Revd. David Emmott
Epiphany 2 – John 1.43-51
If you’re a social media addict like me you might have come across a meme which was first posted a few years ago and pops up from time to time since. It’s a map of the Merseyrail system which has been scribbled on, rather like graffiti on a wall.
There’s a line drawn from around Crosby, across through Maghull and down to Halewood, and back along the river, including the whole of the city and some of the surrounding areas. Inside that line someone has scribbled the word ‘sound’. To the right, or east, of that, in large red letters, it says Wools. North of Crosby is marked Posh (as if!), while the Wirral is labelled Plazzy.
All good fun! Scousers love taking the mickey out of each other and in particular out of our neighbours who don’t quite measure up to the same level of sophistication.
But sometimes the fun can turn nasty. Not just here in Liverpool but anywhere in the country or the world. People can turn on each other not with jokes but with actual weapons, just because they identify with a particular tribe or arbitrary boundary. You remember the poor lad Rhys Jones who was the innocent victim of rival gangs in Croxteth some years ago. Violence can erupt between groups of people who are in all respects alike except they come from different postcodes.
And a great deal of the unrest in the world – maybe nearly all of it – is caused by the distrust between groups of people divided according to some arbitrary status. And when one of those groups has more wealth and power than the other, it becomes dangerous. Especially when we have world leaders behaving like playground bullies and using their language.
In today’s gospel we’re introduced to Nathanael. He’s from the city called Bethsaida on the shore of the sea of Galilee. But when Philip tells him that he’s found the Messiah, and that he comes from Nazareth, Nathanael is scornful. ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Nazareth is probably no further from Bethsaida than Wigan is from here.
If Almighty God is sending his Son on earth, you’d expect some clear signs. You’d expect to find him mixing with the great and the good; you’d look for him in a palace or an embassy, not amongst the peasants. The story of the Wise Men (that we heard last week) suggests that they went straight to the king’s palace because that’s where they expected to find God’s Anointed One. They were somewhat flummoxed when they had to redirect their steps to a much more humble home.
People who had never been challenged to think outside their own box, who just took for granted all the prejudices and fixed ideas of their society and upbringing, found it very hard to recognise the presence of God in this man Jesus Christ.
But one by one, when Jesus started his public ministry at the age of 30 or so, people listened. Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, all met Jesus and recognised someone with a new message, new teaching, who challenged their conventional comfort zone and made them realise he was sent from God.
The gospel – at least St John – suggests that their conversion was immediate. I’m not so sure that it was. I think it’s quite likely that they were very sceptical at first and only eventually recognised Jesus for who he was.
Certainly that is the way for Nathanael. He’s the prisoner of his upbringing and prejudices. But unbeknown to him, God has been working on him. Nathanael has been sitting under the fig tree and pondering its significance. The fig tree is a sign of God’s kingdom. Jesus says in Luke’s gospel: “See the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see it and know by your own selves that the summer is already near. Even so you also, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near.”
So when Jesus tells Nathanael, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’, it all comes together. He understands. And he responds to the call of God and recognises the Messiah.
If we keep plodding on with life as we understand it, if we are locked into our limited vision and narrow understanding of God’s truth, we’ll continue to write off anything and anybody strange or different. Our lives will be stunted. We might even find ourselves lashing out in fear and violence.
Our religion could even be a way of keeping us like this. We can use our faith and our culture as an excuse to look down on others; or as a defence against change; or a weapon against those we are afraid of.
But that is not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not the Gospel. The prophet Isaiah grasps what the Gospel is about, many centuries before the birth of Jesus:
‘See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants.
God is making all things new. Epiphany is the showing forth of that newness in the presence of Christ: the new thing that has come to pass in the birth of Christ, whom the old cultures and wisdom of the East, represented by the Wise Men, recognise and turn to. It’s the new thing that is symbolised in the miracle at Cana, when the old water is turned into the joy of the new wine. And it’s the new thing that was seen at our Lord’s baptism, when the voice from heaven was heard to proclaim, ‘this is my beloved Son.’
Our Christian life is a journey. A journey away from narrowness and self-centredness, and towards a wide-open vision of God’s world and God’s people.
Jesus is leading us on this pilgrimage to a new homeland, a new place in which all barriers of wealth and class and race and gender and sexuality have been overturned and the only thing that matters is to recognise God’s presence in our neighbour. Even if they are wools or plazzy scousers!