from John (please see end of this post for brief distinctives about John's gospel). Like Mark, John writes about Jesus' call of his first disciples. They include Simon-Peter, Andrew, James, and John. John includes Philip in this call story (the other gospels list him among the twelve), but only John includes Nathanael anywhere.
In our live discussions we sometimes mention our sense of God calling us to a certain activity, ministry, or occupation. We've talked broadly about how (maybe especially) people in direct service professions such as teacher, pastor. nurse, frequently have a strong sense of call, though that doesn't exclude people who delight in balancing financial books or creating a beautifully presented succulently fresh dinner. Especially as we begin considering limited return to the church campus and outreach to our immediate neighbors, our call or callings probably will include smaller, shorter mini-ministries or micro-ministries.
Have you been thinking about some different from the past ways we can reach out to our immediate neighbors? We'll probably keep on with food and toiletries for the nearby unsheltered population, but in the Spirit of Epiphany Evangelism, there may be some newer ways or revitalized older ways to call and invite others to follow Jesus.
How do we determine long-term or shorter term callings Jesus gives us? Similar to Day of Epiphany Magi, by reading the signs around us (who where needs what) and within us (what are my own skills, interests, aspirations), by interpreting scripture (love your neighbor, feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty), by heeding dreams God gives us when we're asleep and when we're wide awake.
Geography and Context
Last week we pointed out how all four gospels begin telling about Jesus' baptism with a physical, geographical, location: Nazareth, Galilee, Bethany, Jordan. Today's scripture references Galilee, the larger geographic area of Jesus' hometown Nazareth. These other guys were from Bethsaida. We've heard Nazareth was typical small-town; Nathanael's question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" reveals more than a bit of dismissive snark. Hey, having relocated to Los Angeles from San Diego, I can tell you San Diego has a small town feel, tends to consider itself at least semi-backwater, has an inferiority complex from being in the shadow of megalopolis LA, has a border town sensibility in both wonderfully positive and disparagingly negative ways. Philip's "Come and see!" reply is basic invitational evangelism that pervades the gospels, that extends to "Come and see the stone rolled away" of Easter dawn, into the Acts of the Apostles, and then into our own twenty-first century.
The gospel accounts, all of history, and our own lives all take place in particular contexts or settings: geography; time of year; time of day; family; religion or none; workplace; friends; class/ethnic culture… As twenty-first century urban dwellers, all of us inhabit more than one context.
Sign and Symbol
John's gospel refers to Jesus' actions as signs instead of miracles. We talked about sign, symbol, and meaning almost as much in design classes as we did in cultural anthropology classes. Maybe it's no surprise that linguistics is a branch of anthropology—the study of human culture, artifacts, habits, and communication. Words printed on a page, spoken out loud, or communicated silently using hands, arms, face, and body – "sign"– language symbolize realities beyond and other than themselves. I've heard that most interpreters don't wear masks (though I've noticed two or three have) because facial expression is a critical aspect of re-interpreting the audible word.
A sign on a street or a freeway, a label on a product isn't the actual thing, but points beyond itself to something else. In short, signs and symbols lead to substance. We sometimes refer to Scriptures and Sacraments as the church's symbols. Theological traditions that include Lutheran and Reformed sometimes refer to their Confessions (Catechisms, Creeds) as symbolic books. As interpretations of scripture, they point beyond themselves to scripture and finally to Jesus Christ.
Jesus told Nathanael he had gotten to know him because he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. There's no historical or scholarly consensus about the meaning of this phrase, but figs were one of the seven agricultural gifts of the promised land [Deuteronomy 8]; the sycamore fig was Israel's national tree; and there was a tradition of studying Torah underneath a fig tree. Jesus cultural background would have told him a guy reading underneath the fig was a Jewish son of the Sinai Covenant
The Gospel According to Saint John
Although this is the year of Mark's gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), because Mark is the shortest gospel, we'll hear quite a lot from John that doesn't have its own year. John is the rogue, outlier gospel that brings a different perspective on Jesus than the three synoptic gospels Mark, Luke, and Matthew.
Scholars believe the community gathered around John the Beloved Disciple that compiled this version of the Gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ had at least two written sources: the Signs source and the I Am source.
(1) John refers to Jesus' signs rather than to his miracles.
(2) Jesus describes himself as"I Am," referring back to God's self-revelation to Israel as "I Am."