The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 1:43-51

Our gospel lesson this morning introduces us to a very human, earthy, and rather blunt man named Nathaniel. Nathaniel is mentioned only twice in the Bible, both times in John. Some have speculated that Nathaniel is elsewhere referred to in the Bible as Bartholomew, but we’re not really sure about that. In any case, Nathaniel occupies a unique place in John’s gospel, for he is one of the first followers called by Jesus.

Jesus has already called Andrew and Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple. Now, as he travels through Galilee, Jesus extends a call to Philip, who quickly passes the good word to Nathaniel: “We have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. He is Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

And with that, Nathaniel balks. He’s instantly skeptical, not about the promise but about the place: “Nazareth? Are you kidding? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I can picture Nathaniel dismissing the idea with a scornful smirk born out of long standing prejudice.

And Nathaniel wasn’t alone in this particular prejudice. For the town of Nazareth, and for that matter the whole region of Galilee, had a negative reputation among many Jews. Galilee was located at the northernmost edge of Israel, and as a border territory it had developed a kind of melting pot population, with a variety of races and cultures and languages mingling together.

In Galilee, Jews lived alongside Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, Greeks and others. Today we might consider this cultured mix exciting, but in those days it was considered dangerous, –particularly by the Jews who lived in Judea, closer to Jerusalem.

These Jews from the “heartland” considered themselves to be the true believers–the true chosen people. They were suspicious and scornful of the border Jews who sometimes intermarried with non-Jews and sometimes allowed foreign ideas to influence their religious thinking.

Nathaniel, though himself a Galilean, obviously numbered himself among the true believers, and he couldn’t imagine the promised one coming from such an impure place as Nazareth. He was ready to write Jesus off until Philip pushed the issue.

“Come and see,” Philip urged. “See what I have seen in this man called Jesus.” & It was only when Nathaniel met the Lord face to face that he finally recognized him as the Christ and worshiped him.

Think what might have happened if Nathaniel had remained stuck in his negative bias. He might never have encountered Jesus. How grateful he must have been that Philip pushed against his wall of prejudice and helped him to see the glory of Christ.

This story points out something important about Jesus. Our Lord didn’t come to earth as a member of the inner circle. Christ came as one of the border people, a person subject to misunderstanding, even ridicule. Throughout his life on earth, Christ kept the company of border people—people on the fringe of society, people who were considered questionable by the true believers of his day.

Christ extended God’s salvation to these people of the fringe, as well as to those of the mainstream. Through the very shape of his ministry, Jesus challenged human prejudice and worked to create a bridge across the divisions that separate and alienate humankind.

That rather strange vision Christ mentions in our gospel lesson provides a visual picture of our Lord’s work. Christ describes himself as a ladder extended between earth and heaven, –a ladder on which the angels ascend and descend. In symbolic language, Christ is declaring that he has come to bridge the gap between heaven and earth—to connect the Creator of the universe with the children of earth. In this sense, Christ is indeed a ladder.

And, in another sense, Christ is also a bridge: a bridge between humankind and God, and a bridge between the alienated branches of the human family.

Christ surely was a bridge for Nathaniel. This man’s prejudice had cut him off from others and had even threatened to cut him off from God’s new revelation. Jesus challenged his prejudice and offered himself as a bridge to a whole new way of loving God and loving other people. Christ bridged the gap between Nathaniel and God and, at the same time, bridged the prejudice that separated Nathaniel from others.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That wisecrack makes us smile, because we see a lot of Nathaniel in ourselves. But even as we smile, we surely recognize that prejudice is not a humorous matter.

Tomorrow we will celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and we will remember a man who carried forward Christ’s bridge-building mission. King’s personal courage and Christ-centered vision forced us – some of us for the first time – to confront our prejudices, and made us realize that prejudice of any kind is alien to God’s kingdom.

Like Jesus, he called us to examine our racism and bigotry and chauvinism and discrimination, and all the structures that supported that way of thinking, and he challenged us to bridge the chasms of hatred and fear.

It must be obvious to all of us that Martin Luther King’s work is not yet done. I’ve noticed that as economic times get tougher, the prejudice and discrimination in our nation and in our world seem to revive themselves—or perhaps it’s merely that they come out of hiding.

Suspicion is increasingly directed at anyone who is different in color, in language, in sex, in sexual orientation, in culture, in religion, in nationality. Lines are being drawn, not so much out of hatred, I don’t think, (though there is some of that) but more so, the lines are being drawn out of fear—to keep those people and things we don’t understand outside our circle. Out there—where we don’t have to deal with them, where we don’t have to understand them. & it seems that those kinds of actions and that kind of thinking is more and more tolerated in our nation, and in our churches. I’ m afraid we’re forgetting the lessons we’ve been taught.

As Christian – as followers of Jesus Christ – we are called to fight against these tendencies. We are called to look within ourselves and discover the unconscious prejudices that shape our perceptions, and then to confess (to be honest with ourselves), and then to repent.

Like Nathaniel, We’re called to pay attention. We’re called to open our minds and our hearts. Otherwise, we may just miss the appearance of Christ in the place where we least expect it, or in the person in whom we expect it the least.

And as often as we all play the part of Nathaniel, we also need to play the part of Philip, challenging one another to root out our prejudices. This means daring to speak up when we hear a comment we know is destructive. It means taking a personal stand on treating people not as insiders and outsiders, but as brothers and sisters. Like Philip we can invite one another to “Come and see” what we have seen in Christ. We have seen the Lord who extends grace and acceptance to all people -and who expects us to do the same.

Christ came for all of us. Christ came to bridge the path to God, and to bridge the chasms between human beings.

And if our desire is to be Christ-like people, then our prayer this morning should be that we too, each of us, might become bridges in Christ’s name.

And In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.