1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-50
The change in Nathanael is an important part of this story, but as I have read this story this week, it has become clear to me that if we only focus on Nathanael, we miss so much. Perhaps this story is less about Nathanael, and more about how Jesus responds to him. Not so much about Jesus’ exact words, but what he is doing with them. There’s no pithy phrase, no zinger, nothing to be put on a bumper sticker here. Jesus responds not with a slogan or easy answer, but with a conversation imbued with grace.
The grace that Nathanael is offered is truly good news, because we have all been Nathanael, no matter how you interpret the tone or intention behind his question about Nazareth. Whether we have thought it, spoken it, or shown it in our actions, we have all disparaged others, made assumptions, carried harmful stereotypes with us, we have all, intentionally or not, hurt and insulted our fellow brothers and sisters, we have been unkind. We do it as individuals, we do it as communities and organizations. We manage to do it in the midst of our best intentions. We often do it when we are so very very sure we are right and others are so very very wrong.
Jesus’ response to Nathanael, to us, is two-fold. Instead of chastising him, instead of putting him in his place, embarrassing him, or ‘teaching him a lesson.’ Jesus pays a genuine compliment and then offers a reminder that connects us back to our Psalm for the day - that we are known by God. Knowing is concept central to the book of John, but it doesn’t mean having objective knowledge about something. To be known in the book of John is to be in relationship. And being known by the one who knit us together means that while our failings are no surprise, God counts us as so much more than the sum of our failures (or even our successes for that matter).
Before Nathanael even heard Jesus’ name, before we were a glint in our parents eye, before we ever came to be, God was with us, knitting and weaving us together. The psalm says we are fearfully and wonderfully made. The root of that word wonder is the same Hebrew root used to talk about the huge and amazing and wonderful historic events in the lives of the Israelites like the Exodus or the return from exile. To God, every single person is like one of those huge events of God, every single person has equal dignity, every single person is searched for and known with the same fervor and love.
All God wants is a relationship, and through that relationship to heal the brokenness of the world, from the fractures within our own selves to the shattered situations around the globe that seem irredeemable. And so we, the broken, are called - not to a destination, but to a journey of discipleship.
For we may be fearfully and wonderfully made, but God isn’t done with us yet. Martin Luther wrote that “this life is not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road.”
Travelling this road to discipleship can be hard at times. It’s filled with difficult choices and often not any simple answers. When someone says something potentially or blatantly hateful, are we to flip tables like Jesus in the temple, or work to build a relationship like Jesus did today. Both stories are about affecting change, but they represent a whole range of actions available to us to respond to injustice in the world. What’s a disciple to do in the face of injustice? What is the right way to work for change? Oftentimes, the context, and the gifts we have/the person God created us to be will help us find our way. And there is no silver bullet, no one way. But perhaps discipleship takes silver buckshot: many kinds of work, from table flipping to relationship building.
It seems that in our country and culture today, that choosing to connect, to dialogue, and to build relationships is becoming more and more rare and we need to remember to include it in our justice making. The world needs fewer reactive arguments and more compassionate conversations. It needs people who recognize the reality of Psalm 139 for every single person and community, even those who are the very doers of injustice and pain.
In Nathanael, we hear the things we have uttered in ignorance, the things we regret having said, and the things we didn’t even know were hurtful. In Nathanael, we see ourselves, and we rejoice that we are still offered an invitation to ‘come and see’, we marvel at God’s ability to see the good in us, to change us like Nathanael was changed, to transform the world by building meaningful relationships.
We have been given a gift - not only the grace of God itself, but the example of Christ that teaches us how to share that very grace with the world. We can invite people to come and see, and we can also practice seeing more in each other than our faults and failings. This is the power of God and God’s grace - it never leaves us untouched or unmoved. It pulls us to something more, nudges us to stretch ourselves beyond what we thought we could do. God’s grace sees something greater and better that is on the way, and it agitates us, compels us, invites us to move forward to that day when all will be one and God’s justice and peace have the ultimate, loving, word.