Thursday, January 05, 2023

Fig trees


Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today: John 1:43-51

When Jesus invites Philip to follow him, the first thing Philip does is go and find his friend Nathanael. If he is going to follow Jesus, he wants his friend to follow Jesus too. Philip tells him that he, along with a few others, think that they have found the One whom both Moses (the Law) and the Prophets spoke of, the One whom God would send, to deliver his people and establish a new and peaceable kingdom. They think that Jesus might be the One. Jesus, from Nazareth.

Nathanael is surprised by this, and asks, can anything good come from Nazareth?

When Philip introduces Nathanael to Jesus, Jesus declares, here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false. Now, I choose to believe that Jesus is a good judge of character, and that if Jesus says that there is nothing false in Nathanael, then there is nothing false in Nathanael. And that means that when Nathanael asked, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ it was not a cynical question, it was not a sarcastic question, it was not a dismissive statement masquerading as a question: it was a genuine and open question.

And this genuine and open question leads me to discover that God chooses the most unlikely places to turn up, the most unlikely people to turn up amongst. Not where you or I would begin, were we God.

And this gives me hope, because, truth be told, the chances of God turning up in my neighbourhood are highly unlikely. Which, it turns out, is reassuring.

That is the first thing that strikes me from the Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today. The second relates to the strange exchange between Jesus and Nathanael. When Jesus declares that Nathanael is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false, Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knows [of] him. Jesus replies, before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree. On hearing these words, Nathanael responds, Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!

That all sounds somewhat far-fetched, but in fact it makes perfect sense. You see, the prophet Micah spoke of a day when God would establish a new kingdom with a new king in Jerusalem, a kingdom fashioned from the remnant who have endured the fall of Jerusalem, a time of peace between the surrounding nations, former enemies now friends, the formerly hostile now seeking out the instruction that comes from the mouth of the new king, and in those days everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall be afraid. And, centuries later, when the land is occupied by Roman armies that put down revolt by lining the major arteries with crucifixion gallows, Nathanael is sitting under a fig tree.

In other words, Nathanael is living the future in the present. Is living prophetically. Is acting, including towards others, as if it were already a time of security and friendship. Nathanael is in the habit of rehearsing this Day, and so, on the day when the coming king comes along, well, of course Nathanael recognises the One he has been waiting for.

And this begs the question, in what ways am I living the future in the present? In what ways am I habitually rehearsing a world in which former enemies sit down as friends, without fear?


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