Sunday, January 18, 2009

Come and see

(The blog entry for December 1, 2008 was about “The Boys from Bethsaida”. I was then focussed on the person of the apostle Andrew. Bear with me for some slight repetition in the following piece, which has to do with John 1:43-51, the Gospel reading for today, the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany.)

Bethsaida, in Hebrew “house of fishing” or “house of the fisherman”, was a town probably located at the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee, close to where the Jordan River flows into the Sea, although the exact site is unknown. This small fishing village attained the status of a city when Philip the tetrarch renamed it to Bethsaida-Julias, in honor of Caesar Augustus’ daughter, sometime before 2 B.C.E.

Andrew was one of the local Bethsaida Boys: he, his brother, Simon Peter, and Philip (not the tetrarch). I’m guessing Andrew could have been a middle child, because in the Gospels his brother, Peter, gets a disproportionate amount of attention and greatly overshadows Andrew. Peter also overshadows Philip, his and Andrew’s compatriot, not to mention the rest of the disciples. Peter is as blustery, blunt, boisterous, and bull-headed as Andrew is quiet and serene. Contrary to impulsive Peter who, in the Gospel it seems, is always screwing up, Andrew is a behind-the-scenes man who gets the job done. In John’s Gospel he is actually the one who introduced Peter to Jesus. Around four o’clock in the afternoon one day, two of the disciples had been standing around with John the Baptizer, perhaps in the public plaza, when Jesus came by, and John points him out, saying “
Here’s the Lamb of God”. That fascinated the other two disciples and their curiosity drew them to start walking behind Jesus as he went his way. Jesus turns and says, “What are you looking for?” “Rabbi,” they asked, “where are you staying?”, a paraphrase for “Where do you live?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” John the Gospel writer and many readers centuries later, of course, know that these questions and responses aren’t what they seem on the surface. They bear a much more profound message.

The two disciples take Jesus up on his offer and go with him; and, John notes, “
they saw where he was staying and remained with him that day.” Andrew, losing no time, runs off to tell his brother, Simon Peter, about this unusual man, whom, he has a hunch, could be the Anointed One, the Messiah. He brings Peter to Jesus who gazes at Peter and predicts: “You’re Simon, John’s son. You’re going to be called Cephas.” [Petros in Greek; in English, something like Rock or Rocky.] Thus is set off a whole chain of life-changing introductions.

The next day, as he sets out for Galilee, Jesus runs into Philip and says simply “
Follow me.” Philip is probably intrigued, but he’s not about to join up alone. He thinks immediately of his buddy, Nathanael, and hurries to him saying: “I just met this guy and he’s invited me to go to Galilee with him. There’s something about him; I think he could be the One of whom Moses and the prophets spoke. C’mon and go with me.” Nathanael is skeptical. “Who is he?” he asks. Philip responds, “His name is Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.” “Nazareth!”, says Nathanael in his snarkiest tone, “what good ever came out of that place?!” Philip again tosses an invite over his shoulder as he walks off: “Come and see.”

Nathanael comes, and “Bam!”: what a life-changing collision takes place for Nathanael (whose name means God has given) as he approaches Jesus! “
Here’s an Israelite in whom there’s no deceit!”, Jesus shouts in the hearing of his friends. “How do you know me?”, Nathanael asks warily. “Before Philip even called you, I saw you under the fig tree”, Jesus replies. Nathanael would have instantly understood the unique symbolism of the “fig tree”, an OT term for the shelter, peace, and safety of true Israelites in the age to come. Nathanael is flabbergasted: “Rabbi, you ARE the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Jesus says quietly, “Oh, Nathanael, you’re going to see even greater things. You’ll see the heavens opened and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Echoes of Jewish history and of the story of Jacob at Bethel, in Genesis 28, who dreams of a stairway with God’s messengers ascending and descending! It was a way of conveying that God shares God’s life with humankind, communicates reciprocally with us. Nathanael’s heart must have skipped a beat as he recalled Jacob’s startled exclamation on waking up from that dream: “Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!...How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!” Nathanael could, indeed, see that, in his own situation, “God has given.” From this time on he and the Bethsaida Boys were inseparable from this Jesus from, yes, Nazareth! We don’t know too much more about them. Peter, of course, got to carry around the keys of the kingdom, despite his bumbling antics. Andrew continued working behind the scenes: borrowing five loaves and two fish from some kid in a crowd which Jesus quickly transformed into quite a picnic: for 5000 people, we’re told! Philip had connections with Gentiles, including some Greeks who wanted to meet the celebrity Rabbi. Philip and Andrew, definitely the ones you wanted to get to know for something like this, arranged it for them. Nathanael, according to tradition, probably underwent a name change and is known to us as the Apostle Bartholomew. Beyond that it’s all legend.

