Jesus Calls Philip and Nathaniel (John 1:43-51 NRSV)
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.”
One of the best ways to get to know an area, I have found, is to listen to the stories of those who have lived there the longest. When I was new in this community, it was valuable to hear the ways you talked about Eldersville and the other towns which surround us.
My initial perception about Eldersville was that it was a small village where many people had decided to spend their whole lives in close community. None of my initial perceptions were very negative, other than the fact that it probably is not the kind of place where someone would decide to plant a church today. It may be a village of insignificant size, but to many people, including myself, it is home.
I wasn’t surprised through, upon hearing some of your stories, to find out that others have not always had a positive view of this community—especially from those who lived in the “big city” of Burgettstown. One person recalled the way the kids from Eldersville were looked down upon by the town kids at the high school. There wasn’t much effort, in those days at least, to intermingle and befriend the Eldersville kids.
Surely, someone might have said about this town, “can anything good ever come out of Eldersville?”
The thing is, you and I both know that many people who have grown up in this little village have gone on to do great things with their lives. We have eyes to see the significance of this place. We know stories that challenge the common prejudicial narrative.
In the rapid currents of the news cycle, the thing that stuck out as perhaps the story of the week was our President’s comments about Haiti and countries on the African continent in a meeting about immigration reform.
The president wondered why, instead of accepting immigrants from these countries, the United States does not limit its immigration policy to only accept people from countries like Norway.
Now, I realize that this is a politically sensitive issue to broach in a worship service. One of our strengths as a church is that we come from different walks of life and political opinions. So to be clear, I’m not trying to make a point about the language our leaders use or our country’s immigration policy.
Instead, I am highlighting these comments to expose the deficiencies of our own worldview. That when talking about Haiti or any country on the African continent, we too might say “Can anything good come from such a place?”
If we don’t have the firsthand experience of knowing a Haitian or African immigrant, we might accept this as the way things are. If we don’t have any pictures in our minds of those places other than poverty and oppression, we might use the same language.
Nathaniel only knew one story about Nazareth and its people. Nazareth was a village of only a few hundred people. Any economic activity there was wholly dependent on the larger cities of Galilee. Nazareth was never mentioned in Hebrew scriptures and might not have appeared on most maps of the region.
If there was anything Nathaniel knew about Nazareth, it was that the savior of the universe could not come from there. In fact, nothing good could come from such a place. Residents of the city had no use for them, except to continue their menial labor and do work that the city dwellers would never think of doing themselves.
Nathaniel was not alone in thinking that nothing good could come out of a place like Nazareth.
It saddens me when systemic sins like racism, nativism, colonialism, and sexism are dismissed as new problems which have been invented by some group of super-sensitive elites that just want to make life more difficult for the rest of us.
It’s simply not true.
Would anyone in the public spotlight dismiss antisemitism as a similar invention? I would hope that we have already learned that lesson. We can’t afford to have to learn it again.
In order to expose these sins, we need look no farther than the words of the Gospel and our own common experience of how others have seen us.
None of these -isms or societal problems are new. They’ve been evident in every era of human history. And in reflecting on this Gospel text, I think every generation has had to come to grips with their own prejudices—their own assumptions about what comes from a place like Nazareth.
In his notes on this passage, John Wesley writes, “how cautiously should we guard against popular prejudices?”
Wesley notes the honesty of Nathaniel’s heart—how he was willing to say what he truly thought, even though he was sorely mistaken. But he says, “Nathaniel’s integrity prevailed over that foolish bias, and laid him open to the force of evidence.”
Nathaniel is honest about the way he sees things. He has no filter. Philip can see his heart. But Philip’s response is to invite him to see Jesus for who he truly is.
Philip says to Nathaniel, “come and see.” And Nathaniel, seeing the face of his savior, cries out “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”
Upon coming face to face with the one he had previously erected a barrier against, all prejudice was wiped away.
Nathaniel now knew that yes, much good can come out of Nazareth. Even the savior of the world.
“Come and See” – we only need to open our mind and let go of our prejudices, like Nathaniel did, to come face to face with those who share our humanity.
When we see people for who they are, we change the way we think of them, which changes the way we talk about them, which finally changes the way that we treat them.
And in turn, we might find like Nathaniel did, that the one who is unknown to us and despised by us is actually the person who knows us most deeply.
But it’s a reminder to you and me that Jesus is not a caucasian American, or at least he is not just a caucasian American. Jesus Christ has been incarnated through the power of the word and translation into the cultures of every nation and people group of this world.
You might remember Paul’s famous words – I have become all things to all people. Jesus did that to the extreme, taking on human flesh in all of its nuance. Jesus is truly incarnate and is constantly incarnated into every culture.
We can’t look upon another country or culture or group of people and see them as anything less than us, not only because they were created in the image image of God, but also because Jesus is incarnated into their humanity. When we look at people who are different than us, in language or accent, in skin tone, or in dress—we see the face of Jesus just as much as we do when we think of Jesus through our own cultural lenses.
And even more so, we must see our fellow Christians of all nations and races as our family. We don’t just throw around the words “brother and sister” in an empty fashion. Together with Christians all over the world, we have been baptized into one baptism and one family. You remember Jesus’s words? “Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God are my brother and sister and mother.” Those with whom we share the bond of Christian fellowship are, in Jesus’s mind at least, closer to us than our blood family.
And when our brother and sister tell us that they are being harmed, we better take that seriously. We must listen honestly to their concerns and struggles. Whether we’re talking about our African American brothers and sisters in the United States, our Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine, or our African brothers and sisters—we must listen and respond to their cries for justice.
After all, these are our brothers and sisters. Christ has appeared to them, spoken their language, clothed himself in their dress. These too are the ones for whom Christ died.
In the face of that word, how can we even dare hold onto our prejudices? How long can we afford to keep them in the dark, refusing to let them be exposed by Christ’s light?
Once Nathaniel sees Christ, he can no longer think or act the way he once did toward those from Nazareth.
Would you be willing to say something about Jesus in crass and dismissive words, were he to come right up to you today in the face of your African brother or sister?
If we can’t say it about Jesus, we can’t say it about our brothers and sisters in God’s family.
We all need to seriously examine the way we see our siblings in Christ. We need to open our eyes to see Christ as Nathaniel did at the urging of Philip. And thus, we need to open our eyes to see every person as a creation of God and every believer as our sibling in faith.
We need to open our eyes to the contributions of others to our corporate wellbeing. We must refuse to see people merely as pawns in some economic and political scheme. We must not see people as instruments or tools toward some end. Instead, we must see them for their intrinsic value and innate worth.
Prejudices (like racism) are real. — It’s not just a political talking point. It’s not something we can dismiss as fake news. It’s not some myth perpetuated by people who are overly sensitive. It’s not political-correctness. It is the call of Christ, who we profess to believe in and worship, to examine our hearts and openly confess our sin.
Listen to the stories of your brother and sister. Get to know someone different from you. “Come and see” the other as God sees them.
We’re not always going to get everything right. We’re not perfect. But like Nathaniel, we need to be willing to have our prejudices exposed for what they are. We need to be willing to follow Philip and come to see Jesus, the savior of every people and nation and the savior of you and me–from both willful sins and hidden prejudices.
Thanks be to God. Amen.