Mark 1:21–28 (NRSV)
The Man with an Unclean Spirit
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
God with us. A concept that I hope we do not get tired of. I know I have been stuck on this same topic for the past few weeks, but in my defense, we are in the season of Epiphany which is manifestation of the divine. God with us.
Yesterday the seven areas of our Yearly Meeting met together over webex for a leadership summit. The topic of the discussion was standing at the crossroads. There were over two hundred participants from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado each meeting together and discussing the various crossroads we have found ourselves at. Our first session began with Standing at the Crossroads with our Lord. God with us. Every discussion we had revolved around this central theme that even in our darkest most stressful hours we are not alone when we stand with Jesus.
It is interesting, one might have thought that all of the discussion leaders were conspiring together but the funny and amazing thing is that we did not have the final discussion questions in hand until I was halfway to Emporia. Something tells me that there is a reason I have been stuck with this epiphany topic of God being with us. We need to come to some sort of acceptance or realization that we are not alone, that maybe we truly are standing at some fork in the road needing to discern which path to take with the knowledge and assurance that God is with us. That God is with us and our families, He is with us when we interact with our neighbors and he is commissioning us to walk with him out into the world. He is with us but which path on the fork do we take?
Last week we considered the calling of the first disciples. Jesus walked along the shores of the sea and called out to Simon, Andrew, James, and John to come and follow him. We are told that each of these men immediately stopped what they were doing and followed. The idea of following in this manner is a complete abandonment of their previous lifestyle, and taking on a new one. He calls out to them because the kingdom of heaven is here. God is with us. Today we join this group as they walk into the city of Capernaum, and we get a glimpse at what is important in the lifestyle of Jesus.
I have spoken often about the holy rhythm Jesus shows us: He makes it his custom to worship in the meeting places, he withdraws often to isolated places to pray, and he goes out into the community to serve. We, like those first disciples, are called to the same things. We are called to drop everything and follow him. And today we follow him to the synagogue.
When we read through the various gospels and letters in scripture we are comfronted with the synagogue, but do we really have a firm grasp as to what this place is? All too often we get the idea that the synagogue is almost like a church today. That is only partially correct. The religious system and concept of synagogue emerged during the period of exile. Babylon had entered the land of Israel, demolished the temple and carried many away from their homes to live in the land of captivity. They stood at a crossroad and raised a question, “How can we retain our faith without a temple?”
Do we find ourselves asking a similar question? How can we retain our faith when the youth seemingly turn their backs on the church? How can we retain our faith when? The prophet Jeremiah lived during this transition time. The last good king, Josiah, had just died and the son and the rest of the nation were far from God. They had moved within a generation from earnestly seeking God to total rejection. Jeremiah 6:13–15 (NRSV) says:
For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord.
The nation from the least to the greatest was greedy for unjust gain, even the religious leadership. They look for unjust gain, they deal falsely, they act shamefully, the commit abomination, and they are not ashamed. The entire nation is like this.
Jeremiah 6:16 (NRSV) continues:
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.”
The entire nation has turned from God, they are faced now with defeat and Jeremiah encourages them to look and ask. What was done before and where is the good way, the way we can find rest for our souls. They stood there at the crossroad and were asking how do we retain faith even without the central fixture of their faith. We move forward a few centuries and they again find themselves at a crossroad. How can we retain our faith when our land is occupied by the Greeks and the Romans?
Jesus goes to the synagogue to worship with the community. These synagogues are more then just a place to worship. They are schools or centers of education and social life. The young boys would go and learn the basic of the law from the rabbis. The adults would go and listen to various interpretations from the scribes that would help them build greater understanding. And if a student happened to show signs of understanding, the rabbis might call out to them to follow them and would be trained to give interpretation. Jesus goes to worship with them. He goes and he begins to teach them. They sit and listen they are astounded by the way Jesus teaches. It is different than the teachings of all the others that have visited before.
