Ordinary Time 2
January 15, 2012
William G. Carter
Jesus 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 want to talk today about how the Kingdom grows, the Kingdom of God. Jesus says somewhere it’s like a mustard seed. The Kingdom is a little tiny seed. It takes root and grows. Suddenly it becomes a great bush, from a little seed. And how does it grow?
The seed parable comes from over in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew doesn’t really explain it. He keeps the growth as a mystery.
But today as we hear this story from the Gospel of John, we gain a little bit of insight. Jesus finds Philip. Philip finds Nathanael. Nathanael finds Jesus. The little seed takes root and begins to extend its branches. Here’s the picture of growth. Right here.
A lot of churches are worried about growth, especially in a time when more and more people are sleeping in on Sundays.
When I moved here all those years ago, some of our leaders said they wanted our church to grow. One of my friends was the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Scranton. He said, “Where do they think all the new members are going to come from?” He had a point. That church and this one have been trading members on occasion for thirty-five years. That’s not the same thing as growth.
There are marketing seminars that church people can attend. For $500 a seat, they lay out their own time-tested principles for growth. One principle: only go after people who are just like you. Forget about any diversity, just focus on similarity. Announce that newcomers have to agree with you, look like you, live in houses like yours, and you will grow. It’s called the principle of Homogenous Growth. It comes from the marketing world, not from the Bible.
Another principle: drop your franchise name. The marketing experts say people don’t know what “Presbyterian” means, and they have mixed opinions of the word “Baptist.” So brand yourself as something new, something unique, something all your own, and you will grow.
Another principle: do something different. Forget about tradition, forget about history, forget about anything that existed before you were born. Dwell only in the present and declare that it all begins with you. Suddenly all those tired people from tired churches where they have “always done it that way before” will perk up and flock to you. At least, that’s what the marketing people say.
And I can report what people report to me. A worn-out, weary Methodist gets invited to the Church of What’s Happening Now. She resists it, but her friend says, “Once you try it, you’ll never go back.” Now let me just say: some people think that’s growth. That’s not growth. It is thievery.
So let’s talk about growth. Not church growth, but Kingdom growth. There is a difference. The issue is not increasing the seating capacity or improving the slickness of the promotional material. It is not about numbers, statistics, and increased income. The Kingdom does not focus on demographic information. Nor does it dumb down the message so that people with consumer appetites can be spoon-fed Gospel McNuggets in a place that is hip and cool and a little bit creepy.
No, let me tell you how the Kingdom grows. It grows friend by friend in an invitation to authentic holiness. It is not flashy. It is down to earth and it is real.
This is how growth is reported in our text from the Gospel of John. Jesus finds Philip. Who’s Philip? We don’t know. But he comes from the same little town where Andrew and Peter hail from, so he must have known them. I mean, Bethsaida was a little place. And then Philip finds Nathanael. Who’s Nathanael? We don’t know. Just a friend of Philip. He is mentioned five times in this story, and not again until chapter 21.
Nathanael never makes the official list of twelve disciples. There are people who think he should. Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention a guy named Bartholomew. John never mentions anybody named Bartholomew. John mentions Nathanael. So the pious interpreters say, “Maybe Nathanael is the same man as Bartholomew.” We don’t know.
The little bit we do know is that, in chapter 21, he is called “Nathanael of Cana in Galilee.” There was a “wedding in Cana of Galilee” (2:1). Maybe it was Nathanael’s wedding. You know, the wedding where they ran out of wine, and Jesus had to make more wine? That story happens immediately after this one. It would be reasonable to surmise that Jesus says, “Nathanael, you will see greater things than our little banter, greater things than me telling you that I spotted you under a fig tree.” And the very next day (as John says, “on the third day”), Jesus transforms the water into wine.
But here’s the thing: hardly anybody sees it. Even though it is the first miracle, or sign, of Christ, it happens at a wedding party when a lot of people were probably drunk. Most of the miraculous moments in the Gospel of John happen out of sight. A lot of people miss them. Or they can be explained another way. This is John’s way of reminding us that holiness does not happen in the sky; it happens on the ground. You can’t see holiness in the huge, Technicolor miracle with 5.1 sound. That’s because the holiness of God is often in those occasions when somebody’s life is touched and changed. God is in it somehow, somewhere, not for everybody to see unless they are looking in the right place.
