Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip 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.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And 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.’
I always find the exchanges around the calling of the disciples to be a little hard to deal with. I’m pretty sure in my own mind that these are meant to be more meditations on what actually took place rather than an exact recollection of events. In their simplicity and in the exchanges between Jesus and his future disciples I think that John is trying to convey a deeper meaning for us, and that is the meaning of encounter, and specifically, encountering Jesus.
Just before this passage Andrew and an unnamed other man, both of whom were disciples of John the Baptizer, had taken John’s advice and gone to see Jesus. They were so impressed with who he was that after spending some time with him Andrew went off to find his brother Simon to tell him that they believed they had finally found the person that all Jews were waiting for, God’s anointed saviour, the messiah.
Simon went with Andrew, met Jesus, and was renamed Peter, and that very act of receiving a new name was a sign of a divine encounter. If you remember your Old Testament, then you’ll remember that Jacob was renamed Israel, the one who wrestles with God, after his divine encounter.
So before we even get to today’s passage, in the space of just a few short verses we have had three encounters with Christ, all of which were life-changing. And then we come to today’s passage, and to be honest it’s a little disappointing in the way it starts. Jesus goes up to Philip and says, ‘Follow me’, and Philip does. That’s all that we’re told, and yet it speaks volumes because once again it is based on a simple encounter.
One person meets Jesus and immediately follows him. Just like that. There’s no ifs, buts or maybes. This is important; don’t forget it because we’ll come back to it in a little while.
And then we move on to Nathanael, and it’s a whole different story. You see I think Nathanael is much more like a twenty first century westerner. He’s looking for truth but is full of cynicism. We have no idea of the relationship between Philip and Nathanael, but I think they must have been important to each other.
I’m a fan of an American speaker and writer called Rob Bell. I don’t agree with everything he writes, or everything he says, but he is in tune with people, he understands modern culture, and so when I first heard him my immediate inclination was to say to some friends, ‘You’ve got to hear this man, or read one of his books.’ That’s what we do, and so I think Nathanael was probably pretty close to Philip because he was the first person that Philip goes to after his encounter with Jesus.
But Nathanael starts off pretty cool about Jesus. What he says may well have been a local proverb, and perhaps Nazareth was famous locally for having never produced anyone of any decency. Perhaps they thought of Nazareth in the same way that some people feel about some of the estates; with an invalid assumption that nothing good ever came from there.
Nevertheless, he obviously trusts Philip enough to go with him, and when he meets Jesus; when he encounters him, everything changes. The first thing that Jesus does is recognise Nathanael. The thing is, as far as Nathanael is concerned, they’d never met before. He might be rather chuffed to be called a real Israelite in whom there was no deceit, after all, who wouldn’t be! But as far as he’s concerned, he’s never seen Jesus before, so he asks, ‘How do you know me?’
Jesus’s answer is telling, and this is one of those places where the writer John’s skill shows up, because it appears that Nathanael was under a fig tree when Philip found him, and that’s where Jesus saw him. It’s important that he was under a fig tree because that is probably a literary device by John to show us something about Nathanael. Listen to this from Micah 4:4:
Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
A similar sentiment is expressed in Zechariah 3, and both these prophetic passages concern the coming of the Messiah. Therefore it is quite possible that John was trying to suggest that Nathanael was sitting under the fig tree contemplating the coming of the messiah, and Jesus saw him there.
That was when the penny dropped, and this is what I mean about Nathanael being like us. He was searching for truth, and wishing and hoping for its arrival, but at the same time he had a cynical spirit about him. In this I believe he is very like modern Western culture. So many people that I have met seem to be searching for something, yet are deeply cynical about any group that proclaims they have the truth.
I think that’s why organised religion is having such a troubled time, and why a more do-it-yourself approach to spirituality, and the growth of new spiritualities based on experience rather than doctrine are where people are turning to.
And what we see in this instance is that someone like Nathanael, who is just like us in so many ways, was changed, was transformed, simply through encountering Jesus for himself. It wouldn’t have mattered how much Philip has waxed lyrical about Jesus; if Nathanael didn’t meet him for himself then nothing would have changed.
This, therefore, rather turns the spotlight on to us. What is it, specifically, that is going to bring people to become regular attenders here at Church? Is it the variety of services that we have? That may bring some for a time, but they’ll eventually get bored with that approach? Is it the choral tradition we have? The same thing applies. Some will come because of that, for a while, until something new comes along.
What about the silences, or the noisy services? Yet again these will attract some people for a while, but they may not stay if something bright and shiny and new elsewhere attracts their attention. No, none of these things in themselves are what really counts. What changes people’s lives is when they have an encounter with Jesus himself.
I have seen so many lives changed, not by what people have said, not by amazing worship or mystical quiet spaces, but because in those places they have encountered Jesus for themselves. The reason we do all of these different things is not because they will keep people interested, but because we have a diverse community who react in different ways to different types of worship.
But it is not the vehicle of worship that matters; what ultimately matters is whether, in the type of service that people come to, do they encounter Jesus? Do we? Because if that is not what church is about, then it is a social club for the bored looking for spiritual amusement.
Do we encounter Jesus? If not, what should we do about that? It is he who changes lives, not us, not our services, not our songs or hymns or communions. So our responsibility is to have our own lives changed by encountering him for ourselves so that we can say to others simply this, ‘Come and see. Come and meet him for yourself’. Amen.