John 1:43-51 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.’
John 1:43-51 I’ve mentioned before that baseball was an essential part of my life growing up in central Ohio. I began playing in first grade for my hometown of Gambier, Ohio. We played other teams in the area, teams from other little rural towns with names like Bladensburg, Martinsburg, Howard, Utica, and Danville. We weren’t very good most years, winning some, but losing most games against the other towns. But over time, I really began to dislike the town of Danville, Ohio.
At a population hovering around 1,000, Danville was able to field three baseball teams of farm kids, and they were all very good. Their teams were bigger and stronger and faster, their pitchers threw harder, and they all knew it. Their fields were also better, with outfield fences and huge stands for all the overly involved parents and families, who gathered and watched us get trounced every spring. It didn’t help that their town mascot was a blue devil, and their main restaurant in town was called the “Devil’s Den,” all images my very religious mother associated with Satanism.
But, when I was in 8th grade, the doctor’s office my mother worked for moved to Danville. And then my aunt and uncle and my three cousins moved from Alabama to be closer to us. And they settled in Danville, and I spent a lot of time at their house. And in high school, one of my closest friends, who I met at church, was from Danville, and we spent many weekends driving around the country roads in and around Danville.
Today, my sister lives in Danville with her husband and six children. Her children play baseball on those same fields I played 30 years ago for the same teams that triggered my youthful prejudices. And whenever we go back to visit family, I spend a lot of time in Danville.
Nathanael’s prejudices for the town Nazareth in today’s gospel may be the result of something like this, and the story in today’s gospel is about how prejudices break down when we get to know one another.
John’s gospel has moved past the cosmic origins of Christ and has begun telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the calling of his first disciples. Andrew and Simon Peter are already on board when Jesus returns to Galilee, the rural region north of Jerusalem. Here, Philip joins Jesus too and runs to tell Nathanael of Jesus. Later in John, it states that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee, a small town geographically close to Nazareth.
The region of Galilee was rural, agrarian, religious, and mostly poor, but it was also diverse. Since the eighth century BCE, conquering nations forcibly moved populations around their empires in an effort to control their subjects. Galilee was one of the places where populations were moved in and out over the centuries. Today we might think of rural areas as places where families can put down roots for generations and some Galilean towns like Nazareth looked like this. Others town, neighboring towns, however, might be ethnically and culturally very different.
Cana is the location of Jesus’ first miracle in John, and while small and rural, it was more cosmopolitan and wealthier than its neighbors. Meanwhile, Nazareth was a tiny town of perhaps 400 people during the first century CE, known for being a pretty poor and profoundly religious place. It’s possible that Nathanael’s prejudice stems from the cultural differences between the two neighboring towns.
But there might be more to the story. Nazareth has become troubled in recent memory. In 6 CE, the local protectorate of King Herod was replaced by the Roman official Quirinius, and local taxation of the peasant population in Galilee to Rome had doubled. This led to a series of violent revolts against Roman occupation by bandits led by Judas the Galilean, a revolutionary leader from Nazareth. This group was ruthless. Not only did they target Roman strongholds, but they also burned the house and property of their fellow countrymen who paid the tax, seeing them as complicit in the occupation.
Judas’ revolt did not end well. Rome massacred Galilean Jews from Nazareth and other Galilean towns. It’s possible that the region harbored resentment toward the town of Nazareth because one of theirs brought so suffering down on everyone.
Also of note, In the early second century, likely around the time of our gospel’s formation, another revolutionary, Simon bar Kokhba from Nazareth, would stand against Rome with similar motivations. His movement, and the surrounding region was again, met with the same disastrous results.
As an inconsequential place, as a poor place, as a place that bred revolutionary bandits, Nazareth, in particular, was not seen by Nathanael as a fitting place for the coming Messiah. When Philip runs to Nathanael and tells him that he’s found a new leader, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael can’t believe it.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael complains.
Philip’s answer is straightforward. “Come and see for yourself.”
The dialogue that transpires between Jesus and Nathanael is pretty cool, with symbolic elements. Jesus meets Nathanael with affirmation, despite his prejudices, stating that he’s an honorable man of God. When Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says that he saw him under the fig tree, a symbol of national hope, freedom, and prosperity in the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels. Nathanael then gives three titles to Jesus, Rabbi, meaning teacher, Son of God, and King of Israel, to which Jesus tells him that he will see even greater things if Nathanael joins the cause.
