Today I want a start a series of messages looking at the stories of people’s encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel. It’s my prayer and hope that as we look at those encounters that we meet Jesus in a new way today. I’ve called the series “sitting under the fig tree” based on the passage we had read out to us where Jesus says he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree.
Sitting under the fig tree may raise some very exotic and romantic images for us, and it’s interesting that when I searched for photos online there were many images of people sitting cross legged under a fig tree meditating, it gave the idea of transcending everyday life. But in many places round the world, and in the ancient near east, houses were not the many roomed residences they are here and now, and if you wanted to sit down and relax, read, think, pray, or just be then you would go and sit under the fig tree outside your house. One commentator says it was like the banyan trees in India, or photos you may see from Africa where people congregate in the shade of the trees close to their village. It’s the reality that in the gospel Jesus encountered ordinary people in their ordinary lives, Jesus does the same today. So the image on the poster is a park bench which could be anywhere.
Most days when I’m at the church I stop and have lunch if not under the wonderful tree out in the area at the back here, but sitting looking at it. I’ve had conversations with people from the church and who use the church who love the shade the tree provides, and the sense of peace as you are under it. It’s not a fig tree but I couldn’t help thinking that we here at this church sit under the tree and so I hope that as we come together here and allow the spirit of God to speak to us through the scriptures, through each other that this is a place where people will encounter Jesus and know his presence and love in their lives and that we may all be transformed to be like Christ. Our vision is that “we are Called to be an Authentic, vibrant, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on that journey.”
It’s appropriate that we start looking at people’s encounters with Jesus by looking at John’s narrative of Jesus calling his first disciples. I don’t know about you, but as I read the passage we had to day I was struck by the fact that there were some things missing. We are used to this story from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and so where are the boats, the fishing nets, the “come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”, and as Rob Bell says, challenging the way Jesus is often portrayed, “the blue eyed blond Swedish Jesus walking down the beach in his sandals, his white robe and blue beauty queen sash.” John’s gospel is so different; in fact it’s so different that biblical scholars wrestle with which is the right version.. But it’s not really a matter of either or. Here is the way I see it.
In movies and television and even computer gaming there is an expression, which says ‘everybody has to have a back story’, we are often presented with events, action and conflict that presupposes what has gone before even though we don’t see it on the screen. One of the things that has always struck me about the calling of Jesus disciples in the synoptic gospels is that they are… “boom”… one off events where people are willing on the spur of the moment to give up everything to follow Jesus. But John fills in some of that back story, that there was a developing relationship that leads to the disciples willingness to leave everything and follow Jesus. The passage in John seems to happen over the period of a week, there are other factors which contribute to people’s willingness to follow Jesus. Leonard Sweet uses the word ‘Nudge’ to talk about how the spirit draws us to Christ. Giving someone a nudge or a poke comes from social media it’s the way you can get someone’s attention to continue a conversation or relationship online, and often our encountering Jesus and coming to follow him or to grow closer to him is a process a series of nudges. We can get fixated on the big flashy one off response to an altar call sort of mentality and forget that God is at work in all our lives by his spirit nudging and drawing us closer and closer to Jesus.
In this call narrative I couldn’t help but notice four things.
The first is that each of these people encounter Jesus through other people. People who point them to Jesus.
John the Baptist is a great example of that, the passage we had read has John pointing to Jesus and saying ‘behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ words we are going to hear again during communion. John tells them about what happened when he baptised Jesus. John is a great example of what it means to be a witness and a saint. John was developing rock star status in his time, and Paul Metzger, contrasts John with celebrities today, they attract people to themselves but as a saint and a witness, john points people to Jesus. So much so that two of his disciples decide to go and follow Jesus. You’ll note two of John’s disciples go to follow Jesus but only one is named and there a strong possibility that the other disciple is John, the writer of the gospel, who refers to himself in his book as the disciple that Jesus loved, he too steps out of the story and points people to Jesus. He says he writes the gospel so that we may believe and have life.
Andrew is someone throughout to gospel narratives who bringing people to meet Jesus. He was one of the two disciples of John and after he’d spent the night seeing what Jesus was like, he goes to tell his brother Simon, “We’ve found the Messiah”. There is a lot of Jewish history and knowledge that goes into that statement, as a disciple Andrew would probably have been an expert scholar stepped in the Jewish scriptures. But there is an excitement of who Jesus is that is infectious.
