Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”


It’s a mystery worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

And I think by saying that, I mean that it’s a sort of minor mystery, told in a way that makes it seem somewhat more dramatic that it really is, with a sub-plot or two thrown in, with seemingly authoritative voices added to the narrative to give it an air of realism. Add a compelling title, and you have all the makings of a bestseller.

Let’s call it the “Nathanael Code” or maybe “The Nathanael Prophecy,” and try to unpack what’s really happening here at the end of the first chapter of John. Who is he? And what happens to him? And what are the secret symbols in the narrative that only Tom Hanks as Dr. Langdon could identify?

Well, let’s start with Nathanael himself. We know three things for sure: He’s a friend of Philip, who first tells him about Jesus. He receives some of the earliest and best praise from Jesus, described as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” And he is fond of a certain fig tree, which seems to have more meaning than simply a shady spot to rest.

And that’s about all we know. He appears here as the disciples are being called, but he’s not on the list of disciples. He receives high praise and seems to accept the invitation to follow Jesus, but disappears from the story until the very end of John’s Gospel, when he is named as among the group who make the miraculous catch of fish. There he’s named as Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, as in the water-to-wine Cana.

In between, he doesn’t appear, and those who have been thinking about this from the earliest days came up with a simple fix: Nathanael is really Bartholomew. Like Simon Peter, Nathanael is set among those with two names used interchangeably. The evidence for this is pretty thin, so you have to decide for yourself. You see, Philip introduces Nathanael to Jesus, making them friends. And every other reference to Philip includes Bartholomew, making them a pair. And that’s it.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a future Dan Brown novel, but it does underline an important point in the story: it’s not the details of their story that matter, or what happens to them later on, but their interaction with Jesus. The early church used up a great deal of parchment trying to fill in the story of the twelve, trying to give each a meaningful middle and end, when in fact we know very little. If Nathanael is Bartholomew, he may have travelled to India, he may have ended up in Armenia, he may have been martyred by being beheaded, or crucified upside down, or some other means that would change this sermon from PG-13 to R.

In the same way we don’t know the details of his story we don’t know why he is patron saint of bookbinders, butchers or Florentine cheesemakers, but he is. In many ways, we can call this a gift of the Holy Spirit: that someone for whom so little is known can inspire countless believers over time. But it is his interaction with Jesus—his interaction as under the name Nathanael—that stands out. We pick up the story at verse 47:

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

In the same manner that ancient writers were spilling ink to develop traditions around the disciples, scholars try to find symbolic meaning in the text. Here we have the phrase “under the fig tree” which seems to have deeper meaning in the story. If the answer to the question “how do you know me” is “I saw you under the fig tree,” then maybe we need to look at the fig tree.

Some argue that “under the fig tree” is coded language for study, the shade of the fig tree being a preferred place for prayer and contemplation. Others argue that the fig tree is a symbol for peace and prosperity, suggested by Micah 4, and that Nathanael’s presence under the fig tree is a symbol of the age to come. Still others point to the fig tree in other great religions: the Buddha achieved enlightenment under a fig tree, and Mohammed wished to see a fig tree in paradise.

Or maybe it’s just a fig tree. And Nathanael is just someone Jesus called, who traveled with Jesus, who may not have been in the first twelve, but certainly in the next twelve. At the very least, he can be placeholder for the countless people over time to whom Jesus might say “Here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.”

But before we talk about that, we should talk about placeholders. Do you know about placeholders? When I was a kid there were a handful of things always worth waiting for: the bread truck, heavy-laden with those little sugary donuts, the occasional trip to the dump to look for treasures, and anything that came in the mail from the Perfect Pen & Stationary Company.

You see, my dad was a small-business owner, and we received sample promotional items from Perfect Pen on a regular basis. Appropriate to the name, we received mostly pens, and they most often included a placeholder printed on the side: “Your name here.” You Name Here was useful in that it allowed you to see what the printing looked like—how it appeared on the pen.