Place and prejudice are current issues for us, issues that we are living with today. We track the pandemic by country and state, and region and watch as the colors change in our counties from green to yellow to red. We think about wearing masks in the same way, associating geographic locations with mask wears and non-mask wears. During the election, we watched closely as states and their counties were color-coded in one of only two colors, either red or blue, marking regions of the country as siding with our political leanings or against them.
In a recent Mother Jones article entitled “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Trump Country,’” Becca Andrews lays into this notion that we can write off entire regions and their people because of a color-coded map. Andrews reminds us that places do not vote, get COVID-19, or wear masks. She writes,
Country is just that—country. The cotton fields in the county where I grew up do not have a political preference, nor do the soybeans or the pastures or the highways that connect little farming communities together like pearls on a string.
She also notes that where she grew up in western Tennessee is often labeled “Trump Country” by both white supremacists and those willing to write off an entire region as “other” or a lost cause. Yet, this same region contains multitudes of people of every type of color, shape, politics, religion, and citizen status. Writing off places as “other” forgets all those living there working for justice, love, and safer, more inclusive communities.
In our gospel, Nathanael carries with him a notion that Nazareth is bad, and that everyone from Nazareth is too. But his encounter with Jesus challenges this notion. He asks how Jesus “knows” him, and it seems that being known is a pivotal part of this story. Despite the prejudice, Jesus affirms his dignity as a child of God, “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” as Scripture puts it. Jesus’ work is not only for a select few, those that buy into his message whole-heartedly. Jesus works to make life better for everyone, even folks that carry deep seeded prejudice. People like Nathanael also need liberation, healing, and peace.
We probably learn something about our faith from the way Jesus speaks with Nathanael and how we are called to know and be known.
Like many of you, I was shocked at the Capitol Riots on January 6th. I don’t know if I was surprise though. It was awful to hear more hateful and deceitful rhetoric from Donald Trump and his allies, as they incited an armed crowd to storm the Capitol building. It was heartbreaking to see symbols of Christianity in the crowds interwoven with symbols of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, misogyny, and violence. Evangelical leaders this week are beginning to voice calls for self-examination and repentance for supporting Trump all this time. It will take time for Christians, all of us, to wash off those symbols and reclaim them as symbols of healing and inclusivity.
I have often associated this particular brand of extremism with certain parts of the country, and a certain kind of person, even if those parts of the country were where I grew up and those kinds of people were friends and relatives. I have people close to me that have had Facebook posts taken down and been banned from other social media platforms because they use the same dishonest and violent rhetoric as Trump. Likely, some of us listening today have folks in our lives like this also.
What do we do? How do we engage with folks in our lives that are so hate-filled, our relatives, college roommates, spouses, that have been poisoned by this latest evil?
Jesus names the Nathanael’s God-given dignity and reminds Nathanael that he knows him. This is the same God-given dignity that everyone in Jesus’ life shared, one that everyone we know today shares. It acknowledges that God loves what God creates, and God does not stop loving even when that creation is broken, poisoned, or harmful. We also do not know the outcome of this gathering. Nathanael is only invited to come and see. It doesn’t say that he joined the cause. In fact, Nathanael isn’t present on any of the disciples lists in the New Testament. Likewise, we might hope for a time of unity as we move on this this divisive time. Our faith often uses a different word though, reconciliation. Unity can lack some of our best virtues like truth telling, accountability and justice. Reconciliation on the other hand, requires truth telling, accountability, justice, and grace. We must be careful when we hear calls for unity that do not include our higher virtues.
Right now, I’m probably a little too sore to reach out to my loved ones who supported Donald Trump and his failed rebellion. But I work to remember that they too have a God-given dignity that these sins cannot destroy. They too, are loved by God and called to be holy. They too are my brothers and sisters of faith, of our common humanity, creatures of this wonderful cosmos. And if the truth can be told, then perhaps reconciliation can, one day, take place.
May we continue to work and pray for justice and peace, especially this week. May we remind people of their God-given dignity too. And ay we love those around us, those closest to us and those that feel far away, for the grace of God. Amen.