Skeptics

There is a wonderful chain reaction in our Gospel reading this morning, as we continue (during this Christmas season) to focus on “Epiphanies” – manifestations of God in the life of Jesus.

Two weeks ago, we saw God revealed in the baby Jesus to travelling sages, star-gazers from a different culture and country and religion, which reminded us that no spiritual journey or path (however foreign or different) that cannot ultimately lead to Christ.  Then last week, as we journeyed with Jesus to the River Jordan, we were reminded that through his baptism all of the life-giving waters that we rely on have been blessed by the presence of Christ.  And this week, from John’s Gospel, we find ourselves at the start of Jesus’ ministry as he is reaching out to those who will follow him as his disciples.

Those of you who have had the opportunity to read through the Gospels in some detail over the years will know that each of the communities which produced our four Gospels have different accounts of how the disciples are called by Jesus.  And in John’s Gospel there is a striking similarity between the two calling stories which are included right at the start – in the first chapter – of the Gospel.  Next Sunday we will hear a different calling story from the Gospel of Mark.  But in John’s Gospel, the invitation to people to follow Jesus is always followed by that invitation being shared in turn with somebody else.  So when Jesus invites Andrew to follow him, Andrew goes first to get his Brother Simon Peter and takes him along as well.

And in the wonderful story which we heard this morning, Jesus goes to the Galilee and meets with Philip who was a neighbour of Andrew and Peter, and Philip in turn goes to find Nathanael and invites him to come along as well.  Its not hard to see why the Early Church grew so quickly.  The instinctive and natural reaction, for the first followers of Jesus was to share what they had found with others.  In following Christ, they in turn brought others to follow him as well.

Now Nathanael is an interesting character.  He is what we call nowadays a “sceptic.”  Unlike the story of Andrew and Peter, where Jesus invites Andrew and then Andrew invites Peter and they both follow Jesus, Nathanael is a little more hesitant.

We find out later in John’s Gospel that Nathanael comes from Cana, a village near Nazareth.  And those two villages were rivals, Nazareth being a short distance up the hill from Cana (the scene of the wedding where Jesus will turn water into wine).

So when Nathanael hears that Jesus is from a rival village – Nazareth (which would be like the people of Weston finding out that the Son of God was from Kurri Kurri) he exclaims, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and the skepticism increases.  Only a face to face encounter with Jesus will wipe that skepticism away and replace it with faith.

As I have been thinking about this Gospel story this week, I have been intrigued about this skepticism – because it seems to me that the kinds of people who live around us in this Parish of Merewether are more like Nathanael than they are like Peter.

Andrew invites Peter, and he simply follows.  But when Philip invites Nathanael other things need to happen first before Nathanael will be convinced.

In October last year, as I was reading one of the newspapers from England on the internet I noticed a short article about a campaign to raise funds for what was being described as the “atheist bus.”  Professor Richard Dawkins, famous for his efforts to persuade the world that God does not exist and that religion is a meaningless myth, had teamed up, according to that article, with the British Humanist Association to try to raise sufficient funds to advertise on the sides of red London buses. Professor Dawkins had offered to match any donation towards the adverts, to a maximum of five and a half thousand pounds in order to reach the target of eleven thousand pounds which was needed to pay for the adverts.

And in the first day of the fundraising campaign for these “atheist buses” in London, the organising group received not five and a half thousand pounds (which was what they needed), but thirty-one thousand pounds instead.

And at the current time (I checked yesterday on their website) the campaign has raised over one hundred and forty-eight thousand pounds, which means that there will be advertising not just appearing on buses in London, but all over the UK.  There are similar movements in other European countries and in the United States of America as well.

And this must be Nathanael’s week, and the week for people like him – because a few days ago the first buses displaying this advertising rolled onto the streets in England, prompting one commentator to say, “you wait all your life for an atheist bus and then eight hundred of them turn up at once!”

The slogan on the buses– the advertising which has been paid for – is simple: “There’s probably no God.  So stop worrying and enjoy your life!”

