Sunday September 30 2018

John 1:43-51

The Rev’d Jenny Wilson


In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Through the month of September, two groups of Cathedral parishioners, together with a few visitors, studied a little book by Rowan Williams called Being Disciples. Rowan Williams looks at six aspects of discipleship – Being disciples, Faith, hope & love, Forgiveness, Holiness, Faith in society and Life in the spirit. One of his key themes is the abiding presence of God, a God who he describes in this way. Rowan Williams describes God as a presence …

“The dependable presence that doesn’t go away; the presence that remembers and holds in a single gaze what has been true and is true of us; the eternal, unshakeable witness to what we are. That presence is love. We are seen, known and held, but above all we are welcomed.”[1]

We are seen, known and held, but above all we are welcomed. We see this very characteristic of the dependable presence of God in Jesus in his encounter with Nathanael as described in our New Testament reading this evening.

When Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him, he says of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ (John 1:47)

In this scene from the first Chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John, we see Jesus meeting his disciples for the first time. John portrays Jesus as being named by those he meets with many titles that make clear his deep relationship with God. Jesus is heading for Galilee and on the way he finds Philip and calls him. ‘Follow me.’ He says. Philip finds his friend Nathanael and says to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Philip is linking Jesus to Moses and the prophets. Nathanael is dubious about this. ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ he says. Philip urges him, ‘Come and see.’ And when Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him, he says to him. ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael is clearly aghast. ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answers, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ And then Nathanael uses another of the Godly names. ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Nathaniel cries. Jesus, probably a bit amused by Nathanael’s instant conversion, says, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he says 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.’ Here Jesus names himself, we notice, the Son of Man. Old Testament allusion after Old Testament illusion occurs in this passage linking Jesus with God in Jesus’ first encounters with those who will become his disciples in the Gospel of John. The hearers of this story told by John are to be left in no doubt. Jesus’ relationship with God is the key to who he is. The Word made flesh, the communication from God about who God is and how God loves and that God redeems is found in Jesus of Nazareth.

But what does this Jesus do? From these first encounters with the people who he comes across, what do we notice? We have gathered at Choral Evensong this night perhaps because something in us knows we might be blessed here in some way, knows we might come to understand a little about God, here, perhaps. If God wants us to understand God through Jesus, what do we notice?

Firstly, Jesus calls us. “Follow me.” He says. And then when he speaks to Nathanael, what do we notice? Nathanael has shown honest – and probably quite reasonable – doubt about Jesus – and why on earth they are following him. And what does Jesus say of him? ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’

Jesus notices the good. Jesus names the good. Jesus sees Nathanael’s honesty and he honours that. We are so inclined to notice the flaws in us, our sins, our struggles, the tendencies in ourselves that we regret. We are often inclined to see these things in other people. And I think we so often assume that is what God sees. That this is the God focus. That God concentrates on what is wrong with us, on what we’ve done wrong. But Jesus doesn’t do that in his first encounter with Nathanael. Jesus sees the good.

The first chapter of the John’s gospel is closely linked to the first chapter of Genesis, the creation account in the opening verses of the scriptures as we know. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth … In the beginning was the Word … And we might remember what God thought about the creation God made. God saw that it was good. The creation account reports this again and again as the earth is made and the seas are made and the plants and sea creatures and animals are made. And then when human beings are made. God sees that it is very good.

And in this first set of encounters with his disciples, Jesus seems to have this same God view. Jesus sees the good. And in his encounter with Nathanael, he sets Nathanael free. Jesus opens his eyes. Nathanael knows himself known … “Where did you come to know me?” he asks Jesus. And then he knows who Jesus is. Just because Jesus has honoured the honesty, seen the good in him. Named the good in him.

Rowan Williams speaks of our faith in that presence, a faith with which Nathanael immediately seems to find himself blessed.…

faith grows in its true meaning …Rowan Williams writes … not as a system, a comprehensive answer to all our problems. It appears quite simply as a form of ‘dependable relationship’. You may not understand, or have the words on the tip of your tongue, but you learn somehow to be confident in a presence, an ‘other’, who does not change or go away. You realise that when the signposts and landmarks have been taken away there is a presence that does not let you go. And that is faith, I would say, in a very biblical sense. … The loss of understanding of what we know and how we know, is part of the difficult business of learning to question at every level who we are. But we are somehow set free to face all that and live with it by the conviction that we are not ‘let go of’.”[2]

Jesus, who, as we have noticed sees the good in Nathanael, might, this night, be seeing the good in us. Can we imagine that? Is it possible? That we are not let go of by God, God who sees the blessings as well as the struggles in us.

In the fourth chapter of Being Disciples, Rowan Williams reflects on the idea of holiness. I wonder if Jesus is actually pointing to this idea in his words to Nathanael, in his seeing Nathanael’s honesty as a blessing. I wonder if Jesus is pointing to the idea that, created by God, we have the capacity to be holy.

Rowan Williams described the path of holiness in this way.

We start on the path of holiness with two very simple things … looking – looking at Jesus, looking at what God is like, looking at the gospel, and all that means; and exploring – exploring where human beings are, what their needs are what they are calling us to do, how we can help make them more human. These two – looking at Jesus and exploring the human world around you

Nathanael seemed to do this. Perhaps we are invited to do this too. The key though is not just our looking, our seeing Jesus but the fact that he sees us. And though we know, of course, that he sees our flaws and our struggles, we know from this story of his first encounters with his disciples that he sees also the good in us, treasures the honesty in us. We are seen by love and love is not displeased by what love sees. We are seen by the presence that remembers and holds in a single gaze what has been true and is true of us; the eternal, unshakeable witness to what we are. …We are seen, known and held, but above all we are, by love, made welcome.


[1] Rowan Williams Being Disciples p32

[2] Ibid., pp24-5.