We don’t know the back story of Philip, but again Philip also goes and tells Nathanael. John, Andrew and Philip all use different words and ways of talking about Jesus the lamb of God, messiah, the one who was written about, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, which tell us a lot about who Jesus is but also shows that each person expresses what they know of Jesus in their own words, it’s equally who they are as well as who Jesus is. The end result is that they bring these people to Jesus.
This is a call to us as well, how do people encounter Jesus in our time and space today, like in Jesus time most are introduced to Jesus by a friend or family member who tells them about who Jesus is. Yes some come through the ministry of ministers and evangelists but the majority come through people who know Jesus and share that.
The second thing I noted in this passage is that the group of people who get called are ordinary people, they are a cross section of their Jewish society of the day. Andrew and John were already seeking to follow God they were disciples of John, we know from the other gospels that they were also simply fishermen. Simon seems to be a person ready to believe his brother, whereas Nathaniel who we are not that familiar with and seems to play a bit part in the Jesus narrative is very familiar to people into days society. He is cynical he embodies the prejudices of his day…’can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ to put it into our kiwi context, this week I heard about the Satirical Political Party, who announced their first non-negotiable policy, if they get into parliament is that… for the good of New Zealand they would make Hamilton an independent state. People try and make a lot out of Nathaniel sitting under the fig tree, that he was studing scripture or praying and maybe that is the case we don’t know, like all Jews in his day there was the expectation and hope that the messiah would come but there is nothing extra ordinary about him … Scott Hoezee sums us Jesus choice of disciples like this…
“if you are going to save the world , you’ve got to start somewhere. And if in the end you’re going to save the world through humility, gentleness, compassion, and sacrifice, it makes sense to begin with a bunch of fellows who couldn’t get much more humble if they tried! The messenger fits the message. In fact, over the course of his ministry if Jesus had any significant struggles with his disciples it was the struggle to keep them humble and ordinary-looking.”
It is the same today Jesus meets with Ordinary people and invites them to an extra ordinary life following him.
A third thing that strikes me as I look at this passage, is that Jesus sees and knows these people, before they meet him, and he seems to know them more than they know themselves. AS John tells us in his prologue this is the eternal God the creator come dwell amongst us. He calls Simon, Peter, In Simon he sees something that Simon does not see himself. That unlike the reed blowing in the wind that Simon means, that here is a man who can be trusted to be a rock, a leader. Throughout the gospel we see Peter as volatile usually with his foot in his mouth, scared and unsure, but in the end Jesus vision of Simon Peter wins out. Likewise Jesus sees Nathaniel under the fig tree and sees he is a true Israelite. It may be that Jesus sees the desire in his heart that Nathaniel has for his people and to serve God, which is great God knows our heart. But I also wonder if Here Jesus isn’t maybe tempering that by letting Nathaniel know that he sees his pride in his religious and national identity, he sees his image of himself and in contrast to Simon tears that false thing down. Either way the fact that Jesus knows him so well draws Nathaniel to believe. Jesus knows us with our possibilities and our failings, all our strength and weaknesses and invites us to encounter him and know him, and become the people that as our creator we can become in knowing and following him. It’s reassuring that while we may wrestle with having faith in Jesus and believing in him, that Jesus knows us and believes in us. Knowing us you’ll note that Jesus speaks so differently to them. Jesus first words recorded in this gospel is a question “what do you want?” and then as Andrew and John respond he invites them “to come and see”. To Philip it is “come follow me” to Peter is words of the hope of a new life and possibilities, and to Nathaniel it is to respond to his cynicism. It’s not a production line but a personal encounter.
And lastly all these people respond to Jesus with faith. There is a time when the come and see becomes the follow me. Nathaniel responds by acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel. And then Jesus responds to Nathaniel’s affirmation by using a picture from the Old Testament, of Jacob seeing the stair way to heaven and angels coming and going to care for him, and Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see in Jesus that connection between heaven and earth, made even more real, that in Jesus is the dwelling place of God’s grace and truth. May we encounter and know that reality more and more in our lives and bring others to know it in Jesus as well.