Preached Online at All Saints King
City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 27 January, 2021.
Readings for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139:1-5,12-17; 1
Corinthians6.12-20; John 1.43-51
Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I
saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (Jn 1:48)
Today I want to speak about visibility, about what
it means to be seen and known by God, and about how, if we choose, we can start
to see the world and one another through God’s eyes.
A woman I knew once told me that the hardest part
of getting older was the feeling that she was invisible in public. I was attractive in my youth, she said, but
as I got into my sixties I felt that people no longer saw me. Or if they did, in shops, they would
call me “dear” or “dearie” and that infuriated me, because I was just another
little old lady to them. I am sure that
men often feel the same way. Old age can
erase people from the public view.
Poverty and homelessness can have the same effect of rendering people invisible
because others stop seeing them.
Someone has said that the most valuable gift we can
give is attention. We all want to be
seen and recognized as human beings, because that’s where our dignity is
confirmed, in the eyes of others. In
our society, the word dignity is often used today in our language around human
rights, although this sort of talk can be very abstract and is usually used by
lawyers and politicians. As the English
author Tom Holland has noted, our secular codes of human rights have their
roots in Christianity, with its insistence that all people are created and loved
by God. Our faith makes dignity real because
Jesus wants us all to be visible, and we really see others, we can start to see
them as God sees them.
Last Sunday I preached on the baptism of Jesus and how
it opens the door for us to become children of God. For our status as children to be meaningful,
we have to be seen and known. A parent
who doesn’t recognize a child when he or she sees them isn’t a very good
parent. Did you ever have one of those
panicked moments as a parent when you lost sight of your child in a crowd? I well recall one time when my daughter was a
toddler, in a busy wading pool in a park.
From fifty yards away I caught sight of her in a mass of children – she had
fallen in the water and was panicking, unnoticed by others. I don’t know how I covered the distance in
seconds, vaulting over other children, but I did and snatched her out of the
water, and yet I was haunted afterwards by a sense of luck. What if I hadn’t noticed my daughter nearly
If a loving
parent can be vigilant sometimes, then how much more does God the Father see? As
Jesus tells his disciples, not one small bird falls to earth without God
knowing (Mt. 10.29). I think the most
interesting part of today’s gospel, is how sees the people around him.. In
these brief accounts, there is something remarkable about how Jesus finds these
strangers, as if he has known them all their lives and just been waiting for
this moment to call them disciples and friends.
Just before the start of today’s gospel reading, one
of the first disciples, Andrew, introduces his brother Simon to Jesus. Jesus looks at him, and
then immediately gives this stranger another name. “You are Simon, son of John You are to be called Cephas” (which is
translated Peter).” (Jn 1.42). Now, it’s
odd to rename someone when you first meet them – “Hey Bill, nice to meet you, I
shall call you Scooter from now on” –so why do this, unless, Jesus knew Simon thoroughly
and saw a destiny that Simon wasn’t aware of (“Mt 16.18, “you are Peter, and on
this rock I shall build my church”).
Then, Jesus goes to Galilee, a region, what we would
call today northern Israel, so not a small place, and John simply tells us that
Jesus “found Philip” (Jn 1.43). How
did Jesus find him? Where? Why Philip?
How did Jesus choose him? John
doesn’t tell us because it doesn’t seem important to him. Jesus just says “follow me” and Philip
follows. Again, there’s a sense of
destiny being fulfilled here.
Finally, there is Nathanael, Philip’s brother, who
is sceptical and sarcastic when he hears that he has to come and meet the
Messiah, the saviour of Israel: “A saviour from a hick town? Give me a break” (Jn 1.46). When Jesus meets him, he immediately compliments
him on his honesty, which, again, is an odd thing to say to someone you’ve just
met, as Nathanael notes: “How can you
say that? You’ve never met me!” (Jn
that he saw Nathanael “under the fig tree” before Philip went and fetched him,
is one of those moments in John’s gospel when we realize that Jesus sees through
God’s eyes, with a clarity and a range that we could not match. Nathanael here reminds me of the Samaritan
woman at the well in John 4, who tells her friends that Jesus “told me everything
that I have ever done” (Jn 4.39). Jesus’
foresight shocks her and shocks Nathanael, but we perhaps should not be
surprised that the God who sees the sparrow can find and choose his disciples.
Would you be surprised that Jesus sees you just as
clearly, knows you just as well, and has a purpose and a destiny for you? If Jesus could see Nathanael under the fig
tree, can he not see you at your workplace, in your car, or in the quiet of
your house? If Jesus knew these men before
he had ever met them, does he not also know us, whose hearts are open, whose
desires are known, and who have no secrets to hide?
If Jesus called these men to follow him, does he
not also call us also to go with him, to befriend him, and learn from him? If
Jesus had new names and new destinies for these men, does he not also call us
into new identities as disciples, as friends, and as children of God? In
his long goodbye to his disciples, Jesus says “I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my
father. You did not choose me, but I
chose you” (Jn 15.15-16). One of our
culture’s greatest myths is that we choose our fate, that we can be anything we
want to be. Our faith begs to differ.
One of Christianity’s greatest gifts is that we are seen, chosen, and called by
Jesus to be God’s friends and adopted children.
“My sheep hear my voice”, Jesus
says elsewhere in John’s gospel; “I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10.27).
The Christian life doesn’t begin when we are seen. Jesus sees all of us. The Christian life doesn’t even begin when
we are chosen, because I believe that Jesus would like to choose everyone – the
good news is for all people. The Christian
life begins when some who are seen and chosen actually decide to follow.
I said last week that to be baptized by John, to
save us, Jesus had to walk down the muddy bank of the Jordan in the footsteps
of every sinful person who had gone before him.
Now, on the other side of baptism, calling his disciples, we who choose
to follow now follow in his footsteps.
We go where Jesus goes, to those who need God, and we see with Jesus’
eyes, seeing those who the world no longer sees, respecting those who are no
longer granted dignity or worth.
Let me finish with an example of what seeing with
Jesus’ eyes looks like. A Canadian sculptor,
Timothy Schmalz, has been making bronze statues of a man huddled in a blanket,
sleeping on a public bench. The feet
protruding from the blanket have been pierced.
These “homeless Jesus” statues have been placed in front of churches
across North America, and wherever they appear, they often provoke calls to 911
from passers-by who don’t realize that it’s a statue and who are concerned for
the man’s welfare. These statues give churches new ways to make homeless
and poverty visible to the communities around them.
Jesus gifts his followers the gift of the
visibility, but that gift comes with a responsibility. We who are truly seen, known, and loved by
God are given the privilege of seeing the world through God’s eyes. We see those who would otherwise be invisible,
and forgotten. We at All Saints try to
exercise this gift in our ministry to the residents of Crosslinks, truly seeing
the residents there as fellow children of God, equally beloved. Who else can we see through God’s eyes? Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard discussions about how housing, climate
change, and reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters should be
priorities for All Saints. We may not
be able to address all these issues equally, but the fact that we see them is
because of this gift of visibility, this gift of seeing through God’s eyes, that
Jesus has given us.