Chances are really good that someone you know is a skeptic when it comes to Jesus. Chances are really good that someone you know well is a cynic when it comes to Jesus’ Church. It’s even possible that that skeptic or that cynic is you.
So think about the skeptics and the cynics you know as we turn to today’s Gospel Reading. Nathanael’s name means “gift of God,” but St. John doesn’t portray Nathanael as a likely candidate for disciple-hood. Unlike Andrew or Peter or Philip, Nathanael does not seem like someone who was just been waiting around to get onboard the Jesus train. When Philip tells him that they have found the One for whom the Jews had been waiting for centuries, Nathanael’s response is: “Meh…He’s from Nazareth! Nothing worth anything ever comes from Nazareth!”
Philip’s response to Nathanael is the best answer a person can give to a skeptic or a cynic: “Come and see!” Philip doesn’t try to build a sophisticated intellectual argument. He doesn’t call Nathanael names, “you close-minded, anti-religious bigot.” He doesn’t even try to guilt him, “Oh you really ought to give Jesus a chance. We did.” No, having said ‘we found the One we’ve been waiting for,’ Philip responds to Nathanael’s cynical skepticism with a simple, “Come and see.” Meet Jesus; decide for yourself.
With St. John’s delight for drawing connections from the Old Testament, Jesus is comparing Nathanael, “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” to Jacob, whom God named Israel; the cheater, the swindler, the man in whom there was so very much deceit.
In Genesis, the sibling rivalry between Jacob and his brother Esau was not as bad as that of Cain and Abel, but only because, once Jacob had cheated his brother out of both his inheritance and his father’s blessing, Jacob ran away before Esau could kill him.
But as that narrative continues we discover that God, lo and behold, has a thing for scoundrels, and He’s decided that Jacob will be the next bearer of the Promise to Abraham. Through Jacob and his descendents, not Esau, God will bring the blessing, will bring Him by whom all the nations of earth will be blessed.
But before all of that, Jacob has to “come and see.” It begins in a hard place. Sleeping on a rock for a pillow, Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven. Waking up he declares, “This is Bethel, the house of God, the gate of heaven.”
Well, back to Nathanael. When this skeptic comes and sees Jesus for himself, all the Lord has to do is tell Nathanael that He saw him under a fig tree, and Nathanael blurts out, “Jesus, You are the Messiah! You are the Son of God, the King of Israel.”
Jesus replies, “Oh, Nathanael…it’s gonna get a lot better than that. You are going to see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Like Jacob’s Bethel, Jesus is the ladder between heaven and earth. And at His resurrection, the angels will ascend and descend at the rock of His tomb, announcing that Jesus is no longer there…because He is the Resurrection and the Life.
So Nathanael the skeptic becomes Nathanael the disciple. He came to Jesus and saw for himself that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel.
So what should we expect and how should we act toward the skeptics and the cynics who inhabit our lives? They didn’t get that way overnight. Oh yes, God can do amazing things, but God will be God. And He has a lot more experience being God than we do. A skeptic will become a believer in God’s good time. Our job is one of hope. Our job is to pray for that skeptic, for that cynic, and to follow Philip’s lead, “Come and see!”
After all, a person’s family of origin has a huge impact on a person’s life. If people have come from a family where there was a lot of God talk but not much godly action with that talk, well, more God talk isn’t going to get much traction with them. It will sound more like some sort of Ole and Lena story.
Ya, dere vas dat time, ya know, vhen Ole vas really sick. He had been slipping in and out of a coma for several veeks. Yet Lena had stayed by his bedside every single day. One day, vhen Ole came to, he motioned for Lena to come near. As she sat down by him, he vhispered vith eyes full of tears, “You know vat, Lena? You have been vith me all tru da bad times. Ven I got fired from my yob, you vere dare to support me. Ven da business I started failed, you vere dare. Ven we lost da house, you stayed right vith me. Ven I got so sick, you vere still by my side. You know vhat, Lena?” Lena leaned in close. “Vhat is it, Ole?” she asked, as her heart began to fill vith dat varm feeling. Ole looked deep into her eyes and said, “Lena…I’m beginning to tink you’re bad luck!”
Ya, vhat Ole & Lena need, what Nathanael needed, what the skeptic and the cynic still need today is integrity—a clear, tangible connection between words of faith and the actions that spring from faith…which skeptics, cynics can come and see for themselves.
If a skeptic can come and see people who pray because they believe Someone is actually listening; if a cynic can come and see people who gather together in worship each week because it is the house of God, the gate of heaven, the place where Christ bestows His gifts; come and see people who generously serve at church and out in the communities because love compels them, come and see people who are as quick to forgive as they are to repent…well, among such people the skeptic and the cynic have a tangible sign that at least here Jesus is alive and real in the lives of some people. No, that doesn’t guarantee anyone’s conversion, but it does allow those skeptics, those cynics something to “come and see.”
I was in high school at the end of the 1960s, an era that exploded with skepticism about so many long-held certainties. I remember how some of my classmates just checked out of church and never came back. Yes, like many a college student, I too had my time of skepticism and indifference. But as I think about it now, some of my classmates who left the church never really saw a genuine faith at work, in their own home, in the lives of church members, or in anyone else…so it was easy for them to abandon what they had never really seen firsthand.
I remember some kids who had church shoved down their throat so hard that they’re still choking, locked into a kind of temper tantrum with God, as if…as if God were to blame for their parents’ or their pastors’ well-meaning but…not exactly helpful…strong-armed approach to instilling the faith.
But for all the Nathanaels of this world, then and now, regardless of the cause for their cynicism, regardless of how long they have lived with their skepticism, for all the Nathanaels the turning point comes when someone says to them, “Come and see.”
And if they do come and see, because they may not…but if they do come and see, is that church into which they walk a place where Jesus is so real to the people there that He would become real for the skeptic too? Would a cynic feel that way here at St. Peter’s? I like to think so. Because today the real Jesus is most certainly here, in the hearing of His Word and in the taking of His Supper.
When St. John writes that Jesus saw Nathanael “under the fig tree,” it’s John’s way of casting this whole scene into that Old Testament image of the messianic kingdom where each person will sit under his own fig tree and no one can make them afraid anymore. That’s how Jesus looks upon the Nathanaels, how He envisions the cynic and the skeptic, as though they are there in the prosperous ease of His kingdom, in the shade of God’s grace. Ultimately that fig tree is Jesus’ cross by which the kingdom comes; the tree with its fruit of forgiveness, life and salvation; fruit so very real that it does shape the lives of those who follow Jesus. Come and see.
Yes, Jesus does have a heart, as they say, a heart for skeptics and cynics, for those who have messed up, those who have run away, those who have been beaten over by religion, who are bleeding and distrustful and hardened. Come and see. He is neither dead nor turned to dust. He is very much alive, and He is here. And He calls, “Come and see!”