The calling of Nathaniel: you won’t find this story on the biblical top ten list. You won’t find colouring pictures of it in dusty old Sunday school notebooks. There are no obviously remarkable features to this tale, save perhaps the clever little jab that Nathaniel offers upon hearing where Jesus comes from, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” This one doesn’t have the power of Moses and the Ten Commandments, the scale of Noah and the Ark, the tenderness and wonder of Bethlehem, the sheer miracle of the Resurrection. Nathaniel is grocery store white bread in a Parisian patisserie. He’s the yada yada yada in a Seinfeld skit.
But we’d be remiss to write off poor, stubborn Nathaniel too abruptly. This is a story about the inherent God given power you have to contribute to our common good, and that’s a story worth telling. The Calling of Nathaniel and others like it are the fertilizers that allow seeds the size of your baby fingernail to grow into glorious, towering, sunflowers. Nathaniel stories are the conjunctions that hold the more memorable verbs and nouns together. Nathaniel stories, if we’re honest, are the ones we most relate to. They reflect the mundane where our lives usually play out. These are tales for the rest of us, for all those of us who wonder if we’ll ever have a mountaintop experience, those of us who are convinced we’ve never beheld a miracle. These are the stories for ordinary folks seeking to follow a profound path.
Every story in John’s gospel, the magnificent and the mundane are offered in the echo of its opening lines where we learn that the Word became flesh and lived among us. The eternal word, Love with a capital L, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and made known in his living, is made known in our stories both the ones we tell and the ones we live. This is no moral lesson but one sliver of an example of where we will meet holy Love and how to live into that love ourselves.
The calling of the disciples reads like a b-grade comedy sketch that leaves you anticipating a groaner of a punch line as we read again and again, “the next day…”
The first next day John sees Jesus and testifies to his identity. The second next day Jesus calls his first disciples. And the final next day is when Nathaniel’s buddies come to him and say we’ve found what you’ve been looking for, come and see. It’s a genuine invitation but Nathaniel isn’t buying it. He’s never seen anything good come out of Nazareth, why would he change now?
The story could have ended there, with Nathaniel’s hardened heart. His judgmental point of view might have left him under the fig tree and Jesus would have carried on his way, until he found others more open to the prospect of following a suspect prophet from the backwaters of Nazareth. But it doesn’t end there, the friends don’t dispute that nothing good comes from Nazareth; they simply extend the invitation saying come and see, come and see for yourself, we can’t quite explain it but really, follow us. This is how the Kingdom of God is realized, one come and see invitation at a time.
Nathaniel comes half heartedly to see this nobody from nowhere and he places himself on the edge of the crowd in the shade of a fig tree. Jesus looks his way and for the first time in his life Nathaniel feels known, fully, vulnerably known, his failings and fears, his shame and guilt, his glories and gifts all seen as if for the first time. Do you know that feeling? You know when someone looks you in the eye and sees you and your first instinct is to lower your eyes, to look away, to hide. But if somehow you resist that urge, well, your relationship with that person is never the same, because somehow in your eyes they have glimpsed your heart. That’s the moment he decides to come ands see.
The thing about following in the way of Christ is that it is always relational. We don’t learn about the nature of God in a book or from a well researched theory, we learn what it is to know the divine through being known, through the nitty-gritty of our existence, through our engagement and encounters with others, both human others and creatures of the earth and sky, and through our relationship with the earth and the air and the waters…
The entire gospel is a story of come and see. In fact our lives in faith could take that shape, a continual come and see, replacing our quick answers, replacing “been there, done that, can’t be done, nothing good will come of this, replacing all that with a come and see attitude.
What Nathaniel will see is not only that his first impression was not the full story. He’ll see a wedding feast and when the wine runs out the people panic. He’ll see Jesus save the day making water out of wine. Will he see a miracle for its own sake or will he perhaps see that when our first response is panic there is still a way forward?