It’s a Nathanael-like statement: a position of skepticism, and ultimately a position of hopelessness.

So what does Jesus do when he encounters the skeptic in this morning’s gospel reading?

We could miss the significance of it, if we are not careful.  Nathanael is obviously a thinking person, Jesus recognises this in his opening response to him.  It isn’t that Nathanael is skeptical because he is cynical, its more that he is skeptical because he doesn’t know how to fit this new information – that Jesus is the one whom they have been waiting for – with everything else that he knows.

I have a sense that that is true for the people who live around us as well.  Skepticism about faith comes less, I think, from people wanting to be cynical, and more from our neighbours simply not knowing how to fit the pieces together.

Late last year I took a group of 20 students from the School of Theology to the Parish of Murrurundi.  And we spent a weekend visiting every home in the Parish and giving out information about the Church, but more importantly asking people how we might best pray for them.  It was a very simple and unsophisticated way of trying to engage with the people of the town.

And what we found out was that a great many people had prayers that they wanted us to pray on their behalf.  The team who came with me brought back piles of slips of paper with prayer requests written on them for us to pray for in the Church.

And as we discussed what had happened, it seemed to us, that these were expressions from people of their need for God, but of their inability to know how to connect with him on their own.  To put it bluntly: there was a hope that God would answer prayer, but there was a skepticism about membership of the Church.

So what does Jesus do in the story?  He does not begin by entering into an intellectual debate trying to prove his authenticity as the Son of God.  Instead he reaches deep inside Nathanael and speaks to his deepest needs.

He talks about a fig tree.  And fig trees for the Jewish people at that time were very significant indeed.

Way back in the reign of King Solomon (which had been the golden age of the Jewish people) everyone had lived in safety and peace.  And a phrase from the First Book of Kings had become, in the time of Jesus, a kind of mantra for the Jewish people.  They looked back golden age and talked about the time when everyone had lived in safety under their vines and their fig trees.

It was an image which Micah and Zechariah both speak about in their prophecies, as a hope for the future when once again their will peace and righteousness when the Messiah comes.

So when Jesus says to Nathanael that he recognised him as the person who sat under the fig tree, he was doing much more than saying that he had seen him before.  He was letting Nathanael know that his deepest needs and hopes would be fulfilled if Nathanael followed him.

Jesus takes a skeptic and instead of entering into debate about his questions, he reaches deep inside and answers the real issues in his life.

Well, if we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, as his Body here in Merewether, there is a real challenge for us.

When we ask, in this Epiphany period what the revelation, the manifestation of God is for us in this story, it is simply this: that in Jesus God is able to meet the deepest needs and bring about the ultimate hopes not only of us who are gathered here, but our neighbours who live around us.

There is a wonderful story in a book entitled “The Song of the Bird” by Anthony de Mello which I have been reading this week.

Its about a holy man on his travels who reached the outskirts of a village one night and as he was settling down under a tree (not a fig tree this time), was approached by a villager who came running towards him and said, “the stone!  The stone!  The Stone! Give me the precious stone!”

To which the Holy man, answered “What stone?”

The villager replied: “Last night I had a dream, and in my dream I was told that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk, I should find a holy man who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”

The holy man pondered this for a moment and then rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone.

“It must be this one,” he said to the villager, and handed it to him.  “I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.”

The villager looked at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond. Perhaps the largest diamond in the world. It was as large as a man’s head. He took the diamond and walked away. But all night long he tossed about on his bed, unable to sleep.

The next morning, at the crack of dawn, he went back to the holy man, woke him and said,

“Please sir, give me what you have that made it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”

Nathanael comes to Jesus with all kinds of questions and hesitations, and Jesus puts those to one side and deals with his deepest hope and need.  If the manifestation of God which we find in our Epiphany Gospel this week is the good news that God in Jesus is able to meet the deepest needs of even the most ardent skeptics, perhaps we might ask, what are the real hopes and needs of the people who live around us?  And leaving their skepticism or indifference about religion to one side, how might we be good news to them in the name of Jesus?