Journey to the Cross I:
Overcoming Skepticism with Courage
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Reading: John 1:35-50
It was a place with a terrible reputation situated just a few miles outside of the City of Cape Town in one of the black townships created in the 1960s under the Apartheid regime. Gugulethu was created because in those days blacks and whites lived in different places and black people were forced to live in these townships away from the city core.
I remember Gugulethu well and I remember someone saying many years ago in an article that only misery comes from Gugulethu. It was that poor and had that degree of violence, it was a very dangerous place. As I’ve looked into Gugulethu, I’ve come to appreciate and realize that some wonderful people come from that township. There are two well known in the jazz community in particular: Winston Ngozi and Don Tshomela, two notable jazz musicians in New York City who came from Gugulethu. I’m sure the 97,000 or so people who still live there must be very proud of them because there was also a lot of love and in Gugulethu, there are wonderful people, but oftentimes places get a reputation and people look down on them and forget some of the great characters that emerge, some of the people who have arisen from poverty and deprivation.
There’s one town in the New Testament that was certainly looked down upon and that was Nazareth. It was on a trade route, the Via Maris between Egypt and Asia, but I like what the writer Jeremy Texler says, “If you’re driving along an interstate highway or the Trans-Canada and you see a turnoff that says ‘Nazareth’ just go by it. It’s just along the way to your destination, but you wouldn’t stay.”
It was known as being a place for an agrarian lifestyle, some farming, some attachment to Galilee with fishing, but it was really not a place of notoriety. However, in the New Testament with the arrival of Jesus, Nazareth is lifted to a place that heretofore it had not been. The annunciation to Mary that she is going to give birth was in Nazareth. Jesus grew up and when he finally gave his great speech and read from the Prophet Isaiah, it was in the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus was from Nazareth. This place that had often been looked down upon, due in part to its ethnic diversity, because a lot of Gentiles as well as Jesus lived there. In the encounter from today’s passage, this magnificent moment in John’s Gospel where we have the record of the call of some of the first disciples, Nazareth takes on a place of importance. And it does so at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
We have heard that John the Baptist, along with some of his disciples, had already pointed out to Jesus that he was the Lamb of God. Jesus because he knew that his ministry depended on others joining him called disciples himself. He called Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, the sons who thought themselves very privileged and felt that they had a particularly important role to play because of their wealth and their prestige – something Jesus questioned by the way. But James and John, Andrew, and Simon Peter, they all said great things about Jesus when he called them. They called him Rabbi, recognizing him as a teacher. They called him Messiah, the great one who would liberate Israel, the one who would be the Lord.
There were two more obscure disciples who came to the fore in this story and they are Philip and Nathanael. Philip, also called by Jesus, decides to go to Nathanael, one of his friends, and invite him to come and see Jesus and he does it with this profound statement: “We have found the one who Moses and the prophets have written about, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” This was a powerful moment of invitation where one of the least known disciples calls a person, who in the New Testament himself is rather obscure and inconsequential except for this moment, to follow Jesus who is from Nazareth. Nazareth of all places.
Why is this important? Why did John go to great lengths to record it in his gospel? Because the dialogue that took place between Nathanael and Jesus tells a great deal about discipleship, tells us a lot about Nathanael, tells us even more about Jesus himself and as we ourselves are on this journey towards the cross and the resurrection, this is a great way to think about Lent.
It starts off with one statement by Nathanael, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He was cynical, skeptical. Philip had told him that this great person who the law and the prophets had spoken about had come and then to say he was from Nazareth, he was incredulous. Nazareth was not a glitzy place, or a noted place. It wasn’t a Jericho, it wasn’t a Jerusalem, it wasn’t even a Bethlehem. Nazareth was just an agrarian merchant’s town in nowhere so Nathanael cannot get his mind around the fact that someone great could be from Nazareth. He probably (and we learn later that he learned the law and he knew what the Bible said) had grave concerns that the Messiah would come from the House of David. He might have understood if Philip had said, “Jesus from Bethlehem”. That would’ve made sense, that was the City of David but not Nazareth.
Nathanael, of course, would not have known at this point that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, born in the City of David, in Judea but that he had grown up in Nazareth so he’s cynical, he’s skeptical. He’s also skeptical, I am sure, at the notion that people of the import of Moses or the prophets would ever consider thinking about someone who would be from Nazareth. It went beyond his imagination. It is also believed that Nathanael might have been from Cana in Galilee, and Cana and Nazareth had a bit of a rivalry.
It’s like saying the Messiah is a Toronto Maple Leaf when you’re a Montreal Canadiens fan, you would just never in your wildest dream put up with that notion. Or when there are rivalries between towns and teams and countries, you would never conceive that it would be from somewhere else that greatness would arise. I think that’s why a lot of people have not paid attention to those great jazz musicians in Gugulethu, because they couldn’t conceive that great music could come from a place that had been so looked down upon.
You can understand his incredulity in one way. You can understand why Nathanael could not get his mind around that the Messiah would come from a place like Nazareth. But then – and this is significant – Philip comes along again and hears him say this. Philip does not come to Jesus’ defence, nor give any explanation of why Jesus was from Nazareth. He doesn’t give a series of philosophical arguments to make a case for Jesus of Nazareth, he just simply says to him these words, “Come and see”.
