A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on John 1: 43-51 on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018.
In 2010, Marina Abramovic, an experiential artist who creates exhibits that challenge and engage the viewer, had an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art entitled “The Artist is Present.” In it she sat at a simple wooden table, across from which was an empty chair; the audience of this exhibit were invited to come and to sit across from Marina one at a time for one minute, during which she would, without speaking or greeting, look at them directly in the face. Neither allowed to speak to each other, only to be present to each other for one, uninterrupted minute. Some people sat down across from her with a steely resolve, braced for a wordless battle: if she could sit and gaze into their eyes for one full minute, then so could they. Some sat and immediately giggled at the awkwardness of sitting silently with a stranger, while hundreds of other strangers watched. Some sat with quiet curiosity: why would such an exhibit draw so many people; why would this artist sit silently looking at people she didn’t know day after day? And person after person, no matter how they approached that simple table, something powerful happened; whether their resolve transformed to an intrigued smirk, or their nervous giggles changed to stunned silence, or their quiet curiosity to moved tears, there was something powerful that happened when these people sat with someone who was present. There was something that happened when they were actually seen.
In our Gospel passage today, we hear about the power of being seen.
Jesus has begun to gather his disciples; Andrew and Peter are on board after a brief exchange, and then Jesus decides to head north to Galilee. Here he finds Philip, whom he called directly to follow him, and then Philip finds Nathanael. He excitedly tells Nathanael that they have found the Messiah, the one prophesied about, it is a man named Jesus from Nazareth, to which Nathanael scoffs.
John’s Gospel is well-crafted theological narrative; in this passage, we see how much geographical location matters as John paints a picture of Jesus. In eight verses, we have specific mentions of three different cities. Geographical location matters to John because it matters to the people of the time and Nathanael questions about Jesus’ rightful place as the Messiah because he knows the rumors about Nazareth.
Nathanael is an educated, faithful Jewish man who assumes that whatever comes out of Nazareth certainly cannot be good. In a week where our president referred to a whole collection of other countries by a name that isn’t appropriate for the pulpit, it’s hard to not hear Nathanael’s doubt about Jesus in the same vein; but Nathanael’s comment is more like asking if anything good can come out of Leitchfield. It’s a comment that stems from a shared location in Galilee. Philip pushes back on Nathanael’s assumption and invites him to come and see for himself. Nathanael is greeted by Jesus with an exclamation about his heritage and his upstanding moral code. As this is the first time he met Jesus, Nathanael confusedly asks where he came to know him.
Nathanael was seen. Nathanael was seen by Jesus under the fig tree before Philip had even come to find him to tell him the good news of the Christ’s presence. In rabbinic texts, gathering fig leaves often equated the study of the Torah; John tell us that Jesus sees Nathanael under the fig tree, indicating that he was already a student, he was already a disciple, but he had yet to follow Christ. Nathanael immediately responded with multiple Christological titles in one exclamation of faith, “Rabbi! Son of God! King of Israel!” Nathanael has been won over; he is converted to a disciple of Jesus right then.
As far a call narratives, Nathanael’s is not particularly flashy. There are no miracles involved, nor does Jesus personally seek out Nathanael in an attempt to get him to become a disciple. In John’s Gospel, the disciples are representative of those who might come to follow Christ. Nathanael is the prototype of those who try to follow Jesus who judge others before they are known; he represents someone who cannot see past their own prejudices and assumptions to see the way God is moving in the world. Nathanael doesn’t need to be convinced or persuaded into discipleship, what affects his conversion is the experience of being found by God.
Today’s Gospel lesson is about evangelism; Jesus begins his ministry by calling the first of his disciples, and they begin to recruit others for a life transformed by the life and death of Jesus. It is the powerful beginning to Christ’s work. Evangelism is a still a scary word for me, to be honest. The first image that comes to my mind is Bible-banging men and women who are determined to tell me that I am going to hell with the use of three cherry-picked verses from Paul. But, much like Paul, the word evangelism needs to be redeemed; it needs to be redeemed because, as we see in our gospel today, it is how Jesus’s ministry began. It needs to be redeemed because the word of the Lord is in fact very good news, but we cannot simply reclaim a word without changing how it is lived out. We cannot slip evangelism back into our vocabulary without embodying a very different understanding of this important part of our faith.
When Philip comes to Nathanael, he says to him, “come and see.” It is an iconic phrase full of the awe and wonder of someone who had been personally called to follow Jesus, but what stands behind Philip’s invitation to Nathanael is for him to come and see that he has already been seen. Jesus sees Nathanael under the fig tree before Philip has a chance to share the good news. The God who created and loves you has already seen you; God sees us where we are. God knows us before we can even fearfully articulate our deepest worries or our greatest hopes.
There is a consistent hunger to be seen in our society. We have a poverty of presence within ourselves and within our communities, and so much time is spent attempting to share what is happening our lives with each other that it is easy to forget that there is power in simply and actually being seen. As poet John O’ Donohue put it, “We are lonely and lost in our hungry transparency;” we share and overshare parts of our lives on social media and in other ways because we are desperate to be seen and known. But the truth of Nathanael’s call story is true for us as well; we are not lost, we are not alone, and we have, indeed, already been seen.
Part of becoming a disciple of Christ is extending this call to “come and see that you have already been seen” to others. To evangelize is to share the abundance of God’s love and to help others see that they have already been found by God; it is in the way of the cross that we walk together, it is when we follow Jesus that we can work together to bring about a better world. Each of us is called by God to bring about good in this world; this week, notice the Nathanaels. Notice those who you meet who have yet to realize that they are already loved by God; take a moment to notice if you yourself have forgotten that God has already found, knows, and loves you. Let the whole of your life be shaped by the simple, but very powerful realization that God see you as you are and loves you; let everything you do when you leave here today be guided by the fact that Christ’s love is not ethereal and removed from your actual life or the lives of those you met, but is dynamic and powerful. Go and tell the good news of Christ’s entrance into this world, of Christ’s love for this world; go and share that we have already been seen as you invite people to come and see.
 O’ Donohue, John. Anam Cara, 4.