While Jesus was there teaching, someone comes forward and begins to ridicule Jesus. “what have you to do with us?” he says, “have you come to destroy us?” We are told that this is a man possessed of an unclean spirit. This man though is sitting there in the synagogue with the rest of the community. I want us to consider that for a moment, a man with an unclean spirit is right there in that sacred space.
I sat with this passage this week and I thought about what this demon possessed man said to Jesus. What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? There is a state of fear within those words.
God does not want us to live in a state of fear. Instead he calls us, both men and women, to follow him into a lifestyle that is grounded in hope and love. Yet are we focused on our own destruction. We are standing at a crossroad.
Jesus walked into that sacred space, he began to teach, and it astonished those that heard. They stand at the crossroad do they listen to Jesus or do the oppose out of fear because Jesus is calling them to something just outside their comfort zone. We cannot possibly do that, it might fail, it might destroy everything we worked for.
Stand at the crossroads and look, ask for the ancient paths and where the good way is. Are we listening? The ancient path for us as friends is based on listening. George Fox would often go out in the fields taking his bible and expecting to find a way forward. While he sat in the field he heard the sounds that made his heart leap, he heard that God is with us, our ever-present teacher and guide. When George heard that message he went out, no longer filled with the fear but filled with power.
Two men, one was filled with an unclean spirit of fear the other filled with hope. Yet here we are standing at yet another crossroad wondering what we should do. Jesus is calling us to take on his life and life style. A lifestyle of prayer, worship, and service. A lifestyle where we do not move to service until we are guided by our ever-present teacher and guide to the good way to walk.
Yet still we stand at the crossroad unable to move, why? Could it be because we are listening to the unclean spirits whispering in our ear? The one saying you cannot do that it will destroy you. You cannot do that you do not have enough knowledge. You cannot do that you do not have enough resources. You cannot do that because if you do things will change. Who are we listening too?
Jesus looked at that man, and said “Be still and come out of him.” At the word of Jesus God with us that spirit of fear left. The crowds were astonished about this. He teaches with authority and even the unclean spirits obey his command, but are we listening?
As we enter into this time of open worship I encourage you to consider the crossroad before us, and ask for the good way forward. God might already be leading us there but we are too afraid to listen. But Jeremiah says if we were to walk in the way we are shown by the spirit, we will find rest for our souls. Let us listen to the Spirit of hope, the spirit of love and the spirit of reconciliation. That spirit is God with us. It is God in us, God before us, and if God is for us who can be against us?
Mark 1:14–20 (NRSV)
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
(Mt 4:12–17; Lk 4:14–15)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
(Mt 4:18–22; Lk 5:1–11)
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
The past few weeks I have spoken a bit about the awesome mystery and power of the incarnation. Oddly enough my mind has been awestruck to this topic. I do not think I am seeking to find a complete scientific understanding as to how it occurred, but I am more transfixed on the fact that it has. To consider that God walks with us, that he took on human flesh and lived a complete human life. A life that was filled with the same temptations, joys, sorrows, stresses, pains, and laughter. I sit and I consider that, well usually I am not sitting when I do my considering. Usually I am frantically opening boxes and attempting not to drop the pickles on the floor because if I drop the pickles I will be praying for God to take me now. But I think about the humanness of Christ as I work. I wonder as I am placing gourmet peanut butters in their location what Jesus might have enjoyed to eat. When I look at the amount of work needing to be complete and the lack of people to assist in the task I wonder if that was the feeling Jesus might have had when he uttered the words, “the fields are ripe for harvest but the laborers are few.” The mystery of the incarnation is one that keeps me in wonder.
Today’s passage starts shortly after the baptism of Jesus by John, and Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness. There is something about Mark’s description of Jesus’ time of teaching that almost makes me laugh because it is like three years placed on fast forward. He rushes from one thing to the next, with very little indication that there was time in between. Jesus meets with John, gets baptized and is tempted in a couple of paragraphs, where the other Gospels present these things in a couple of chapters. I think Mark would have been one of those types of people that would not waste words, he would probably have been liked by many early Quakers because his ministry was not filled with idleness and vanity he just gets to the point, presents what has been laid on his heart to present and moves on. I like that about Mark.
We meet Jesus today after he has experienced a period of time in intense fasting and temptation, and he comes back to the community only to learn that John has been arrested. It is important to consider this. Jesus returns from this time of solitude and upon return the ministry making the greatest stir within the community has been essentially silenced. There is a void within the community, the voice crying in the wilderness is no longer crying from the wild places, it has been muffled behind guarded walls. Yet the message will not be silenced. When God wants something to occur it will happen. John was arrested and at that moment Mark says Jesus fills the void and continues to preach the gospel of the kingdom.
There is a both a similarity and a difference in the messages presented by john and Jesus. Both us similar language, “the kingdom of God is near.” Yet John says, “there is one who will come after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” Jesus, on the other hand, states, “The time is fulfilled!”
Have we ever taken a moment to reflect on this transition of message? We honor John the Baptist, we cherish his contribution to faith but there is something lacking within it. Everything about the message of John is incomplete. Even the baptism he offers as a sign of repentance is in his own words in complete. “I baptize you with water,” John says, “but the one after me will baptize with the Spirit and fire.” The baptism of John is incomplete, it lacks something significant, it is merely a sign post that points to something greater ahead. It is like a billboard letting you know what awaits us at the next exit on the highway of life. This is why the leaders of the early church corrected Apollos when he went out preaching the baptism of John. Those that pass through the waters of repentance do not have lasting change unless something greater comes in.
The phrase, “The time is fulfilled,” has been an anchor for me this week. I have pondered the significance of that one statement in my prayers. Jesus says this at the beginning of his ministry not at the end. Yes, he does say on the cross that it is finished, but here in the beginning Jesus says, “Time is fulfilled.” Before Jesus performed his first miracle, time is fulfilled. Before Jesus had his first debate over interpretation of scripture with the scribe and Pharisees, he boldly says that time is fulfilled. Time is fulfilled and, as far as we can see, nothing happened. Let that sit with you for a bit. As we are seated here in this meeting house two thousand years later still awaiting the advent of our lord, our lord stated before everything else that everything all of time has been fulfilled. But wait Armageddon has not yet happened, the rapture however we interpret it has not occurred, the world is still steeped in chaos, how can Jesus say Time is fulfilled?
It is a lovely mystery. Yet the truth is that at that moment, the moment God took on human flesh and took up residence within a community, time was fulfilled. When Jesus enter into this world though the obedience of his mother Mary, God fulfilled time. He restored what was lost by our first parents and God once again visited with humanity in the cools of the evening. Time is fulfilled because God is with us.
The incarnation, this wrapping of humanity around God, is the fulfilling of all things. Everything else a void, an empty vessel, something that might be beautiful and may even hold some emotional significance but it is incomplete and absent of the whole truth. John says repent and be baptized because the kingdom is coming, Jesus says time has been fulfilled repent and believe because the kingdom is here.
But what does this mean? For centuries we have waited for the fulfilment of time, for millennia we have anticipated the fulfillment of all things. Why are we still waiting if everything has already been completed even as Jesus spoke his first sermon, a sermon by the way that consisted of nineteen words? Why are we still waiting in this chaotic mystery? Repent and believe.
This is the second difference between the message of John and that of Jesus. John said repent and be baptized and Mark tells us that Jesus states that we should repent and believe. Again, this shows the incomplete nature of the ministry of John that is brought into fulfillment in Jesus. Both encourage us to repent. Repentance is of primary importance to embrace this holy mystery. The idea surrounding repentance is turning. It is often described as turning around and going in the opposite direction. For most of us this is an excellent definition, it describes that moment in time where we recognized in our own selves that the course of life we were taking or are still walking might not be the best way to traverse, so we stop what we are doing and we go the other direction. But Jesus says that time has been fulfilled so maybe this idea of repentance might in itself be incomplete.
Our first parents began a journey in life. Well, maybe began a journey is not the best way to describe it, because they we exiled. They took it upon themselves to poses the knowledge of good and evil, they had this desire within themselves to know not only good but also evil. And at that moment they turned and walked away from God. They allowed a personal desire to come between the relationship they had with God, causing a distraction and a turn. From that moment on God has called out to them to return, to come back, to repent, to abandon the journey they were on away from him and to begin a journey back to his embrace. Repentance is a return to God, it is an acknowledgement that we are just out here wondering in this barren wasteland trying in vain to find this knowledge of good and evil only finding that the more we search the more evil we dig up. When all along in the back of our mind there is a voice saying to us come and rest. Come walk with me, return to me. Repent.
We can repent all we want but we have walked a long journey, and to make it worse in our desire to have this knowledge of good and evil and finding all sorts of evil to entertain our lives, we have been exiled from life. We cannot fully come back because we carry evil with us, we have rolled around in the wilderness and are covered with the stench of evil. This stench is something that God will and cannot not tolerate. He cannot let us come near him in his purity because our corruption will stain the carpets in his pristine palace. It is like coming in from outside walking through the mud of our yards after the snow melted, and not removing our shoes when we come inside. We walk in and in the wake, we leave stains. I can still hear my mother yelling at me.
Before we enter we must remove all that might leave a stain, but our hands are cold because we have been walking through the frozen darkness and our fingers are numb. We cannot untie our shoes because we cannot feel the strings binding the to our feet. We stand there in the gates crying out but who hears our cries? Only one with warm fingers can come to unbind our feet. Only the one that is currently in the house can provide access to the inviting warmth of the fire. Someone must come to us and redeem. The incarnation, God with us.
We return and we cry out but we are standing on the threshold of the great house, but still we are not totally inside. We must allow that redeemer to remove the staining garments. This is belief. Repentance is the return the coming to the door, and belief is entrusting that the one we call out to will provide the means to get us to where we want to go. We might ask why do we still wait? Why, if all things have already been fulfilled, are we still standing in the doorway of life crying and not experiencing life?
Belief is more than just knowledge that something is available. It is more than trust. It is the entrusting of all we have to that which we hope for. It is putting faith in something. It is leaving all we once knew and fully embracing the mystery before us. We wait because humanity waits. God does not wish that any would be left out in the cold darkness so he waits to allow all the opportunity to repent and believe.
This moves us from Jesus’ first sermon of nineteen words to the calling of the first disciples. Jesus goes to galilee and he boldly preaches the good news that the kingdom is here. And as he walks along the shores of the sea he sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets. I often wonder about that scene. How long did Jesus watch them work? Did he laugh at the bickering that most probably would have occurred with two brothers working together? He watched them and eventually he calls out to them, “Hey follow me and I will let you catch people instead.”
Follow me. Two simple words. The meaning implied in these words is the complete abandonment of the previous ways of life to fully embrace what goes before them. It is an image of discipleship a taking on a new way of life. To follow Jesus is much more than a pray of repentance it is a new lifestyle. Simon and Andrew were once known completely as fishermen, but if they were to take a step away from the boat they would cease being what they were and would embrace a totally new way of life.
Jesus calls us to follow too. He calls us to join him on his journey. The journey with the express purpose to fulfill all of time. We are still waiting but we are not actually waiting we are following Jesus as he brings about the completion of his purpose. Jesus says follow me and I will make you fish people. This statement has always baffled me. Probably because I am not someone who spends time fishing. But these brothers are out on the sea throwing a net out on the water and this net gathers the fish so that they can be drawn in. Follow me Jesus says, and I will make you gather and draw people in to me.
All of humanity is wondering in the cold barren wilderness, they are out there shivering in the dark. Not knowing where to turn. They need someone to draw them in. They need someone to throw them a blanket and rub their arms to get the blood flowing. They need someone to walk with them showing them the way. And they need someone to remove their shoes so they can enter without stain. Jesus is the fulfilment and we are the nets thrown out on so that we can direct people to Christ.
We seemingly wait because we have not fully embraced our purpose. We still want to cling to our lives instead of allowing Jesus to use us to the fullest. We wait because Jesus is waiting for the weight of our trials to become just heavy enough so that the fringe of our lives can wrap fully around those he has called us to and allow him to draw people to himself. We wait so Jesus, God with us can bring more to him. We wait but we wait not in an incomplete reality, we work in the entrusting knowledge that life has been restored and redeemed through Jesus. Who came as a baby, who worked along side his family, who embraced the fulfilling ministry he was called to, and who provided the means to remove the stains of sin through his sacrifice on the cross. We wait in the hope of the resurrection because we know through Jesus that death no longer binds us to the exile in darkness. We wait because God is using us to draw more to him and we walk in his will we entrust our lives to his. We wait in the mystery between void and fulfillment.
As we enter this time of Holy Expectancy let us embrace the completeness of Christ. Let us marvel at the mystery of his Incarnation, and let us embrace and entrust our lives to our God with us so that we can follow the one who redeems all things.
John 1:43–51 (NRSV)
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 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.”
The past few weeks I have been really reflecting on what Incarnation means as I have been in prayer, study and even in my devotional times. What does it mean that God took on actual human flesh and lived among mankind? Why is it important to me today that Jesus lived among actual people? Is this even really that important? I might be the only one that can spend an entire day just thinking about one question like this, trying to see it from every possible perspective that I can imagine. The answers I come up with in many cases raise even more questions in my mind. I think that is part of the beauty of the spirituality of Friends we do not always have to have an answer to the question and can sit with a question or query for extended periods of time and be perfectly fine just enjoying the communion with God as we work through the questions. It is even more interesting when we sit with a question and then revisit the exact same question years later and recognizing how our perspective can change while we traverse the journey of time with Christ. What is the answer that I received this week you might ask. Why is the incarnation so important to me and all of us this week? Jesus had friends. Jesus built relationships with his disciples, with his siblings and parents, with Mary and Martha and scores of others. Jesus was a friend of humanity.
Jesus was a friend. He walked through life with others. Just imagine that for a moment. As we read through the accounts of his life, he actually walked on soil similar to that under our feet. He sat around a fire in the wilderness similar to the one we enjoy at Quaker Haven during our church retreat. It almost saddens me that he did not have the opportunity to eat s’mores because marshmallows were not yet invented, or graham crackers, or even the chocolate bar but I am positive they enjoyed conversation while they roasted something over the fire. Jesus had deep meaningful conversations, Jesus may have even had shallow entertaining conversations with those closest to him late into the evening. Jesus attended meetings of worship, he cried with friends as they suffered through illnesses or faced the pains of death. Jesus enjoyed the delightful screeches of children at play, and probably instigated a few of those screeches. Jesus lived among humankind, yet he is God.
I wrestle with this question yet I do not even, after nearly three decades of embracing it, fully grasp everything about it. I know in my mind and accept the mystery of the virgin birth, yet cannot fully wrap my mind around it because it is so fantastic. I know and accept that Jesus walked with friends but can I imagine him laughing with his friends and enjoying life in ways similar to me? I accept in my mind that Jesus was fully human and fully God yet it still remains just outside of my grasp.
Today’s passage we find one story of an interaction Jesus had with some men who became close friends. These stories, these testimonies from those first disciples have such power for us today even though they happened so long ago. Because wrapped up in each of these stories is a history of each individual. Their names point to the life and the focus of their family. The towns from which they lived speak of life within community. Their conversations and travels show us glimpses into their hearts. And through the story of their lives each one of us can find points of contact with our own. Our story, just like the story of each of these disciples, are powerful because each story is yet another glimpse of God living among us.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Can you picture this moment? Jesus wakes up one morning and after he stretches, maybe scratches his head and yawns, says to himself, “I think I will take a walk to Galilee today.” If we were to read just a paragraph before we would see that that previous day, John the Baptist saw Jesus walking around and told a couple of his followers, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” Those two followers ran over to talk with Jesus and Jesus asked them “What are you looking for?” Their response was that they wanted to know where Jesus was staying and he invited them to walk with him. We are told that one of those men John the Baptist spoke to was Andrew, and that Andrew quickly got his brother to come with them so potentially we have three people there that first day. They go with Jesus and they stay with him, and as Jesus stretches the next morning and makes his proclamation of going to Galilee, they are there with him.
They were all along the Jordon where John was preaching and baptizing, now they are beginning to take that walk to the sea. Somewhere along that journey they meet up with Philip, someone from the same town as Andrew and Simon who the night before was given a nickname by Jesus, Peter. Philip also begins to walk with them. I like Philip. The fact that Philip’s name is Philip speaks a great deal to us. Philip is a Jewish man with a Greek name. Names in ancient times reflect many things. They give us a glimpse into the family dynamic of the person’s parents because they are often named after things that are important to them. They will also have a prophetic message that those carrying the name often live into. Peter was given the prophetic name by Jesus and he became the rock Jesus saw him to be. Philip is a bit different, he carries a Greek name. For people like me, that raises questions. Why did they give their Jewish son the name Philip, a name that means fond of horses? We might think that this is just a fun name and maybe his mom was just really into horses, but Philp is also the name of Alexander the Great’s father, to name a Jewish son by this name you honor the Greek influence in the land. They named their son after the father of the conqueror, the conqueror whose influence eventually lead to the abomination that causes desolation which prompted the Maccabean revolt which lead Israel to seek an alliance with Rome. Why would a Jewish family do this? Maybe they were fond of horses. Maybe Philip was a younger son so they felt that giving him a Greek name would allow him a greater chance to build a place for himself in a highly Greek influenced part of the nation since he would not have an inheritance. Or maybe they just were not that religious. We do not know why they named him that but they did. But we do know that because of his name, he became the point of access to Jesus for the Gentile portions of the community. Those that were not Jewish came to Philip. So, in many ways, we have faith because of Philip.
Philip, who probably knew Andrew and Peter, saw, spoke with and began to follow Jesus. Just like that. What type of a man was Jesus that people just followed him like that? Even those who might have been from a darker segment of society? What type of a person was Jesus that he had no problem inviting a person to friendship who carried a name that represented cultural compromise?
Philip obviously eagerly accepted the call and was at least somewhat religious because he knew he teachings of Moses and the prophets and he readily accepted that Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth was the very person those ancient leaders of faith spoke. He embraced this idea to such a degree he quickly went out to find one of his friends to bring him to meet Jesus.
Which leads us to Nathanael. Of all the disciples of Jesus Nathanael is the one that is shrouded in the most mystery. In the other gospel accounts the name Nathanael is not mentioned but instead Bartholomew. This has led some to wonder if maybe Nathanael and Bartholomew are two separate people or if maybe his actual name was Nathanael son of Tholami. Why do they debate these things, because Nathanael might actually be someone of importance within the larger Jewish community? The name Talami goes all the way back to Israel entering into the Promised Land. Talami or Tolami is the name of one of the sons defeated by Caleb in the conquest. We might say why would a name of a defeated family be important, but it shows that this defeated family became part of Israel and if Nathanael was from this linage this family was so integrated into the Jewish community that Jesus said he was a true Israelite. This statement also connects to the name Nathanael. Remember that in the first century names meant something to the parents and to the community. The name Nathanael is the name of one of the priests serving with Ezra. Recently we discussed aspects of Ezra in our Sunday morning bible study. Nathanael was one of the priests that were required to dismiss his foreign wife so that Israel could become a purified nation, without the influences from the lands that held them in captivity. This is one of the reasons the people of Samaria were the enemies of the Jewish people, they were seen as a mixed race, they intermarried with the conquers and were not fully descendants of Israel.
