Sermon for Epiphany 2 High Mass Sunday 14 January 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
John 1.51 Nathanael said to Jesus, How do you know me?
Jesus spotted Nathanael as a man without guile, without pretence, without a hidden agenda, and with no illusions about himself. I like that bit. You could be friends with someone like Nathanael, even if you disagreed with his views.
Christianity is about love and surrender; this only works in the context of relationships, with each other and with God, and without guile. That means thinking and speaking for ourselves, like Nathanael. We live in such strange times, when thought crime is almost on the statute book. Everyone has to think the same, or we risk being “no-platformed“, to use the incoherent verbiage of the modern era. But when everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking very much. This is a sign of institutional fear, which always rises in times of change, as in today’s Church. Do we have to go on living like that, fearful of saying the wrong thing, hiding from the digital inquisition? Great souls have better things to do, they see the new beginning which Christ offers to everyone, a forgiven life; they sense, and you and I sense this too, I know, just as the boy Samuel knew he had heard God, we hear an inborn whisper from God, that’s all it is, that Christmas sign, that you and I have not been forgotten, and that indeed we are called to journey forth and undergo great testing to save our souls and the world. This great enterprise, which alone makes life worth living, is not a head-journey, it’s not about thinking the right thoughts as defined by the majority; nor is it about perfect outward behaviour, conforming to the skewed morals of our age. It is what Fr. Alan referred to last Sunday, metanoia, that is to say going beyond the mind, turning away from our pesky demons, and reconnecting with the divine.
And to my assistance in my presentation of this brave new world, in which it no longer matters what other people think of us, comes Nathanael, the subject of today’s Gospel. We just skim the Gospels. Nathanael becomes just another disciple in Jesus’s recruitment drive. He’s much more than that, and is closer to you than you know. Nathanael is an uncommon name; it means ‘God gives’ or ‘God has given’. Now it’s not easy to penetrate the many cultural layers of these ancient stories, but I can see why Philip selected Nathanael and brought him to Jesus. Nathanael thinks for himself, with his scornful reference to Nazareth, he has no guile, no pretence. Furthermore he is prepared to confront the mystery of God, to go into the unknown, when Philip invites him to “come and see” Jesus.
I like Nathanael’s question to Jesus, How do you know me? It’s a truthful question, it’s what we want to know. We can torment ourselves for years putting the unanswered question the other way round: How can I know God? But Nathanael says, How can you, Jesus, know me? The answer to his question is in the imagery of this strange story, which is that of Jacob’s dream, a ladder set up on earth reaching to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending. Nathanael is Jacob. Not only that. We find Nathanael recognised beneath a tree, a place, a garden and its tree, with the fig leaves which Adam and Eve sewed together. Nathanael is not only a Jacob figure, wrestling with who God is and recognising him, he is also an Adam figure, you and I, but an Adam no longer afraid, no longer hiding. Jesus in this story is the Creator God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day, and who calls to Adam, Where are you? He asks that of you and me, why are you hiding? He says, I know who you are, I saw you there, beneath your tree, I’ve known you all along.
Our imagination is not given to us by God just so we can figure out how our new phone works, useful though that is. God has given us this gift of imagination so that we can be enthralled by these Gospel stories, think for ourselves, and find there the images, and the hope, and the endless possibilities that life can offer us, a divine life. So let me tell you where that story of Nathanael and Jesus takes me. It takes me to this service of Communion. When bread was distributed at services in the early days of Christianity, one phrase used was “Receive who you are”. Receive who you are. The sacrament enables you to become who you truly are and to know yourselves. You are the Body of Christ. You are not somehow unfinished, incomplete, lacking some crucial religious body part, which gets a temporary fix at each Mass. But we do turn away from the revelation of the divine, so we respond week after week to Philip’s invitation to Nathanael, Come and see. And what we discover is what we have known all along, that of course Jesus knows me, because all love is one, from the beginning to the end, there is no division, and the very mind with which we ask that question – How do you know me? – is not formed by other people’s opinions, but is itself awakened, sustained and instructed by that love unknown, my Saviour’s love to me. Jesus is God’s gift to us, so that we can know what life with God is like. You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. That’s what your New Year can be like, a new year of divine awareness, a year in which God gives, as God has always given. God gives. Which is what Nathanael means.