I am afraid of dying

Week of Sunday January 18 – Epiphany2
Gospel: John 1:43-51

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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 next day Jesus chose some disciples and they followed him. This could be "the Reader's Digest condensed version" of John 1:43-51. But everything else is not dispensable padding. It is put into the story for a reason, to make a point.

There is concentrated word play in this text. We are not meant to be able to "understand" it. We are meant to be intrigued and, as in so much of John, to be alerted that there is deep significance under the words. They are meant to frustrate and puzzle us as we try to fit them together in our minds. They seek to bring us from meaning to knowing.

Even my condensed one line version has theologically loaded words. The newly found disciples follow him. The pattern is established in verses 35-42 before the lectionary.

Following Jesus is the pattern of true discipleship and true belief. Holding to the creeds, or to a late idolatry like inerrant scripture, is just that− we follow a creed. In John there is a clear sense that the person of Jesus is elevated above orthodoxy. We follow him.

People do not find Jesus in these verses. They are found by someone and pointed to him− by John the Baptist in verses 35-6, by Andrew, (40) and by Phillip. (45) Or else, Jesus found them directly; Jesus found Phillip. (43) When we are found, we may come towards him, like Nathanael. (47)

Then we are called to follow, and to remain, or stay with him. (37, 39, 43)

The pattern is also to say to our friends, "Come and see." (39, 46)

We should not understand this merely as an evangelistic strategy, although "Come and see" is way better than preaching the four spiritual laws, or some other doctrinal construction. Apart from anything else it challenges us to whether we really have anything to show people beyond fancy words!

Seeing is about knowing. Jesus has already seen Nathanael, and Nathanael understands Jesus has known him. All these words are about relationship.

And knowing is not mere observation, or as in too many expressions of the Faith, some kind of assent to a set of facts. In the beginning, like Nicodemus and others in John, Nathanael does not really see or know. He thinks Jesus' seeing him under the fig tree is some kind of "seeing around corners", some kind of divinisation. Of course, there is an altogether different divinisation offered in John! Jesus knows because of who he is, and he finds us and allows us to see and know the things of God more fully if we will only follow and remain with him.

This revolves around the strange− to our eyes− text of the Israelite and the fig tree.

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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.’

Genesis paints character Jacob as a trickster. He deceives his whole family: his father Isaac, brother Esau, and uncle Laban.  God had changed Jacob's name to Israel, (Genesis 35:10) and all Israel counted Jacob as its Father. A true Israelite, unlike Jacob, has no deceit. Nathanael stands as the best of Israel, God's chosen people, and the question is whether we will be like him.

The fig tree is important; John repeats the image. Probably it represents "the image of the ideal Israelite in utopia… sitting studying the Law." (e.g., Everyone shall sit under their vine and fig tree in peace and unafraid. Micah 4:4)

The true Israel who sits under the fig tree and, if we could put it this way, reads− that should be sees and knows-  a new Torah will also receive the vision of Jacob. In Jacob's dream "he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." (Gen 28:12) But the new vision is not of a ladder or staircase; the way into heaven is Jesus himself.

Coming back to Nathanael's misunderstanding, Bill Loader says that for John

life is in the relationship with Jesus and [that life] is there even before his death. … He comes and goes from the heart of God and he sends and summons from the heart of God.

What does it mean to know him? What is this relationship?

I have a deep allergy to invitations to "meet Jesus." I don't want to contradict someone who uses that language and has that experience. It's just that in my experience such claims have been weaponised theology. They have been deeply manipulative and often destructive. And often the Jesus who was presented was rather like Schweitzer's Jesus at the bottom of the well, a mere reflection of the speaker. And too often the the well has not been particularly deep−  such proclamations of Jesus have been more like selfies.

I am too aware of my own ability to project, and too afraid of constructing a convenient wish-fulfilment-selfie Jesus/God in place of  what is real. Of course, most of what we see is a construction and an imagining, especially as we venture into the richer aspects of our existence which go beyond mere technology. So how do we know, and how can we meet "someone" in a way that might give us our best shot of finding the experience of John without leading ourselves up the garden path?  Is what he is talking about even real?

"Come and see," was his answer. For all its profundity the Gospel of John seems to come down to a) hearing the message and b) coming to see. The only way we can do that is to follow, the word with which we began.

Bill says that, according to John, to proclaim the messiah is meaningless unless we live life in a new way, unless we come and see.

…messianic acclamations will only make sense if they are transposed into a new key where the tune they play is about the Son who came to make the Father known, to offer light and life and truth and build a community of love. That is the melody which keeps repeating itself in John and is the essence of John’s critical theology of spirituality. Acclamations only mean something when they mean this. The rest may be fervent devotion but it is blind, even if it cites biblical prophecy and speaks the right words.

This is what Nathanael had to learn when Jesus asked him, " Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?"

The trouble with building "a community of love," as Bill puts it, is that it is existential risk of the first order. Richard Beck writes

we … struggle with basic anxiety− worries about physical survival−  even in affluent parts of the world… we…worry about becoming depleted, exhausted and used up. It's hard to make room for others in our lives because we have no margin. We feel that if we "add one more thing" to an "already full plate" we'll be pushed too far, pushed over the edge.

And these worries, if you ponder it, are expressions of death anxiety. We are worried that we don't have the resources to carry on or forward. And that fear− a depletion of vital resources like time and energy− is rooted in survival concerns.

And these fears, I contend, undermine our ability to love. We don't love freely or fully because we feel we'll be used up and depleted.

I bet you've experienced this fear. For example, if you've ever felt called to share your possessions with those in need you quickly encounter the basic anxieties associated with self-preservation and survival.

He concludes the post by saying

… you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do.  

And second, love is very much about our ability to transcend that fear.

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" The church seems such a source of pain and suffering, and of so much evil. Can anything good come of it, or from Jesus?

And in light of today's scientific knowledge, religion seems so unlikely. Can anything good come of it? I always thought these questions were the source of my scepticisms. I didn't want to be part of foolishness and self-deception, let alone aligned with something as intellectually embarrassing, and so often ethically challenged, as the church.

Well, I've been reading posts by a rediscovered friend, who in the years since our last meeting, has become a militant Dawkinsion atheist. I am surprised at how distressed I am for him−  his assertions about the nature of things are unbelievably, even cringe worthily, naïve. But he has done me a great favour because I see that my rather more agnostic approach to life− and that of more agnostic atheists− is not foolish. And that has let me see− or perhaps it's forced me to admit, that, really, what frightens me is not being intellectually disreputable. And what frightens me is not self-deception. What frightens me is death.

The only way I can find to "meet" Jesus, or to be known by him, or to− as the tradtional language of my church puts it−  experience him as my Saviour, is to love.

If I do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Cor 13) If I say I love God, and do not love my brother and sister and neighbour, I am a liar; I have nothing, I am only imagining Jesus. (1 John 2:9-11, 3:17.) No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:12)

I find this true. It all adds up. It adds up to life. And it adds up to death.

… you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do…    love is very much about our ability to transcend that fear.

When it comes to proving God, to telling people about God, all I can say is, "Come and See," because only in loving have I found a reality I am content to call God or "knowing Jesus." I'm reading Tillich at the moment. It is wonderful− I found myself mourning the other night, "So much theology to read, and so little time!" But it is all just words unless I come and see; unless I begin to follow, hoping that I will transcend the fear of dying because of it. To stay with him demands everything and, to be honest, I'm hanging around near the door.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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