The readings for today are rich, especially when we combine the Catholic and the Protestant liturgical calendars, giving us a total of sixteen verses from St. John. (Catholics will read John 1:35-42, while the RCL offers John 1:43-51.) In addition, there is also much packed into the various Old Testament and Epistle readings, but standing in the living stream of the Church catholic, we will focus our attention for the Sunday sermon on the Holy Gospel.
Before proceeding, however, allow me to offer a general homiletical directive that I, personally, have found quite helpful:
Say one thing.
Admittedly, any text from the Gospel has the potential to say any number of things. And this adaptability reveals the Gospels’ inner richness. It is our duty as pastors and priests and deacons, however, to say what Jesus has to say in a way that people today can hear him speaking. And, as you and I well know, most folks today can’t even spend the time to listen to an entire song on their iPod before skipping to the next track. If this is the case, then we need to be aware of the fact that preaching sermons that are too long, too abstract, or that say too many things will likely not speak to the post-moderns who fill our pews.
With that being said, let’s head to the text to find the one thing needful for our Sunday sermon.
Catholic priests and deacons, who will be preaching on John 1:35-42, have lots to consider. If I were standing in their pulpits, I would probably focus my attention on one of the following key points: John the Baptist was a self-effacing follower of Jesus (v. 36); following Jesus comes from hearing his call (v. 37); and the name reveals the personality of the one who bears it (v. 42).
First thing: the Baptist. His funny clothes and crazy diet were but a picture of his true ontological identity. Not only his job, but also his very existence, was one of pointing away from himself and toward the Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God!” says John. Behold that one!
But there is more. It’s as though the Baptist is crying out: Behold the new and greater Isaac! Behold the one who comes, answering the question of our first Isaac: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” This Lamb of God is he whom Isaac prefigured. This is our paschal Lamb. This is our burnt offering, skewered over the fires of hell. This is our victim, slain for us on the new and greater Moriah and re-presented in his sacrificial flesh on the altar of our churches – body, blood, soul, and divinity. And John’s job was to point folks to him. To do as the great work of Matthias Grünewald depicts him doing: pointing his finger away from himself and toward the Lamb of God.
And following in his footsteps, we, who stand on the far side of Calvary, are called to do the same: To behold the Lamb, to receive the Lamb, and then to witness to the Lamb by living a life of self-effacing service to him and his Church. This is not making mere moralizing of the text, but a recognition of the reality of the Eucharist in, with, and under us. When it enters into us, it makes us new men and women who are called to decrease so that the Christ in us, the Lamb of God, may increase.
Second thing: Following Jesus means responding to his aural call; it means allowing his viva vox to have its way with us. The great heresy, of course, is the heresy of a famous hamburger company: Have it your way! In the world, you can have it your way, but, frankly, your way really doesn’t work out that well. Yet, in the kingdom of God, your way must be traded for Christ’s way. And he tells you his way when he asks you to come along and follow him. With that in mind, the best response to such a call is to move your feet, not your mouth. When Jesus asks you to speak – and he does – you can speak. For now, the most faithful move is to put one foot in front of the other, and follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
Third thing: A name change. It’s not insignificant that Peter gets a new name with his call. He was called, of course, to be the Rock of the Church, either in his confession or in his person and office. He is prince among the Apostles and head of the apostolic college. (This is why, it would seem, that in all of the apostolic lists of the Gospels, he is inevitably listed first.) But there is more here. In the ancient world, a name bore tremendous significance, precisely because a name was thought to reveal the personality of the one behind it. And Peter’s name change is but a foretaste of the great name change we all receive when we are marked sacramentally with the divine Name of the Holy Trinity. In essence, that sacramental marking (think: sacramentum was the word used by the Roman Army to describe the oath marking a soldier as fit for service) does not only label us “Christian”, but it also reveals the personality of the three-in-one behind it. Moreover, it delivers the personality, and so the persons, of the Trinity. This is the heart of divine communication.
So it works like this: Someone points out the Lamb in a crowd. After all, his Incarnation presupposes that he lived and looked just like us. As a poet once quipped, Jesus didn’t hold his nose when he came to us. In fact, the famous hymn of our childhood, Away in a Manger, actually gets it wrong when it proclaims “no crying he makes.” He did cry. And he also laughed. And he prayed. And he loved his mommy and his step-daddy. And at the end of the day, someone needed to point him out to us because he looked so much like us. “Behold the Lamb of God!” the Baptist cries. And when he is exposed, then he moves into action. He intrudes and interrupts and calls and bids us to follow him. And when we do, when we commit ourselves to his sort of life, he offers to change us. How? By giving us a new name, a divine Name, the Name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – tattooed onto our foreheads in Holy Baptism and given us to eat and drink in the Sacrifice of the Mass, where our Isaac offers himself willingly for us again. (Even Luther thought the first Isaac to be old enough to die by choice and not by force, like much Jewish tradition about Isaac.) And our reception of this divine Name transforms us into living temples, tangible residences for God, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (Col 2:9).
As for Protestant preachers, I would encourage them to focus their attention on this single verse, in which Jesus says to Nathaniel: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (1:48).
While this may seem rather strange of Jesus, and while some pastors may be tempted to spend their time proclaiming an omniscient Christ, there is actually a more profound thing going on behind and within this text.
Jesus sees Nathaniel “under the fig tree.”
This imagery directs our eyes and ears back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. You remember the story. When they listened to the sermon of the fallen angel, Satan, the knot of their corruption was revealed when they acknowledged their naked shame.
But this is the key: They used fig leaves to cover their nakedness, which means, of course, that fig leaves were the covering for their sin and, by consequence, our sin too (Gen 3:7).
Now, back to the text for today.
It was under the leaves of the fig tree that Jesus saw Nathaniel. In other words, he saw him in his sin, and called him nonetheless.
But what does this mean? (That’s a good Protestant/Lutheran question.)
It is a remarkable rescue, really, that God loves us this much, that even in our sin he calls us to live lives that matter for him and his Church. And he demonstrates this reality in his interaction with Nathaniel. How do we know this?
Remember: Nathaniel’s alternate name was Bartholomew. And Bartholomew’s martyrdom came by way of being flayed alive (as Michelangelo depicted so memorably in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel). In short, he lost his skin, the very same skin that so shamed Adam and Eve in Eden after the fall!
So it works like this: Adam and Eve were most ashamed of their naked skin, which was a reflection of their corruption. Nathaniel/Bartholomew, who hid under the same fig branches once used to cover Adam and Eve, lost that skin as he gave himself for Christ and his Church.
And, yet, he gets his skin back! If you don’t believe me, just think about the sublime depiction by Michelangelo of this Apostle on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel, pulling up his flesh as he makes his way to paradise.
But this makes sense, of course. The Incarnation means that matter matters, especially our skin, precisely because God put on our “stuff” to save us. And throughout his ministry he called others from the shame of their sin – out from under our proverbial fig trees – to live a life of service to him. Why? So that someday, in the resurrection, we can get our bodies back too. And we can have Eden back as well. After all, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was so fond of saying, the way to paradise is not the way of return; it is the way restored. And Nathaniel’s fig tree experience shows us the truth of that reality all too clearly!
Rev. Joshua Genig is Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta, Georgia, and is finishing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.