That’s how it is with Nathanael, whoever he was. He hears about great things about Jesus, but his hopes hit the ground with a thud when he hears where Jesus is from. “Nazareth? He’s from Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
You know where Nazareth is? It’s around the bend from Forest City. How many of you have ever been to Forest City? Can anything good come out of Forest City? It’s just so ordinary.
And then Jesus sees him and says, “Look, here’s an Israelite without any nonsense. Not an ounce of bologna in that guy.” Nathanael says, “Where did you get to know me?”
And Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael falls to his knees and said, “You’re a Rabbi! You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Well, he certainly gets all those titles right: Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel. But wait: which fig tree? What fig tree is he talking about? We don’t know. Do you know how many fig trees there are in Israel? They are everywhere.
John’s point is simple: Jesus comes among regular people who aren’t even looking for him. He signals to them that they are noticed and known. That’s all it takes to open up to them that there is a God who sees them in truth and grace. Then he invites them to simply follow, to come and see what happens. It could be that the dusty little town of Cana becomes the place where heaven opens, and the angels ascend and descend upon Jesus.
Every once in a while, something big happens somewhere in the world, and the God Squad goes there to mark it as a miracle site. A statue of the Virgin weeps. A crippled woman drops her crutches and stands up healed. A burned-out hippy told me one time that Sedona, Arizona is the stairway to heaven. But the Gospel of John announces any place can be that stairway. The Eternal Word of the Father becomes ordinary perspiring flesh. Christ comes down and stays incognito so much of the time. Holiness happens among the ordinary. Jesus awakens faith by spotting a guy under a fig tree. No big deal -- except for Nathanael.
But that brings me back to say a few words about how the kingdom grows. It grows as ordinary people who have these holy moments invite their friends to come and see. Nathanael comes to Jesus because Philip first invited him. There is something that Philip had discovered about Jesus that prompted him to invite Nathanael to discover it for himself. We don’t know exactly what awakened Philip’s faith. We don’t know which fig tree Nathanael stood under.
What we do know is there was a chain reaction among friends. One friend saw it, spoke to another. The second friend saw it in a different way, and he undoubtedly spoke to somebody else. The Kingdom of God grows friend by friend in an invitation to authentic holiness. I’m talking about the only holiness there is, the kind of holiness in the middle of the everyday.
Sometimes we see it, sometimes we do not. As Eugene Peterson writes,
The hardest thing is to believe that God’s work – this dazzling creation, this astonishing salvation, this cascade of blessings – is all being worked out in and under the conditions of our humanity: at picnics and around dinner tables, in conversations and while walking along roads, in puzzled questions and homely stories… Everything Jesus does and says takes place within the limits and conditions of our humanity. No fireworks. No special effects. Yes, there are miracles, plenty of them. But because they are so much a part of the fabric of everyday life, very few notice. The miraculousness of the miracle is obscured by the ordinariness of the people involved.
When a good friend dies, the Kingdom people gather to sing praises to God. Just happened here on Friday morning. Some people were here because they were friends. One person said to me, “I experienced the Truth today unlike any other time in my life.” Somebody else said to me, “I’m not sure I’m a believer, but today I think I am.” There are moments when Jesus, the Risen Jesus, comes among us. Should we glimpse it, we invite our friends to see what we see. Maybe they will.
A flood sweeps through the river valley. People are shocked. Homes are destroyed. Even the church goes numb. One of my pastor friends lost so much in September’s flood. Shortly after the travel bans were lifted, an elderly man showed up with work gloves and a bucket. Jim mumbled, “Oh no, not him.” The man was known to be nothing but trouble. But then this volunteer says, “The people of your church helped me when I was flooded in 1972, and I need to be here to help all of you.”
Jim said it was as if heaven opened and the angels of God ascended and descended right there. Right there. In the mud, for God’s sake. Right there. My friend praised God, and invited his friends to come and see what God was doing right there.
The writer and artist Madeline L’Engle said it best: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Do you want the Kingdom to grow? Do want God’s influence, power, and grace to grow? Watch for the Light of Christ breaking in. Tell your friends where you see it.
This is the invitation to faith: come and see.