For Nathaniel, the journey of discipleship begins in the shade. He approaches Jesus for the first time, but finds to his astonishment that Jesus already knows him. “How do you know me?” Nathaniel asks, to which Jesus says, “I saw you when you were sitting under the fig tree.”
Often mentioned in the Bible, fig trees were of medium height – 15-25 feet – with a canopy that spread out wide. They were valued in the ancient world for their thick foliage, even in harsh conditions. It was common to find someone sitting beneath the cool and dense shade of a fig tree to escape the heat of the day. We might imagine those 1st century residents of Bethsaida and many other ancient towns coming out of their homes and sitting beneath the shade, the way some of us can remember sitting on porches, or resting on a stoop. Picture those residents of that small Galilean town playing checkers, or rocking, or enjoying a glass of sweet tea. That’s where Jesus finds Nathaniel. He had his life ordered. His routine was fairly straightforward. His view was framed the way he wanted it. Life must have been pretty good, because from his shady perch he could look down at those he deemed other than and less than himself, sneering, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” In other words, you could say Nathaniel had it made in the shade. That is, until Phillip shows up one day and says to him, “Come and see.”
Seeing is a key theme in the story of Jesus as told by John. In the Gospel of John, to “see” is to know Jesus, recognize him as Messiah, and follow in his Way.
And sometimes, we might assume that happens all at once for people – at least in the gospels.
We sometimes act as though everyone was out there on that night when the stars flashed and the multitude appeared and announced with such clarity precisely who the Messiah was. But, then, John’s gospel doesn’t have a birth scene with harmonious midnight choir of angels.
Of course, Mark also doesn’t have a birth story. As we remembered in our passage last week, the Gospel of Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism. So maybe we assume that everyone was out there at the Jordan – all of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside streaming out to stand on the shore, and looking up to see the heavens part and hearing a booming voice announce him as God’s son, the beloved one. But, then, John’s gospel doesn’t have that baptism scene, either.
After theological reflections on light in the darkness and word becoming flesh, John begins with an announcement from John the Baptist, and then these stories of Jesus calling disciples. And they don’t see and understand him all at once. As Albert Schweitzer once said so elegantly, “He comes as one unknown.” It’s not instant, but gradual. And more often that’s what an Epiphany is like. It’s not sudden or dramatic, but a process. It’s like Magi seeing something against the sky, just a glimmer against the gloom, and then the more they follow, the closer they come, the more they recognize and the more they come to see.
This same gradual recognition happens in this early portion of the Gospel of John, in our passage today and in the verses just before. Notice how the recognition of Jesus progresses. First two disciples of John encounter him and call him “Rabbi” or “teacher.” Then one of those two, Andrew, goes and tells his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah” the Christ. Next, in our passage today, Phillip begins to follow and comes to Nathaniel to say, “We have found the one that Moses and the law and the prophets have told us about.” And when Nathaniel finally arrives and is known by Jesus, he calls him “Son of God.” From Rabbi, to Messiah, to the one to whom it’s all been pointing, to the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t change, but as we come closer and closer, we can see him for who he truly is. And as we gasp and confess our astonishment with Nathaniel, Jesus himself seems to say, “You’re only just beginning to see.” Notice the end of the passage this morning: “You will see even greater things than this. You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
An Epiphany is not always or even usually sudden or dramatic. And in the same way, our understanding of Jesus doesn’t happen all at once, but over time, as we come closer and closer. People have to see for themselves. That’s why it so often begins with an invitation: “Come and see.”
Gordon Targerson was a pastor in Massachusetts, who told the story of crossing the Atlantic by ship when he noticed a man wearing a clerical collar who would daily sit on the deck and read his Bible. One day, the pastor approached and said, “Forgive my curiosity, but I’d like to meet you. I’m a pastor, and I’ve noticed how every day you sit here and read your Bible religiously.” After introductions and some conversation, the other man began to describe his story of faith. He was from the Philippines, and had studied in the United States with the intention of becoming a lawyer. And during his first week of school, he met another student, who offered to be help in any way he could. In particular, he asked if this new student would like to go to church with him, and the new student agreed.
The following Sunday it was raining quite heavily, and the young man assumed plans had changed, but then there was a knock at the door, and there stood the new friend holding two umbrellas.
The man explained how he became a Christian, and how it started through that encounter. He gradually began to know more and more and feel God calling him into ordained ministry. “I went to Seminary and was then ordained a Methodist minister and I returned to the Phillipines to serve.” That’s when Targerson learned that the man on the deck in the clerical collar was Bishop Valencius, Bishop of the Methodist Church in the Philippines.
“I have been able to serve my church in the Philippines but I always pray for and give thanks for my friend who had two umbrellas.”
Because he was the one who said “Come and see.” We need this invitation because we all have our shady spots, where we have it made just to our liking.
Ancient literature suggests that the shade of the fig trees was so valued that homes were often built near the trees. Bruce Malina – who studies the social science of the first-century world – has even suggested that when a fig tree is referenced, it’s actually a symbol for home. (1)
So when Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree,” it’s as if he’s saying, “I saw you in your settled places. Your sheltered places. Your home.” From this place of safety, Nathaniel will follow and come to see. What about us? What are the shady spots where we build our homes? Where have we constructed our private worlds? What branches are framing or blocking our views? What shadows do we need to leave behind if we are going to see things yet greater than we have for our lives, for our world, and from our Messiah? We, too, have places where we sit comfortably and assume where the good people come from, and figure out how to keep ourselves separated from them. We have places where we rest and retain an image of who Jesus is, and a limited frame of what a Messiah looks like.
