Let us pray:
Helps us to allow your words to work in us, so that we may take it home with us; so that our week may be filled with the gift your grace gives us today. Let us not forget what we have heard but rather build on it; give us the love it takes to build, let this love work in us. Remain the light of our days, become the goal of our love, and bestow on us through this homily a new life in your faith, a life that is both prayer and work in your love. Amen.
Our gospel reading today comes from John – the fourth and most mystical and philosophical of the gospels. The last of the gospels written, John is less a historical narrative of Jesus’ life and works, and more a multi-level commentary about his teachings and their meanings for our lives. John Shelby Spong describes John’s gospel as:
“a book about life, abundant life, and ultimately eternal life. . . a book to be lived as much as a volume to be mastered”.
The first chapter of John completely ignores the birth stories and jumps straight into Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, and the beginning of His ministry. In our passage today, Jesus has travelled to Galilee and begun recruiting His followers and disciples. One of those selected is Nathanael, mentioned only three times in the Bible, and introduced to Jesus by Philip of Bethesda.
Let’s take a look at Nathanael for a moment. He was a friend of Philip; he must have been a good friend since Philip wanted to introduce him to the one he loved, this powerful new force in his life – Jesus. We all have close friends, ones that when we discover someone or something extra special, we want to rush out and be sure that that friend meets the new person or experiences that special thing for themselves. We can deduce that Nathanael was such a friend of Philip’s.
Philip described Jesus to Nathanael as:
the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:45)
Like many young Jewish men of that time, Philip was obviously a religious man and a student of the Torah. It is clear that Nathanael was also a religious man; we heard that he prayed for the arrival of the Messiah that would save Israel. It was interesting to me to learn that ancient Jewish writers equated ‘gathering figs’ or being ‘under the fig tree’ with a sacred place of prayer, study and meditation on the Torah, a place of longing for the Messiah to show himself as King. Jesus’ vision of Nathanael in this passage as sitting beneath a fig tree, is a clear indication that Jesus knew Nathanael was a serious student of the Torah also.
But Nathanael was not so sure about meeting this man, Jesus. Why not? Because of where He came from – Nazareth! It seems Nathanael, like most of us, tended to judge people by where they came from.
In his response to the invitation from Philip to come meet this marvelous man, it appears that Nathanael said what he thought, without any filters, when he replied:
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:45)
He couldn’t get past the fact that, in that time, Nazareth was considered a backwater town, a place of mud houses, low income and populated by what generally would have been considered the ‘red necks’ of the time. He couldn’t get past his prejudice of what he thought Nazareth was.
In fact, in this new year’s list of the ‘top ten best’ and ‘top ten worst’, Nathanael would have listed Nazareth and its people on the ‘top ten worst’, maybe even at the top of that list. Nathanael presupposed that anyone from Nazareth was insignificant, unworthy of attention. . . without having a basis for this prejudice. He came to that conclusion based on his personal perceptions, or as my grandmother used to say, ‘He jumped to convulsions’. He was a prejudiced and judgmental man.
Just what is prejudice? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘prejudice’
- ‘as a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience;
- an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge;
- an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics.’
There is a little or a lot of prejudice in all of us. It is so hard to admit we are prejudiced. Prejudices makes us blind to things that could enrich our lives and gladden our hearts. We all have prejudices that prevent us from being our best selves, opening to new people and experiences, and fully following the teachings of Jesus.
I imagine, if we would admit it, every one of us in this sanctuary is prejudiced in some way. We all tend to group people by race, or occupation, or sexual orientation, or politics, or income, or place of origin, and then we pigeonhole individuals and judge them because they belong to one of those groups.
One of my greatest prejudices I recognized when I spent time in Salt Lake City, working for a company that was laying the Alaskan pipeline. I had grown up as an Air Force brat, and had assumed, because of the diversity in the military, that I was not prejudiced. But, was I SO wrong. I discovered that I really disliked the Mormon religion – not because of the individual members, but because of their position on women, and, particularly, unmarried women. I supervised a group of engineers in a manufacturing plant, and constantly heard from the men that I was taking food off a family’s table. I even heard it at the hardware store when I went to buy a pair of dog clippers. I was admonished by the sales clerk that because I was not married, I would not be going to the ‘real’ heaven, but only a place where I would be a handmaid to those gods and goddesses who were favored enough to gain entrance to the ‘celestial’ paradise.
Anyone who knows anything about me can imagine how that sat in my craw. I was furious that my worth would only be measured by marriage and the number of children I could produce! I had to admit to myself that I was
PREJUDICED. . .
BIGOTED . . .
Boy, was that a shock to my psyche!
But, eventually, I came to admire many aspects of the Mormon religion, as I saw numerous acts of kindness and generosity lived out by the Mormon people to those not of their faith.
And the good news is that God, through the people we come in contact with, and experiences we may have, can break down our prejudices, . . if we will allow it. Because of Nathanael’s relationship with Philip, despite his conviction that
“nothing good can come from Nazareth” (John 1:45),
Nathanael went with Philip to meet Jesus, a man he had never met. But, Nathanael was not unknown to Jesus – we hear later in the Gospel:
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47)
Even though Nathanael was wary of people from Nazareth, and therefore – Jesus, Jesus recognized the goodness deep within Nathanael. Just as he sees the goodness within each of us! It didn’t take Nathanael long to realize that his prejudice was misplaced; that he had, indeed, found the Messiah.
As we now know, something good DID come out of Nazareth! Jesus came from that little backwater town to teach us the most valuable lesson there is – everlasting, eternal love!
So, if we put our prejudices aside and follow Philip’s advice to Nathanael to
“come and see” (John 1:46)
we will see who Jesus really is, what following His way can do for us, and we will know that the best is yet to come. How many opportunities for new love, growth, inspiration and joy can be ours if we put our prejudices aside each day and become open to people, ideas and experiences that we may have formerly shunned.
So, let’s take time this week to reflect on what prejudices we each may have – and vow to work hard on changing these thoughts. . . and be ready and willing to
“come and see” (John 1:46)
Let us be ready to meet Jesus anew in the face of every person we encounter and every challenge we face.
Let us pray:
Holy God, ignorant, hurtful, hateful words churn in our hearts; they wound or distract us from your love. We are called to contradict those words and prejudices within us; it’s a lot to ask of us. Remind us, and then remind us again: Your Word is life. Your Word is light. Your Word is full of grace, full of truth. Whatever words we hear, whatever words tumble through our thoughts, let yours be the Word we speak. Let yours be the Word we live. Amen.
 John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, New York, 2014; p 9
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church of Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 14 January 2018