43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘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 the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Nathanael is one of those characters in Scripture that traditional interpreters have been a little hard on over the years. He sometimes gets painted as an unnecessarily sarcastic cynic who is put in his place by Jesus, who playfully calls Nathanael out, surprising him with knowledge of Nathaneal’s past and convincing Nathanael that Jesus is the real deal. In this telling, Nathaneal comes into the story full of shameful doubt, doubt which is then “fixed” by Jesus. Nathanael has sometimes been described as the disciple who is welcomed because he finally decided to lay his doubts and rough edges aside so he could follow Jesus.
But I encountered a perspective on Nathanael this week that was new to me, one rooted in considerably more empathy. Commentator Ana Yelsi points out that Nathanael is an Israelite, whose people have been “waiting for 600 years for the fulfillment of the prophecies… the coming of the Messiah, release from the oppressive rule of foreign colonizers.” (Ana Yelsi, Liturgy that Matters – January 17th, 2021 – John 1:43-51, “Enfleshed: Spiritual Nourishment for Collective Liberation”) And at this moment, Nathanael’s people are being actively “subjugated by the Romans with no end to their oppression in sight. [Nathanael] has learned the lesson Indigenous people, enslaved descendants, and so many others have learnt time and time again,” Yelsi says, “that hope is vital, but it is also exhausting.” From this vantage point, would we really call Nathanael’s response to Philip’s proclamation about Jesus cynicism and unnecessary sarcasm? Or might we call it the wise, tempered realism of someone who has been structurally oppressed for centuries?
This new way of seeing Nathanael made me ask myself: who else do I make assumptions about when their way of being is different than my own? How often do I assume that there’s something wrong with a person because of how they move in this world, rather than asking what structural systems, histories, and experiences have shaped them? And do I go one step beyond that to ask how I might be complicit in the system of oppression that has led them to this place? I think this text is inviting us to call those people to mind, the people we have discounted because their words sound too angry or raw in our privileged ears, the people we want to distance ourselves from because they make us feel uncomfortable, the people we would prefer to keep at arm’s length because they won’t fit in with the people we consider respectable. Whoever the Spirit is bringing to mind for you, hold that person in your thoughts and heart. Because we are about to be called into new ways of engaging people who are different from us, modelled first by Philip, then by Jesus.
If I were Philip, recipient of Nathanael’s sharp response, I confess that I might have just walked away, letting Nathanael’s tone lead me to all sorts of assumptions about what the heck was wrong with this person. I might have decided that this person makes me too uncomfortable. I might have even gone back to Jesus and said, “Listen, I was wrong. This Nathanael guy would only rub people the wrong way. We don’t want him in this movement you’ve got going. Let’s try to find some more people like us instead.”
But that was not what Philip did. After Philip initially proclaims to Nathanael Jesus’ identity, he responds to Nathanael’s retort – not by moving away – but actually by moving closer. Philip persists, not to argue Nathanael into agreeing with him, but to invite him. Philip doesn’t try to smooth down Nathanael’s unique edges, but rather comes closer to say, “Let’s go together, me and you, just as you are, to hang out with this Jesus for ourselves. Come and see.” Philip shows no interest in making Nathanael more like him, in asking Nathanael to assimilate to be a more palatable person who will fit into his version of a true Jesus follower. Instead, Philip gets curious about Nathanael, and trusts Jesus enough to bring them together to see what will happen.
And when Jesus meets Nathanael, I don’t hear Jesus’ tone as sarcastic and shaming. I don’t hear a joke at Nathanael’s expense or a corrective to the doubts Nathanael has expressed about Jesus’ identity. Instead, I hear from Jesus genuine celebration and wonder at Nathanael, exactly as he is: ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael comes to Jesus with all his particularities and no-nonsense attitude, and Jesus’ response is one of delight and genuine appreciation. I wonder if Jesus was thinking: Here comes a person with a lived experience that has something to teach me, a person whose way of being is different from mine and who will thus widen the reach my ministry will have, welcoming more people into this new family of grace.
This is good news for us in the month of January, a month that I thought might take a break from new years ads about diets and self-improvement regimens and making a million resolutions to change ourselves. But the profit machines in America went right on ahead and shoved that all in our faces anyway. January culture in America tells us that we can become more lovable if we tweak here and tuck there and just buy that one product they are selling so we can improve ourselves. Because, y’know what, the beneficiaries of American capitalism, who are few and powerful, can make a heck of a lot of money off of our insecurities. But that is not how Jesus greets us in this new year, after a year when we’ve spent a little more time with ourselves than usual. Though we might be more frustrated than ever by our inner demons and our aging, changing bodies and the soul wounds that stare back at us in the bathroom mirror, Jesus meets us like he meets Nathanael: with a spirit of wonder and appreciation, genuine celebration and delight. Jesus looks at you, beloved, exactly as you are right now, as someone who he observed under your own fig tree when you didn’t even know he was looking, and he says, “Here is truly a child of God in whom I delight.”
Pause here. Take in this good news: We are beloved and actually enjoyed by Jesus. Delighted in. Not as a future version of ourselves that is new and improved, but as the storied, messy people we are right now in this moment. The transformation will come. But it will be born from this bedrock truth that first and foremost, we are deeply beloved and precious to God, exactly as we are right now.
And in light of this, in response to this genuine delight of Jesus at our very existence, we are all called to be Philips to every single person we meet. We are all called to be the people who refuse to make assumptions about those who are not like us. We are called to reject attempts to assimilate everyone into our image. We are called to buck our American culture’s categories for who is valuable and beautiful and welcome. Because let’s get something really clear: in a capitalist society founded upon the stolen land of Indigenous people and built with stolen labor of enslaved Africans, categorizing people in our culture has always been about how to monetize and exploit humanity and the created world to make the wealthy elite the most profit, and this could not be more antithetical to the kin-dom family that Jesus has come to create. Christians are counter-cultural in this way. We are called to be thoughtfully curious like Philip when we encounter those who have ways of being that are different from us. We are called to be people like Philip who see difference as a gift that has something to teach us, who move closer when we feel the discomfort of nearing someone who is not like us, close enough to invite that person to come and see this Jesus we have been spending time with. As Ana Yelsi puts it, we are called to “allow people to be their comfortably human self and offer who [we] are in return.” (Yelsi, Liturgy that Matters) For Jesus delights in us exactly as we are, and if we see with the eyes of Jesus, the discomfort of difference will become a pathway for us to join the Divine in wonder and delight at this magnificently diverse family God has called together. May it be so, and may it begin with us. Amen.