And Jesus sees us all under our fig trees and our places of shelter, before we ever see him. He knows that something in all of us wants to stay in the shade. Because something in all of us knows what seeing Jesus will mean. If we follow, we know it will lead out of the shade, as it did for Nathaniel and so many others. Nathaniel has confessed that Jesus as a blessed teacher, the Son of God, and the King of Israel, but Jesus is not going to behave as Nathaniel assumes those categories would suggest. He’s going to show him even greater things than that. If Nathaniel is going to continue to follow and confess that Jesus is the Son of God, he’ll lose his life as he knew it, and find a new abundant life beyond all his expectations. And eventually that will mean more than seeing things he didn’t expect about Jesus. It will mean seeing things he never expected to see about God. Because the closer we come, the more we see. And so something in all of us waits in the comfort of the shade.
I led a funeral service last Saturday, which is an essential part of the responsibility and honor of my work. But in this case it was for someone I did not know. In fact I did not know their family or friends. The daughter of the deceased was a friend of a friend of a friend. It was a complex scenario, where the young adult daughter was the one making arrangements, but uncles and aunts and a large extended family had their set of expectations. They expected the service to be held at the church where they had all grown up, in a farming community about 30 minutes outside of Greensboro. But that church would not host the service in their sanctuary, but in the fellowship hall, for two reasons: because there was an urn and not a body, and because the daughter wanted to offer a eulogy in that church where women do not speak from the pulpit.
Well the daughter of the deceased man was right in the middle of all of these dynamics and had told a friend, “I need someone who will be comfortable enough for my family and yet won’t say something that makes me want to run out of the room.” Well, what can I say, it turns out if that’s your low bar, I’m your pastor. One day I’ll figure how to put that on a business card: “Comfortable enough for your family, but won’t make your skin crawl.”
So last Saturday afternoon, we gathered in the church fellowship hall, complete with old furniture and sliding accordion doors, and we claimed it as a sacred space of remembrance. Friends of the daughter played beautiful music, the daughter gave as fine a eulogy as I have ever heard, celebrating who her father was, and yet also acknowledging who he did not become amidst some of the troubles of his life. I offered some general words of hope, themes of redemption, words from Scripture.
With service over as punch and cookies were being served, a gentleman sought me out. I knew he was coming for me by the way he nodded dramatically at every verse I read from the Bible during the service. He was well-dressed and well-coiffed, and one of those people who shakes your hand through the whole of an interaction, just so you know you’re not going anywhere. “Preacher, I want to thank you,” he said, introducing himself as a representative from the church. “It was good to hear a young man proclaim the gospel,” he said. “We don’t need any of these stories or memories, we need the gospel,” he said. He then went on to suggest that next time I offer an altar call, “Because I know there were people here today that needed to know Jesus. They needed to hear the gospel. And that’s what this church is all about, helping more people hear the gospel.”
Well, what I wanted to say was “Sir, you’re absolutely right. There are people here today that don’t know Jesus. But people don’t hear the gospel they see it.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how the shade and shelter under which that church sat, where they ordered things just so, and looked down from their perch or their pulpit and presumed who the good people are and where they come from and what they have to say, and where they held in tact all their assumptions of who Jesus is and what the gospel is about, had kept them from issuing that compelling invitation: “Come and see.”
But then, remember in this story, I’m the funeral chaplain who sips punch and can keep your family comfortable, so I didn’t say any of that to him. But as I got loose from the handshake, and as I drove away, I started asking those things of myself.
I wondered, how often does the shade of my assumptions, the shadows of my past, the obstructed view under which I sit keep me from seeing. Even more, I wondered, how often does it keep others from seeing the compelling, revealing, life-altering, assumption-shattering person of Jesus Christ, who will show us even greater things than we imagine. People don’t hear the gospel. They see it.
On the Lower Eastside of Manhattan sits one of the oldest and most impactful social service agencies in our nation’s largest city: The Bowery Mission. The director of that mission used to tell the story of a many named Joe, who had passed through the mission at various points, always struggling to stay sober, stay sheltered, stay safe. Then one day, Joe came to “see.” That is, through the ministry of that mission, he had a life-changing experience with Christ. And then as he followed in the way of Jesus, he began to see more and more, and eventually he began to work at the mission, doing whatever needed to be done. Described as the most caring person you would hope to encounter, Joe connected with everyone, because they knew that he saw them for who they were. So compelling was his faith and commitment that he could be found cleaning, and volunteering, feeding people, even helping people who were too out of it to undress and get into bed at night.
The director shares how one night at the mission the director was delivering a sermon after dinner, amidst the usual crowd of tired and still people. But before the sermon was over there was one man who came down the middle aisle and knelt to pray, crying out for God to make a change in his life. He kept shouting, “Oh God! Make me like Joe. Make me like Joe. Make me like Joe.” And the director stopped, and went to the man leaning down to pray. And as they prayed, he said, “My friend, I hear you, but I think your prayer should be, ‘Make me like Jesus.” To which the man looked up and with absolute sincerity said, “Is he like Joe?” (2)
People don’t hear the gospel. They see it. At least in the gospel of John. It starts with those early invitations to “come and see” and continues all the way through to Mary’s proclamation of an empty tomb and a risen Lord. And what does she say as she shouts the news? She says, “I have seen the Lord.” And so here we all sit today.
It happens so often through the compelling invitation of those who have seen – people with two umbrellas, or people who have seen so much more than they ever knew of who God is in Jesus Christ. People like Nathaniel, or Joe, or Phillip, or even you and me, who leave the shade of what they have known to see still greater things, and then to those around issue that call: come and see for yourself.
- Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary: The Gospel of John
- As told by Tony Campolo in Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong