Preached Online at All Saints King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 27 January, 2021.
Readings for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20; Psalm 139: 1-5,12-17; 1 Corinthians 6: 12-20; John 1: 43-51
Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (Jn 1:48)
Today I want to speak about visibility, about what it means to be seen and known by God, and about how, if we choose, we can start to see the world and one another through God’s eyes.
A woman I knew once told me that the hardest part of getting older was the feeling that she was invisible in public. I was attractive in my youth, she said, but as I got into my sixties I felt that people no longer saw me. Or if they did, in shops, they would call me “dear” or “dearie” and that infuriated me, because I was just another little old lady to them. I am sure that men often feel the same way. Old age can erase people from the public view. Poverty and homelessness can have the same effect of rendering people invisible because others stop seeing them.
Someone has said that the most valuable gift we can give is attention. We all want to be seen and recognized as human beings, because that’s where our dignity is confirmed, in the eyes of others. In our society, the word dignity is often used today in our language around human rights, although this sort of talk can be very abstract and is usually used by lawyers and politicians. As the English author Tom Holland has noted, our secular codes of human rights have their roots in Christianity, with its insistence that all people are created and loved by God. Our faith makes dignity real because Jesus wants us all to be visible, and we really see others, we can start to see them as God sees them.
Last Sunday I preached on the baptism of Jesus and how it opens the door for us to become children of God. For our status as children to be meaningful, we have to be seen and known. A parent who doesn’t recognize a child when he or she sees them isn’t a very good parent. Did you ever have one of those panicked moments as a parent when you lost sight of your child in a crowd? I well recall one time when my daughter was a toddler, in a busy wading pool in a park. From fifty yards away I caught sight of her in a mass of children – she had fallen in the water and was panicking, unnoticed by others. I don’t know how I covered the distance in seconds, vaulting over other children, but I did and snatched her out of the water, and yet I was haunted afterwards by a sense of luck. What if I hadn’t noticed my daughter nearly drowning?
If a loving parent can be vigilant sometimes, then how much more does God the Father see? As Jesus tells his disciples, not one small bird falls to earth without God knowing (Mt. 10.29). I think the most interesting part of today’s gospel, is how sees the people around him.. In these brief accounts, there is something remarkable about how Jesus finds these strangers, as if he has known them all their lives and just been waiting for this moment to call them disciples and friends.
Just before the start of today’s gospel reading, one of the first disciples, Andrew, introduces his brother Simon to Jesus. Jesus looks at him, and then immediately gives this stranger another name. “You are Simon, son of John You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” (Jn 1.42). Now, it’s odd to rename someone when you first meet them – “Hey Bill, nice to meet you, I shall call you Scooter from now on” –so why do this, unless, Jesus knew Simon thoroughly and saw a destiny that Simon wasn’t aware of (“Mt 16.18, “you are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church”).
Then, Jesus goes to Galilee, a region, what we would call today northern Israel, so not a small place, and John simply tells us that Jesus “found Philip” (Jn 1.43). How did Jesus find him? Where? Why Philip? How did Jesus choose him? John doesn’t tell us because it doesn’t seem important to him. Jesus just says “follow me” and Philip follows. Again, there’s a sense of destiny being fulfilled here.
Finally, there is Nathanael, Philip’s brother, who is sceptical and sarcastic when he hears that he has to come and meet the Messiah, the saviour of Israel: “A saviour from a hick town? Give me a break” (Jn 1.46). When Jesus meets him, he immediately compliments him on his honesty, which, again, is an odd thing to say to someone you’ve just met, as Nathanael notes: “How can you say that? You’ve never met me!” (Jn 1.48).
Jesus’ response, that he saw Nathanael “under the fig tree” before Philip went and fetched him, is one of those moments in John’s gospel when we realize that Jesus sees through God’s eyes, with a clarity and a range that we could not match. Nathanael here reminds me of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, who tells her friends that Jesus “told me everything that I have ever done” (Jn 4.39). Jesus’ foresight shocks her and shocks Nathanael, but we perhaps should not be surprised that the God who sees the sparrow can find and choose his disciples.
Would you be surprised that Jesus sees you just as clearly, knows you just as well, and has a purpose and a destiny for you? If Jesus could see Nathanael under the fig tree, can he not see you at your workplace, in your car, or in the quiet of your house? If Jesus knew these men before he had ever met them, does he not also know us, whose hearts are open, whose desires are known, and who have no secrets to hide?
If Jesus called these men to follow him, does he not also call us also to go with him, to befriend him, and learn from him? If Jesus had new names and new destinies for these men, does he not also call us into new identities as disciples, as friends, and as children of God? In his long goodbye to his disciples, Jesus says “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father. You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15.15-16). One of our culture’s greatest myths is that we choose our fate, that we can be anything we want to be. Our faith begs to differ. One of Christianity’s greatest gifts is that we are seen, chosen, and called by Jesus to be God’s friends and adopted children. “My sheep hear my voice”, Jesus says elsewhere in John’s gospel; “I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10.27).
The Christian life doesn’t begin when we are seen. Jesus sees all of us. The Christian life doesn’t even begin when we are chosen, because I believe that Jesus would like to choose everyone – the good news is for all people. The Christian life begins when some who are seen and chosen actually decide to follow.
I said last week that to be baptized by John, to save us, Jesus had to walk down the muddy bank of the Jordan in the footsteps of every sinful person who had gone before him. Now, on the other side of baptism, calling his disciples, we who choose to follow now follow in his footsteps. We go where Jesus goes, to those who need God, and we see with Jesus’ eyes, seeing those who the world no longer sees, respecting those who are no longer granted dignity or worth.
Let me finish with an example of what seeing with Jesus’ eyes looks like. A Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, has been making bronze statues of a man huddled in a blanket, sleeping on a public bench. The feet protruding from the blanket have been pierced. These “homeless Jesus” statues have been placed in front of churches across North America, and wherever they appear, they often provoke calls to 911 from passers-by who don’t realize that it’s a statue and who are concerned for the man’s welfare. These statues give churches new ways to make homeless and poverty visible to the communities around them.
Jesus gifts his followers the gift of the visibility, but that gift comes with a responsibility. We who are truly seen, known, and loved by God are given the privilege of seeing the world through God’s eyes. We see those who would otherwise be invisible, and forgotten. We at All Saints try to exercise this gift in our ministry to the residents of Crosslinks, truly seeing the residents there as fellow children of God, equally beloved. Who else can we see through God’s eyes? Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard discussions about how housing, climate change, and reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters should be priorities for All Saints. We may not be able to address all these issues equally, but the fact that we see them is because of this gift of visibility, this gift of seeing through God’s eyes, that Jesus has given us.