We have two images within this one person. We have the integration of outsiders into Israel, testifying to God’s grace, and we have the exclusion of outside influences. This one man is a walking testimony to the weirdness of faith. Jesus calls him, “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” And yet, Nathanael is a friend of Philip, the Jewish man with a Greek name. This mysterious man gets even more interesting as his conversation with Jesus progresses. Jesus calls him a true Israelite, he says there is no deceit in him, meaning this man is probably the most honest and authentic man of faith within the group of disciples. Nathanael is the first of the disciples to hesitate, to question Jesus. He is the first to be skeptical of who Jesus actually was. And Jesus loves it.
We often think that questioning our faith is sinful, but it is can be healthy. Often, we can simply accept what is presented to us without examination and when trials come we cannot provide an answer for why we believe. Philip comes to Nathanael and says we have found the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth, and Nathanael says can anything good come out of Nazareth? I love that question. I love it because it is so very human. It shows that there is prejudice present even within the disciples. I am not saying that prejudice is a good thing because it is a sin, but it proves that even the disciples had to deal with the very same things we deal with today. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? This question causes us to join Nathanael in his journey. Galilee was filled with revolutionary ideologies. Many of the initial revolts against Roman rule began in Galilee because they were often seen at the backwards uncivilized segment of Judea. The people of Galilee had to deal with the influx of Gentiles to a greater degree than those in Jerusalem because the Greeks set up their cities around the Sea. But once you got away from the cultural centers on the beaches of Galilee the towns were rural and small. The people living there were poor and often had to venture into the Gentile communities to work, and this interaction with Gentiles caused the people in the south to see them as being less righteous. As a result, they became very nationalistic and overcompensated through bold speech and action. Just a short distance from Nazareth Josephus fortified a city and began the Jewish war with Rome which eventually ended with the destruction of Jerusalem.
When Nathanael questions Philip about the goodness of the people in Nazareth it is a genuine portrait of what the larger Jewish community felt. People of Nazareth were trouble makers boldly proclaiming their patriotism while living dependent on the very people they sought to expel. And among these people are the ultra-religious as well as the ferocious fighters. Nathanael would be one of the ultra-religious. Jesus says I saw you under the fig tree, when Nathanael asks when he had got to know him. We may not initially understand the importance of this statement but there is great spiritual significance to it. Some of the teaching of that day was that the proper place to meditate of scriptures was while siting under a fig tree. So, there is some indication that Nathanael was a righteous man, he spent time in meditation while he studied under the fig tree. And Jesus met with him in spirit while Nathanael prayed. Of all the disciples Nathanael was the first we see as taking a personal focus on spiritual devotion. A couple of the others were followers of John the Baptist but it is Nathanael we see engaging in a disciplined life. And it is he who represents authentic Israel.
This story, these interactions between Jesus and the first disciples are wonderful because they represent so much of life in general. We have common people from common families. We have earnest seekers and skeptics. We have those whose name represents integration with the world and we have names that point to integration into the kingdom of God. We have cultural diversity and cultural purity. All of this and God Incarnate is right there in the middle of it all. It speaks of the abundance of God’s grace within the each of our stories. It speaks to us of the will of God and our spiritual vocation in the world today. Jesus invited each of them to follow Him. He invited each type of person to live their life with him. It also speaks to our current condition as we follow today. Do we interact with diverse people like Jesus did or are we bound by our own prejudices? Do we live our lives authentically before God and our neighbors or are we hiding behind a façade? Do we live as incarnate witnesses to life with God in our community and beyond?
As we enter a time of open worship and communion with God in the manner of Friends let us consider the life of Jesus and the interactions he had with his followers. Let us consider what the incarnate life means to us and let us embrace God with us today and until the end of ages.