The lesson from all this is that: 1) these stories are all about God in Jesus the Christ: not about John the Baptizer, not about the Bethsaida Boys, not about Nathanael; and 2) the common thread running through these stories is people’s hope for something more, something better, something more real for their lives, and their willingness to accept the invitation to “
Come and see.

Two days from now, we the people of the United States of America will witness and celebrate one of the most signficant events in our country’s history: the inauguration, the swearing in by an oath before God, of the first African-American President of the United States. For citizens of color this is defining moment, a dream fulfilled, a possibility beyond the wildest dreams that perhaps equality and justice have come to stay among us. For most of us who are not citizens of color, especially those of us who can remember the horrific racial conflicts in our country 45, 50, even 60 years ago, it is a sign, perhaps, that healing and reconciliation among our country’s diverse population is entirely possible and even more necessary.

We don’t and cannot understand all the circumstances by which God has led us, the American people, to this point in our common history. What we do know is that, in this historic moment, God is here, acting in our lives, individually and as a nation. With Jacob we can rightfully exclaim: “
Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!...How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God...this is the gate of heaven!

And God is here in this moment, as in all moments of our lives, with an invitation to hope for something more, something better, something more real for our lives. “
What are you looking for?”, God asks us. Hopefully our hearts respond: “Teacher, where do you live? Because that’s where we, individually and as a nation, wish to be.” God only asks for our willingness to accept God’s invitation to “Come and see.

That invitation is offered to us, in our individual lives and in the life of our nation, through other human beings, our brothers and sisters. All through our history great men and women in our nation have periodically emerged, moved by the impetus of God’s Spirit, whether or not they recognized it as such, to offer an invitation to us all: “
Come and see.” As with the Bethsaida Boys and Nathanael, it’s all about the willingness of each of us to respond, willingly and generously, to God’s promptings to come and see what we can do with our unique individual skills and talents, and what we can do with the multitude of common resources with which we’ve been so blessed as a nation, to make it possible for all -- women, children, and men of every origin, color, condition, sexual orientation, and creed -- to have something more, something better, something more real for our lives: physically, socially, psychologically, economically, spiritually.

Hopefully we’re really beginning to “get it” that the governance and care of our beloved country is, indeed, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” -- ALL the people. It’s no secret that we’re once again at another critical point in the U.S., facing unprecedented challenges. We would be most ungenerous, unwise and just plain wrong as citizens if we were to leave it entirely to the new President and Congress to find solutions to our problems. As citizens and as people who follow Jesus, we have, individually and as a community of states united, a huge moral and civic responsibility to do whatever we can, wherever we can, and whenever we can to assist our new President and Congress in instilling in others a sense of hope, in promoting justice and equality, in preserving our natural resources, in reaching out to those less fortunate, in modelling fairness and compassion, and in being responsible partners with all the other countries of the world.

Historic as this moment in our nation’s history is, and certainly one to be celebrated with all our hearts, it is but one more, among many, new beginnings. By God’s grace, as Jesus says, “
You will see greater things than these.

Come and see.

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