Fr. John Allison
1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
January 14, 2024
Christ Church, Hudson
Our Gospel reading this week is the second part of John’s recounting of Jesus’ calling of the disciples. It comes just after Jesus’ baptism, which we recognized last Sunday, and the action today just follows the calling of Andrew and Peter. With that in mind, I want to remind you of something Mother Kathleen said last week in her sermon: This season after the Epiphany is about the various ways God’s love is manifest in Jesus, the various ways Jesus is revealed to be the Christ.
What I want to add to that, and I think this point is well-illustrated by all of our readings today, is that Epiphany is also about how Christ is revealed to be at the core of our identity as creatures made in God’s image. As we come to deeper relationship with the Holy, as we mature in our faith, God’s love is revealed to be the foundation on which everything else is built. It’s about not just the recognition that we can see God’s love manifest in Jesus but the experience of knowing God sees us as well.
As the psalmist says: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.”
Indeed, we echo these words each week at the start of our service with the Collect for Purity: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all, desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.”
Epiphany is about seeing God, and it is about being seen by God. There is a kind of reciprocity of seeing and being seen that is key to being in relationship with God and that carries over in our earthly relationships with one another.
We’re told that after Jesus calls Phillip, Phillip then goes to Nathanael to tell him about Jesus but that Nathanael is skeptical. He says, dismissively, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” You see, Nazareth was a kind of nowhere. For our times you might imagine a remote village with one stoplight and a few scattered houses far from any place of prestige. Nathanael, just as we often do today, judges by what he thinks he already knows. Identity then, just as now, is often based on the assumption that we can know someone if we know where they are from, or what they’re profession is, or where they went to school, or who their family is, or what color their skin is, or what their gender is, or who they choose to marry. This story seeks to subvert that. Of course, the point is made concerning Jesus but it’s a truth that pertains to us all. Deeper than any of those qualities that can be outwardly named there is an identity grounded in God, something that is at our very core that we may intuit about ourselves or that others may sense in us but that can be largely ignored or forgotten as we become caught up in the trappings of the world.
We have little indication from the text as to what Nathanael senses but his change of heart comes as Jesus names him as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Scholars tells us that this is a scriptural reference to Jacob, the one who is first named Israel and who used deceit to steal his father’s inheritance from his brother Esau, the implication being that Nathanael represents a kind of new Israel. When Jesus goes further and says he saw him under the fig tree it’s another scriptural reference, this time from the prophet Micah, and alludes to studying the Torah and seeking to live into God’s promises. Nathanael feels seen; We have little else to go on because this part of the story is quite brief but, for me at least, I see Jesus’ call to Nathanael as being grounded in intimacy—in the feeling of being known.
Each of this week’s readings involve intimacy. In our Old Testament reading before Samuel “knows” God, God whispers to him in his bedchamber. In the epistle Paul says that anyone united to God becomes one spirit with him and that our very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. And, as we have seen in the Gospel, Jesus knows Nathanael’s deepest heart. Each of these stories point us to the understanding that we are bound up with God in ways that are foundational to our sense of self. What is difficult is that this intimacy with God is not always so easily acknowledged in our understanding of our Selves—or in our understanding of others. What is assured, however, is that this knowledge, this intimacy, begins in God. God sees us first and from that acknowledgement everything else grows. That was Jesus’ call to the first disciples and it’s his call to us today.
Some of you have perhaps heard me mention the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He lived in Germany in the first half of the 20th century and was imprisoned and eventually executed for his vocal opposition to Hitler and the Nazis, which he recognized as a force of evil in the world. I bring him up because in his last days in prison in the months leading to his execution, he pondered the question of identity, of who he was as he endured suffering and imprisonment for his witness to God’s love. He wrote a poem, aptly entitled, Who am I?”
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
We may not face the extreme circumstances that Bonhoeffer endured but these lonely questions of his echo ones similar that I think many of us ask of ourselves. They illuminate the tension between the outward world of appearances and the inward doubt of the self. I imagine Nathanael might have asked himself something similar and that his meeting with Jesus allowed him to find some hint of reconciliation. For me—for all of us perhaps—the question persists and its answer is one that is revealed over a lifetime as we seek to be disciples, as we seek to live into the Baptismal promises we affirmed just last week. Our identity is revealed, in the words of our covenant, in the ways in which we seek and serve Christ in all persons; in the ways in which we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. That’s what it means for Christ to be manifest in the world. Amen.