Nathaniel will see Jesus’ anger flare as he throws tables over in the temple insisting that something other than money must rule our hearts. He’ll see a story where economic prosperity does not have free reign to wreak havoc on ordinary lives, where a growing gap between rich and poor is challenged as not being God-given and inevitable.
He’ll see Jesus, in the noonday heat sitting on the edge of a well with a questionable woman from a good for nothing town. And he’ll see that woman push Jesus to new awareness, even as he does the same for her. He’ll see Jesus reveal that God is not firm and unchanging but responsive and persuading, luring us toward more than we imagined possible, and sticking with us even when we let our best selves down. Come and see the intimacy of a relationship with Jesus, where your hard earned wisdom can even shift the heart of the divine.
He’ll see Jesus weep when he arrives too late at the home of his dear friend Lazarus, and he’ll see the sisters tear a strip off Jesus for not getting there soon enough to do anything. He’ll see that God weeps.
Sometimes we like to think that these are feel good stories, an escape into the arms of loving Jesus, a reprise from the drama of our daily lives. The gospel isn’t an escape story it’s a love story, a story of passion, a story of heartbreak, a story of minds changed, a story of resistance and risk but mostly a story that reveals itself to have power in its relational nature. And it does all of this with some a smattering of miracles, a death, resurrection and a whole lot of white bread tales.
The world still thinks that religion and the places it gathers people together are warehouses of pat answers and outdated rules; still thinks we are in the business of group think and moral law enforcement. The only people who can replace that story with one more true are those who have come and seen something different.
Which is no small chore as we live in a world that doesn’t trust stories. We live in the echo of the modern age, where a mechanistic worldview prevails in our actions if not in our minds, where the only things that can be trusted are the things that can be broken down into their elemental parts and measured up. In this world anything that can’t be reduced to its parts is suspect; which puts a religion that’s all about the story in a challenging place.
Theologian Patricia Adams Farmer suggests that we are in a crucial moment and now is the time for us to once again trust a story.
“Growing up through the cracks,” she says, “of the broken worldview we call modernity are verdant shoots we call stories—human stories built of words and images and feelings and connected threads of subjective experience. We see them everywhere, not only in film and literature, but in the daily lives of regular people telling their own stories about where they come from and what makes them happy or sad, about people they love and animals that make them laugh or weep. About what makes life meaningful.”
Relearning to trust the wisdom of our stories, the ones in our books and the ones of our lives begins with an opening up to that which makes us one, a surrendering to the truth that not only can we not do this alone, we must do this together. Millions of women and their allies said come and see a year ago, marching in solidarity in cities and towns and villages around the world, with no particular agenda, just an aching sense that something had to change. Come and see a sea of pink kitty hats, led to come and see a Hollywood icon brought to his knees, led to come and see me too, come and see I won’t be silent, come and see when we pull our stories from the murky waters of shame and guilt we arise together to begin forging a path of healing and deeper integrity in society.
Listen to what theologian Frederick Buechner has to say about the story we come here to bring to life each week.
The story of Jesus is full of darkness as well as of light. It is a story that hides more than it reveals. It is the story of a mystery we must never assume we understand and that comes to us breathless and broken with unspeakable beauty at the heart of it, yet is by no means a pretty story, though that is the way we’re apt to peddle it much of the time. We sand down the rough edges. We play down the obscurities and contradictions. What we can’t explain, we explain away.
I wonder too if this is what we do with our own lives, in an effort to present as Mountaintop people, do we say we’re doing fine when in reality we are restless, aching, longing? Do we say we are over it when really we can’t let it go? Do we think that the world needs us to be Moses when every last one of us is Nathaniel? What if we admitted that each one of us gropes our way towards our own embodiment of divine love not through presenting some well-crafted façade to the world but through wrestling in community with the stories we’ve got.
What if we began to see the path toward embodying our own divinity begins in our “nothing good comes from Nazareth” moments? What if we trusted that we need stories all of them, “ …no matter how sad or how insignificant they may seem. For in an organic world,…, all stories matter.”