Text: John 1.43-end
As I ascended the ranks of BBC I progressively assumed responsibility for managing people and that often involved hiring them in the first place. It came to be my boast that within 90” of someone entering the interview room I could tell whether they were suitable or not. Sadly, that boast did not survive two disastrous appointments that cost me a lot of time, worry and sleep. It really was a case of my hiring in haste, only to regret the consequences at great leisure
Looking back would that I had had Jesus’ amazing ability not just to assess someone’s suitability for a role but to see into the very depths of their hearts, for that’s what we see in today’s gospel reading.
At the very outset of Jesus’ ministry the excited Philip introduces him to the person of Nathanael. Things don’t seem to start too well. When told that Jesus comes from Nazareth Nathanael is dismissive: “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. Whereas we associate Nazareth with the Messiah, at the time it was a pretty non-descript, unexciting sort of place and just like everywhere else on earth, 1st century Palestine was a place of petty local rivalries. So you can see that Nathanael from Galilee being told that the messiah came from Nazareth was rather akin to us being told that the Son of God and saviour of the world was born and raised in South London, which is clearly a preposterous thought.
But of course Jesus was not put off. On first seeing Nathanael, and without even speaking to him, he utters the words “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”
That was high praise indeed for a Jew who would have known well these words from Psalm 32:“Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity and in whom there is no deceit.”
Jesus was indeed paying Nathanael a huge compliment recognising him as a holy, prayerful man. The fig tree Jesus saw him sitting under is important here for to Jews it’s a symbol of peace, its shade providing the space and shelter from the sun for prayer and meditation.
So not surprising that Nathanael, who’s been so dismissive of this Nazarene, is amazed at his insight. “Where did you come to know me?” he asks in wonder, as well he might.
This extraordinary ability to see directly into another’s heart was a core aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Immediately before this story in John’s gospel we find Jesus meeting Peter – then called Simon, for the first time. Jesus sees into his heart well enough to see his potential, so that on sight he renames him Cephas, which means “rock” in Aramaic and for which the Greek word is Petrus, for he will be the very rock on which the church will be built.
And elsewhere in John’s gospel we get the story of the woman at the well of whom J asks a drink of water and with whom he has an extended dialogue which is not short of a certain flirtatiousness on her part. She has, after all, had a pretty racey life to say the least of it. When she tells him that she has no husband Jesus proceeds to tell her that she’s had no fewer than five of them and that the man she’s with at the moment isn’t her husband. Ouch!
So here we have 3 very different characters whom Jesus knows from the very outset to their depths: the saintly Nathanael; the energetic, impetuous and often rather foolish Peter; and the flirtatious, seemingly promiscuous, woman at the well.
Of the three you’d think that the woman at the well would be least welcoming of him. Not a bit of it for she experienced him as nothing less than a liberation. “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done” she excitedly tells everyone after their meeting, as she proclaims him the Messiah. The reason for her reaction is a simple as it is profound: he both knew her to the very depths of her heart and soul and accepted her just as she was. Where she may have feared judgement, she found acceptance instead.
It may seem strange but knowing God and knowing ourselves are inextricably linked. St. Paul knew this truth better than anyone. Looking forward to the day when he will look into God’s face, he puts it like this in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
So why this link? Why is knowledge of ourselves so important to knowing God? Well, so often we find it hard to accept ourselves. We each and everyone one of us full of hurts, wounds, and guilt and we can often despair that habits of thought and action that we don’t like but we don’t seem to be able to help, dog our lives. Listen to St.Paul again, this time in his letter to the Romans:
“I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want but the evil I do not want is what I do…..wretched man that I am.”
Which of us hasn’t cried out something similar at some point in our lives? The good news of the gospel is surely that, as with the woman at the well, God wants to meet us in our depths and to touch and heal these painful – perhaps to us, unforgivable – parts of ourselves. But for that to happen we have to be open to God and that means being open to these parts of ourselves being admitted and known. That can be a very painful affair, which is why so many of us resist true knowledge of ourselves and with it true knowledge of God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness.
For each of us the need will be different. For some a friend to confide in and be honest with will suffice. For others some form of confession may be necessary and for still others, some form of professional intervention – in my case psychotherapy –may be necessary
For sure, this takes courage but as Nick said last week we must never forget that God wants us, not some goody-goody, perfect form of us but us just as we are, warts, wounds, sins and all because He alone can heal us and free us to live the abundant lives that Jesus promises us.
I’m currently rereading the Go-Between God, by the former Bishop of Winchester John V Taylor and I’d like to finish by quoting from it. It’s a book about the action of the Holy Spirit that I read almost 40 years ago and which has shaped my faith probably more than any other book. John Taylor was a man whose writing exuded a profound belief in the good news of the gospel and in Go-Between God he says this:
“In a world where there is no condemnation but a welcome to anyone who can accept the fact the he or she is accepted, goodness takes on an entirely new meaning. For the first time one can be good gratuitously because it is no longer necessary to be good.”
Amen to that.