Jesus extends his famous invitation to Philip, “Follow me.” “Come, Philip. Share the rest of your journey with me.” And Philip accepts the invitation but notice: What is the very first thing that Philip does? Right away, with no interlude, Philip goes to share the news with Nathanael. A similar response happens in the immediately preceding scene when Andrew has the same impulse to share the Good News with his brother, Peter: “We have found the Messiah.”
There is a real spirit of generosity in these two men. They could have left and followed Jesus without telling anyone else; but, instead they choose to begin their stories with a generous sharing of the good news of God’s presence in the world.
Nathanael’s initial reaction was one of skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip responds rather diplomatically. Instead of arguing or guilting Nathanael, Philip learns from the Master, using the very same words that Jesus used with Andrew and Peter: “Come and see.” Philip simply invites his friend to experience Jesus for himself.
In so many ways, this meeting between Nathanael and Jesus is an unlikely meeting. Nathanael didn’t even want to meet the guy. “Honestly? The one of whom the prophets spoke? A self-appointed teacher from that back-woods little town of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
But Jesus quipped right back, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” A backhanded compliment? Or maybe Jesus appreciated Nathanael’s honesty about Nazareth? Maybe, but we who overhear this conversation might realize that there is a double meaning in Jesus’ words for in them Jesus is recalling echoes of another “Israelite” – the original Israel, Jacob son of Isaac. Yes, Jesus is alluding to the very same Jacob who deceived Isaac to attain the blessing and tricked his brother to gain the inheritance. The same Jacob who would be renamed Israel and become the father of a nation.
But Nathanael is an Israelite without deceit. This is a most unlikely beginning.
I love it that the story of Nathanael comes up in the lectionary on this particular weekend because it reminds me of the story of another unlikely beginning.
The year is 1955 in Montgomery, AL. The issue is forced segregation on city buses. Rosa Parks has recently been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. Her trial will be coming soon. And local pastors are gathered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, strategizing on what to do next. Ideas flow back and forth but nothing emerges with any clarity. That is, until the young pastor of the church – a 26-year old in his first church as pastor, new to town, and still unknown to the city fathers – raises his hand. The Montgomery Bus Boycott has a leader.
The young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. it is. Rev. King was a newcomer to the circle but, like Nathanael, he had an experience in Jesus of the reign of God come near and would become an ambassador of that reign – a witness to the meeting of heaven and earth.
Yes, a most unlikely beginning.
Nathanael has to be a little mystified. Jesus wasn’t even there for the Nazareth comment that he made and how did Jesus even know his name or that he had been sitting under a fig tree. There must be some special ‘seeing’ going on – a spiritual sight. So, maybe Philip was right after all. Nathanael is convinced, and the traditional phrases pour out of his mouth, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
And Jesus confirms Nathanael’s proclamation with yet another reference to the Jacob narrative. “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This is a reference to story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28) when the heavens approached to close to earth that the inhabitants of both would meet. But now, Jesus says it about himself. In Jesus – not just in a single geographic location, but in Jesus – the reign of God would come near.
It is an unlikely beginning. What is more unlikely than heaven touching earth? But, why not? Heaven is where love reigns. Where there is room for all God’s children at the table. Where, in the words of a friend of mine, nothing’s broken and no one’s missing.
Not at all what earth is like. We see a world that couldn’t too often is far different than God’s realm of love: war, global warming, starvation, children dying without health care. And yet, in Jesus, the unexpected happens. Heaven gets a foothold on this earth.
Many years after the meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a now very well-known Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would describe his glimpse of what it looks like when the reign of God comes near.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
Through The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, in his actions, and peering into his dream, maybe we can see it, too. And maybe we can see it because he raised his hand in Montgomery, because he stepped up to walk in that place where heaven and earth come near. Because he stepped up to walk with Jesus, maybe we can see it, too.
The invitation to Philip and Nathanael to “follow me” reminds us that when we walk with Jesus, we walk in the unlikely places where heaven and earth come near. In this fragmented world, we represent God’s reign gaining a foothold here already, and we are invited to let our actions show it.
Sojourners’ Jim Wallis says, “In Jesus, God hits the street.” Nathanael, now a follower, will walk that street, too. Sometimes it’s hard to follow Jesus to those unexpected places. Too often the Reign of God enters our world with a cost.
The Rev. Dr. King knew this. From a Birmingham jail, he wrote about a letter he had received from a white brother who was urging caution. That brother had said,
“All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but. . . The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”
The Rev. Dr. King responded:
“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Martin Luther King, who we celebrate on Monday, helped a whole generation see where the ways of heaven begin to get an unlikely foothold on this earth. He helped us remember that walking with Jesus means working for justice – revealing in our midst already a world where love reigns, a realm of God’s shalom where nothing’s broken and no one’s missing, where a table is spread and all are welcome.
It might be a simple act of hospitality in the midst of want, from we who live in paradise to others who live in sh… elsewhere. It might be a hand raised to volunteer in leadership for community witness or it could be two feet marching in solidarity for truth and justice. This is where the reign of God comes near, where we catch a glimpse of a time and place where nothing’s broken and no one’s missing, and a table is spread for all God’s children.
Good Lord, thank you for Nathanael’s call and witness. Thank you for Philip’s generous sharing of good news. Thank you for the witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all others who have been willing to walk with Jesus in that challenging place where heaven and earth come near. Give us the ears to hear and eyes to glimpse your reign among us, and the courage to respond and hit the street with you. Amen.