Leaving the shadows – Epiphany3

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip 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.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And 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.”

Nazareth wasn’t a good place to put on your Curriculum Vitae as your place of origin. In fact if there was Facebook back then, you wouldn’t acknowledge that you were from there on any social media. Nazareth was a dump.
It didn’t feature in any Old Testament prophecies. No great personage had come from there. It wasn’t the seat of any power and no great families hailed from Nazareth. It was a simple backwater town. No great schools, colleges, universities.

There was nothing. Nazareth was nowhere.

Jesus came from Nazareth.

Despite the setbacks of being from there, the Nazarene Jesus had insight and intuition that the best family, geography and education cannot give. He knew people, their nature, their motivation and their desires. That is what drew him to Nathanael as he saw him standing under the fig tree.
Standing under your own fig tree is a symbol of comfort and blessing in the language of the Old Testament. Again and again the prophets used the image to evoke feelings of longing for peace and consolation. To be under your fig tree was to be home and arrived. Nathanael was standing in that space.

Strangely, there is a restlessness in the human spirit that is not satisfied with the shade of our own particular circumstance. A longing and a yearning for more. Was it this that Jesus sensed in Nathanael? Did he see in the shaded man, something restless wanting to grow?

Nathanael wasn’t impressed with Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Prejudice and arrogance make us so unteachable.  I came across a lovely defition of a heretic the other day.  It defined a heretic as someone who is unteachable.  Nathanael was bordering on heresy.

It was Philip who cut through Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareans, “Come and see.” The most simple and effective of evangelistic invitations.  It is the beginning of growth and liberation. “Come and see“. It seems that it is not enough to stand afar off in our comfort zones and formulate opinions from a distance. We have to “Come and see“. That is what changes our lives.

As I write this, I am facing charges of heresy that have been laid with the Presiding Bishop of my denomination. The people who have laid the charge have never met me, nor are they prepared to meet me. I phoned and asked them. They are not members of any of the congregations I serve, they have never attended a service I have conducted. They have listened to an archived sermon of mine on the Internet and now they want me silenced, “to protect the people you [I] am leading to hell” by teaching exclusively from the Gospels as I do.

All they, by contrast, want to do is stand under their fig tree, their comfort zone, and voice cynical opinions.  My invitation to them is the invitation of Philip, “Come and see“. Thus far they have refused to budge from the shadows.

Jesus finds Nathanael right where he is in his comfortable, fig tree shadow, the place of his prejudiced opinions, and then Jesus leads him on to greater adventures.

He tells Nathanael he will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending.  Jesus is referring to Jacob who experienced a dream where he saw what Jesus is describing to Nathanael. Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending as Jesus describes. On awaking from his dream Jacob named the place Bethel and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

By all accounts it would seem Nathanael never did see what Jacob saw. Instead he saw the Nazarean Jesus, whom he followed; despised, rejected, crucified and utterly destroyed.   It wasn’t much of a dream! It was a nightmare!

The next and only time we hear of Nathanael, after his meeting with Jesus under the fig tree, is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in one of those mysterious post resurrection events.

I wonder if Nathanael remembered, as he stood there in the presence of the crucified and risen one, the words he heard those three adventurous years ago, “You will see greater things than these

Nathanael sure had.

Perhaps if we will get out from under the shade of our own prejudiced opinions, we may see greater things too?

You can never go home again

John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

It was that master of integral thought, Ken Wilber who first woke me up to the reality that, “You can never go back…” No matter how great the trauma, nor how strong the nostalgia, there really is NO place like home. It doesn’t exist anymore.

Living and counseling as I do in the beauty of Port Alfred, or as the locals call it “at the Kowie” referencing the river that mouths into the sea here, I find myself using the analogy of the river often. I refer particularly to the reality that you cannot put your hand into the same river twice. It is a Zen saying that highlights the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence. You see, the river is always changing and so the second time you put your hand into the waters, the river has already changed and isn’t the same river anymore. We cannot go back.

Yet this is exactly what Peter and the other disciples do after the Resurrection. Some would say, they were back in Galilee because Jesus told them to go there. Others like John Shelby Spong would posit that their dreams of ministry and mission for the Kingdom had been totally destroyed, and that Peter’s statement, “I am going fishing.” And the other disciples’, “We will go with you” are statements of resignation to having to return to the way of life they left when Jesus called them away from those very shores three and one half year before. They soon learn that you cannot go back, and that you cannot cast your nets into the same lake twice. Their efforts to ply their previous trades are fruitless. That is, until Jesus appears on the beach. Unrecognizable, his resurrection influence on their gutted world is evident even though his identity is not. Isn’t this a beautiful illustration of Prevenient grace? You don’t have to recognize Jesus to experience the fruitful blessing of his risen presence.

There are two other details in this fish barbeque scene that lure my preaching mind for some deeper reflection during the coming week.

Firstly, the fish is already on the fire. It is essential for the disciples to realize that Jesus is sufficient to himself. He doesn’t need them to fish for him, in fact the dependence is all one way. The church is totally dependent on Jesus and not the other way around. Some of the worst preaching I have heard, is preaching that fails to emphasize this truth. I am sure we have all heard this kind of saying, “The Lord really wants to bless you but he can’t because, …” The sentence is completed with any number of conditions that try to sluice-gate the flow of grace to the congregation. “You have too much sin in your life”. “You haven’t got enough faith”. “You haven’t paid your tithe” Take your pick, it’s all rubbish! Heresy created by not noticing that the fish that Jesus is about to share with his destitute disciples, is already on the grill before the boat (the iconic symbol of the church) pulls ashore. “I have food you know not of.” Remember? When will the church stop trying to control the flow of grace?

Secondly, is it not sad that Peter is the only one who is prepared to jump ship to get to the risen Lord? Too many years in too many pastoral appointments in a mainline denominational church, have demonstrated to me that few Christ followers will leave the comfortable confines of the iconic boat, and swim to Jesus in the sea of challenge and faith (even if they can’t walk on it as Peter momentarily did earlier). In these days of pedophilic scandal, diminishing attendances at worship, conflict riddled clergy and council relationships, we still cling to the gunwales and want to keep our feet dry. Why are we clinging to this leaky vessel, fast becoming the ghost ship of the damned? Are we cursed to cling to the 153 fishy dogmas, doctrines and rules, when Jesus already has fish, that he wants to feed to his flock, cooking on the beach?

Peter and the disciples went home and discovered that though it may have been “where the heart” was, it certainly wasn’t where Jesus wanted them to be.

How utterly consoling is the conclusion to this abortive homecoming.

On the same shores (or is the spoonerism correct “shame sores“) where scant three years earlier Jesus spoke life changing, home leaving words; he speaks them again… “Follow me

We can never go home again, that’s true.

What is also true is it’s never too late to leave home and follow.

Come on”, says Peter, “Jump ship! There is fresh fish cooking on the beach!