I don’t know about you, but it’s only January, and I am already fed up with the 2012 election campaign! In theory, the primaries and the months leading up to them are an opportunity for the public to take a look at several different candidates - their experience, ideas and leadership – and in the give-and-take of debate and open exchange to have the best candidates emerge, much as cream rises to the top. Instead, we’ve been treated to a steady diet of criticism, suspicion, disrespect and appeals to the politics of division…and we’ve still got ten months to go!
Add to that the kind of religious litmus tests that candidates are putting themselves through, and it’s no surprise that a person without a strong religious commitment of their own would want to stay away from any kind of organized faith. Why would you want to go to church if you think this is the way Christians behave?
I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you, at your work or in your neighborhood or among your friends, are in a real minority when it comes to being an active participant in a faith community. Your co-workers and neighbors just don’t see the point, or they may feel themselves to be spiritual on their own, or may even admire Jesus and want to be connected to God, but don’t think that church has anything to offer them. So they stay away, and maybe they ask you why you bother – why your faith is important to you. And maybe you have a hard time putting your answer into words; Episcopalians, along with Christians from other “main line” denominations, often find it difficult to talk about their faith.
When I meet with couples who are preparing for marriage one of the first things I do is ask them to tell me their story: how did they meet, when did they know that this was the right person, how did they decide to get married? And I ask them to tell me what it was that first caught their attention about the other person, and now that they have been together for awhile, what is it that they most value in the other? Of course, there’s always a little embarrassment when the couple first starts to answer – people sometimes feel funny telling a priest that they were attracted to their fiancé(e) because he or she thought the other was beautiful or good-looking or sexy. But after about the first sentence and a half the words just come spilling out, and the couple has wonderful things to say about each other – all of them true; it’s often a very moving and holy moment. They are able to talk about their intended spouse because of the depth of their relationship, because of the love they have for one another. And if a friend or family member would say “You’re really going to marry him (or her)?” the response might be, “You need to get to know her (or him) for yourself. Why don’t you come have dinner with us next Friday?”
Come and see; don’t make up your mind ahead of time. That’s what Philip said to his friend Nathanael when Philip was inviting him to meet Jesus. Nathanael was very skeptical when he heard his friend’s enthusiasm for this new rabbi, this new religious teacher, who was from Nazareth, of all places!
Philip 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." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Nazareth was not the place anyone expected the Messiah to come from, so how in the world could this rabbi Jesus be the One that the ancient Jewish world expected and longed for?But Philip didn’t argue or defend or debate with Nathanael’s skepticism and scorn; he simply said: Come and see, and invited Nathanael to have his own encounter, develop his own relationship with Jesus. And that’s exactly what happened.
Right away Jesus identified Nathanael as a straight-shooter, a direct and honest man: When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Jesus got right to the heart of who Nathanael is, and what he is all about. That was enough for Nathanael – he came to the conclusion that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the King of Israel. Anyone who can read the truth of the human heart so well must be the divinely promised One, as far as Nathanael was concerned.
And then Jesus takes things one step further; he tells Nathanael and any onlookers and us, the readers, that we will see greater things than just having Jesus know us - in and through our relationship with him we’ll experience the very presence and power of God. That’s what Jesus means when he talks about the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. It’s a reference to the ancient dream of Jacob with the angels on the ladder, when he knew so profoundly the presence of God – despite the fact that he had cheated his brother, tricked his father, and was on the run. The dream was not a reward for Jacob’s behavior, but rather a vision of the reality of God which is far greater than we are, that puts us and our actions and our concerns into a much larger context.
Jesus is describing himself as the ladder, the bridge between heaven and earth, between human and divine, between us and God. When we draw near to Jesus, not only will be known for who and what we truly are, we will also be in the presence of the holy, the real, true goodness and joy. That happens in all sorts of ways – through prayer, through singing, in silence, in the laughter of fellowship with other Christians, in the sharing of sorrows, in reconciling with someone from whom we have been estranged, in receiving the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
We draw near to Jesus, we come into God’s presence, our eyes and hearts are opened – even just a little bit – and we are healed and blessed by that encounter. And then we are sent back out into the world to share this blessing and healing and companionship, for the good of the community, for the flourishing of human life and society, for the healing of the nations. And it all begins with an invitation – an invitation to “Come and see” – to come and see Jesus for ourselves. This is an invitation we can all extend to others – each in our own way – to come and experience the love and grace and goodness and strength and healing presence of God in and through Jesus, and through the friendship and worship of Christian community.
Come and see – and you will see greater things than these. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 15, 2012