Now, of course in the biblical times, in the time of Philip, it’s different than an invitation that we would issue today. I say this because Philip had Jesus right there and present, he could physically go and meet him. We often think that is not good enough in our time and our place. We think that we need to defend Jesus, and provide further explanation of him. We also have 2,000 years of Christian history that we have to work our way through, and some of those moments have been full of ignominy and have not been great high points.
There have been all manner of problems and we know those and they’re highlighted all the time, although there are also – and I really must say this – tremendous things that have happened as the result of the church over 2,000 years and how quickly they get subjugated in the mire of the problems of Christian history. People think sometimes that we have to dig our way through all of that before we introduce anyone to Jesus. Well, I still think that what Philip said works. I don’t agree with those who think that you cannot simply say, “Come and see”.
Yes, you might not see him physically in the person as Nathanael would have done, but you can still see who Jesus is. You can see him in the scriptures that pay testimony to his life and his witness, that speak of his death and his resurrection. Once you’ve invited him into your life you can see Jesus in your own life through the power of the Holy Spirit. You can see Jesus in the life and the witness of those who are his followers and his believers. You can see Jesus when you open yourself to meet him. You can see him in the sacraments. Philip gave this great invitation to come and see Jesus. It is incredibly powerful for one person to issue that invitation
I read a wonderful piece that was written by Paul Lee Tan many years ago and it shows how one person can make a big difference in the life of the world. He wrote:
“In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England; in 1649, one vote called Charles I to England to be executed; in 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union of the United States; in 1868, one vote saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment; in 1875, one vote changed France from a monarchy into a republic; in 1876, one vote gave Rutherford B. Hayes the Presidency of the United States; and ominously in 1923, one vote gave Adolph Hitler control of the Nazi Party.”
The power of one, the power of one witness. Philip was one with that kind of a witness and he was willing to go to Nathanael, against all Nathanael’s skepticism, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” and say to him, “Come and see Jesus”. Then Jesus meets Nathanael and says to him these incredible words, “For you are an Israelite and without deceit.” Jesus knew who Nathanael was. He wasn’t worried about his skepticism or his cynicism, he went right to the heart of things. He knew that Nathanael was someone that he could call to be in ministry.
There are many people who in their lives wonder, “Can I really do anything for God and for Jesus? Do I have any role to play within the Kingdom? Is there anything that I can do?” Jesus is not interested in whether you have a skeptical view or a cynical view, he wants to reach out to you and call you by name. That’s what he did with Nathanael.
Nathanael says, “Hold on a minute now” and then the cynicism comes out again, “How do you know me?” and Jesus said, “Even before Philip, I saw you sitting under a fig tree.” Jesus had already known that Nathanael was going to be called. Also when you sit under a fig tree it is a symbol of someone who was reading the Torah, the law, learning of God, reading Moses and the prophets and the writings of the Tanakh. Sitting under a fig tree was the symbol of someone who was faithful to the law and Jesus knew it.
It’s not over at that point; there is something else that happens. Nathanael makes a declaration himself, “For you are truly the Son of God and the King of Israel.” Here is Nathanael, the cynic turned into one who makes one of the greatest statements in the whole of the New Testament. The one who looked down his nose in a snobbish way at Nazareth is now saying, “You are the Son of God and you are the King of Israel”.
There is no greater declaration made of Jesus’ life and ministry or an affirmation of his place than the Son of God and the King of Israel. He is one with God, he is the Lord of Israel. Wow, so here the cynic, the skeptic, the one who had sneered at Nazareth has been turned around by the love and the power of the Nazarene himself. What an amazing story.
I know that there are many people who are very much like Nathanael and wonder at times, particularly when life is hard and when we have our struggles whether our faith is something that is worthy or marvellous. We sometimes have our doubts about if Jesus is keeping an eye on us and we become, like Nathanael, a little bit cynical.
I read a poem this week for the first time in maybe 15 years and I did so because of Rev. Lori’s Lent study on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1945 while in prison, when deeply questioning everything including his own future, he wrote a poem, called Who Am I? This is what Dietrich wrote and it is really powerful:
"Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as through it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
I think a lot of times we feel a bit like Bonhoeffer in his confined prison cell and we wonder who are we and who is Christ. Nathanael did, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” but when he had an encounter with Christ, his life changed and he declared him to be the Son of God.
There is one final thing, and this is the most important. Jesus said to him, “I saw you under that fig tree and maybe that’s why you think that I am calling you, but you will see greater things”. He was inviting Nathanael onto a journey of faith. He was inviting him to come and see the things that he was going to do beyond the moment of that call into the rest of Jesus’ life. He was inviting him to see the cross. He was inviting him to witness the empty tomb. He was inviting him on a lifelong journey of exciting discovery of the things of God. This Lent he invites us into that very same journey. Don’t be cynical, don’t be skeptical even though times are hard. Don’t question yourself, don’t ask, “Who am I?” simply come and see and you will find, like Bonhoeffer did, we are his and that gives us courage. Amen.