So a placeholder is a temporary substitute for something permanent, a way to indicate that a place has been reserved for something that will follow. And even saying these words out loud leads me to wonder about Nathanael and all the other early followers that we know so little about. What if they are simply placeholders, names that hold a place until someone else comes along?

Imagine this: You are invited to come to church, invited to explore a life of faith, not because your life is a wreck, but because you already do the kinds of things church people do. You help your neighbours, you give to charity, you canvass for worthy causes, you drive your friends to shop or see the doctor, you stand up for people who are being treated unfairly, you try to be kind to the less fortunate, you never want to gain from the mistakes of others. You have no deceit. You are Nathanael.

And you’re not that rare. You’re special, in that you do all the things I mentioned, but you have lots of friends who are just like you, so not that rare. Like Nathanael, you are the kind of person that Jesus might point to and say “here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.” Yesterday it was Nathanael, today it’s you, and tomorrow it will be someone else.

In other words, a placeholder. This is not meant to somehow diminish Nathanael or all the other people listed around Jesus. It’s just that when someone near the centre is so vaguely drawn, so ill-defined, it gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in the story, or better yet, to see others in the story who have only a passing knowledge of Jesus and his love.

So perhaps there is no mystery around Nathanael at all. Maybe the fig tree is just a fig tree, to misquote Sigmund Freud. Nathanael is just a placeholder name for all the future Nathanaels who will lean in when someone says “the meaning you’re looking for, the glue that will hold things together, I think you will find in Jesus the Christ.” He’s the source of the compassion you already show, the author of the love you know, the maker of all that is good and treasured—come and follow, come and follow.

May we find the courage to make the invitation that we first received. May we see Nathanaels all around us, and may God give us the words to share. Amen.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[a] water, but he will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”


There are early adapters and there are early adapters.

And when an engineer marries an engineer, there is some guarantee that the household will fall under the category of early adaptors. My brother and sister-in-law, ever ready to test the latest gadgets, introduced us to the newest addition to their home, Alexa.

She’s not a person, she’s a personal assistant, ready to try to meet a narrowly defined set of needs whenever you call out her name. “Alexa, what’s the weather like?” or “Alexa, what time is it?” Of course you could simply open the front door or look at your watch, but that would somehow violate the code of the early adapter.

And watching the family interact with their new robot was always going to be cause for comment and gentle mocking. Why is little Annie always going up to Alexa and whispering things? What are they plotting, the new robot and not-quite-four-year-old Annie? I know that she’s not shopping online, since that feature has been wisely disabled. Something about her older brother’s strong temptation to order all the LEGO sets, especially that 4,000 piece LEGO death star.

And of course, when you mock people, they get their revenge, since they gave me my own version of Alexa for Christmas. To avoid confusion, I’ve renamed mine Computer (giving it a Star Trek vibe) and I have to say that the beginning of our relationship has been a bit rocky. I know the time and the weather, so I decided to start with unanswerable questions to try to get the upper hand early: “Computer, what were you thinking?” No response.

Other things I’ve discovered by accident. I tried “Computer, heads or tails?” and she will flip a coin for me. Now we’re getting into truly useful territory. Some times there are no coins handy. Or “Computer, give me a random number between one and ten.” And she does! She will tell you a joke, play some music, and she even knows that she’s only two years old.

Of course, I felt compelled to test her religious knowledge, so I asked her to recite the Shema, the centrepiece of Jewish prayer. She knew it. Then I asked for the Shahada, the first pillar of Islam, and she knew that too! Then I asked her to say the Lord’s Prayer, and told me that I need to download the Bible app to hear scripture. Clearly, she needs some work.

But she will learn, at least according to the user manual, and so we carry on. “Computer, how will the preacher connect the robotic personal assistant to the readings for the day—the baptism of Jesus?” Long pause, and then she might say something like: “That’s easy: John’s baptism is all about learning from our mistakes, and becoming a better personal assistant to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.” Thank you, computer. Soon I’ll have her writing my sermons.

And while we don’t specifically practice John’s baptism any longer, it is a dimension of the One Baptism that remains the only rite of initiation into the Christian church. We go beneath the waters of baptism and die to our old sinful selves, then emerge from the water made new through Christ. The baptism of repentance continues, as one part of a larger story.

Immediately, of course, we have at least two problems. The first (and obvious) problem is baby Norah’s near perfection. She played the baby Jesus in the Christmas play, for heaven’s sake! She hasn’t really had the opportunity to develop a list of faults, let alone committed any sins. However—the theologians will tell you—she has lots of potential. Not wanting to shatter any illusions, but she’ll suffer the same temptation to order all the LEGO or whatever toy strikes her fancy, and when a fleet of UPS trucks line the street, she will be just as likely as any child to say “I didn’t do it.”

The second problem also relates to the baby Jesus in the Christmas play, in the sense that we’re fresh from celebrating Jesus as God’s incarnation, God’s willingness to enter our world. The tender babe is now fully grown, and ready to embark on a three-year ministry that will made sense of the incarnation, showing us the ways of God in the teaching and healing to come. But he’s still God’s incarnation, even fully grown.

So we can see the outline of a problem. God-with-us, Emmanuel, the son of the Most High, has come our into the wilderness seeking a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To quote John the Baptism, "I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you—so why are you coming to me?" On one level, we can just let the problem lie. The Embarrassment Theory tells us that anything that that might be embarrassing to the tradition, yet remains in the scriptural record, is regarded a uniquely true.

In other words, Jesus really needed baptism, or at least really needed us to see him baptized, even if the reasoning is mysterious. Both scripture and tradition tell us that Jesus was without sin, and therefore there has to be another purpose, another reason for accepting John’s baptism. Was he modelling for us? It seems the most likely reason, his willingness to get into the muck of the Jordan and the muck of our humanity, and be cleansed, needed or not. In this sense, it was an act of solidarity, something we never stop needing amid all our sin and sorrow.

So Jesus didn’t need it, and babies don’t need it—so why do we do it? Why not wait, like they do in other traditions, give the kid the chance to really get some serious sinning under their belt? Get them on Facebook, or Twitter—the new go-to place for human stupidity (someone call it “weapons-grade stupid”). We could wait, and sometimes we do, but the effect is the same: in Christ you are a new creation, the past is done, and new life has come.

In other words, age doesn’t matter, actual sin-level doesn’t matter, even which social media ruins you doesn’t matter. What matters is what Christ does at baptism, or rather what we do with Christ at baptism, without any reference to age or stage. St Paul said “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6)

Baptism is resurrection, new life through water and the Spirit, one with Christ and one with everyone in the body of Christ. Norah can no longer play the baby Jesus, she has become one with the baby Jesus, as we each did at the moment of our baptism. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3.28)

So what do we do with all this oneness, and newness, and Christ-like risen-ness? Well, I think you already know the answer. A quick glance at the newspaper or the latest tweet will remind you that baptism isn’t like being laminated somehow or shielded from our humanity. We don’t become faithful robots protected from ourselves. I haven’t asked the computer for a confession (“Computer, how have you sinned?”) but there would be no point. The computer has no free will and no opportunity for real living, so no opportunity to screw up. Even mishearing isn’t the computer’s fault, it was just me mumbling when I should ANNUNCIATE.

We humans, however, have every opportunity to fall short of the Maker’s desire for our lives, and—in turn—every opportunity to make it right. We read the story of the baptism of Jesus as one episode, when in fact, it was ongoing. Jesus may have only visited the Jordan once, but I imagine the crowds that followed John returned again and again. He was offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and since people keep doing it, I imagine they kept going back.

In the same manner, we too keep going back. Our actual baptism happens once, but week-by-week we make our confession, and participate once more in a version of John’s baptism. “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” There is a direct link between then and now, our servuce today and the many services John led by the riverside.

May our baptism be ongoing. May we continue to seek to be reconciled, and may we never forget our oneness in Christ Jesus. Amen.