In my last year of primary school – in what is now called Grade Seven in South Africa – I was taught by an elderly man who had an incredible impact on my life. Mr. Reinecke was known by the students as a tough and strict teacher, and I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to be in his class. But after just a few weeks, when the new prefects were announced I got a big surprise. I had not been selected to be a prefect, but Mr. Reinecke began an ultimately successful campaign to get this decision reversed – for me and for one other of my peers. Even then as a twelve year old boy I remember feeling that this old man had seen something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself – and I grew to love him for it. That year ended up being the most successful of my entire school career and its effects on my identity and my view of myself was deep and profound. I still carry within me the positive effects of this one teacher’s influence.
I wish that everyone in the world could have an experience of being seen like this. Unfortunately, though, all too many go through life feeling invisible. The poor, the homeless, the refugee, the stigmatised AIDS sufferer all know what it feels like to be ignored, unseen and treated as nothing more than part of the landscape. Many disabled people know this feeling, too. I have a friend who was told to leave one church because her wheel chair was “in the way” and who, in another church, was put in a place where she was completely separate from everyone else and could not see or participate in any part of the worship service. It’s no wonder that the unseen people have, in the last year, stood up and made their presence felt around the world. From Wall Street to the Middle East, from Africa to Tibet, those who have been pushed aside, who have been ignored by the rich and powerful, have insisted that they be acknowledged, and that their voices be heard. And, once an unseen person has been truly seen, it’s a heady experience that can change lives and communities – and worlds.
It is this transforming experience of being seen that Nathaniel represents in this week’s Lectionary reading from John 1:43-51. Nathaniel, it seems, was pretty much an “everyman”. He lived in Cana, one of many fishing villages in the Bethsaida region that, it would appear, competed with one another. He was a Jew, but clearly lived in a family that had felt the influence of Hellenism – his brother was known by the Greek name Philip. He would have been familiar with the many Messiahs who had been executed by the Romans, and he had probably, like most of his people, learned to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. In his country at his time, you didn’t really want to be noticed by anyone in power because it would not usually be good news.
But, then his brother told him about a new teacher – one who, according to Philip, was everything Moses had predicted. A little of the inter-village rivalry appears as Nathaniel responds with the cynical remark about nothing good coming out of Nazareth, but Philip simply invites him to see for himself. But, when Nathaniel gets there, he discovers that he is not the one doing the seeing. Rather, perhaps for the first time in his life, he has an experience of being really, truly seen. Jesus welcomes him as a true Israelite, without guile (the Greek means “trickery” which is significant on the light of the reference to Jacob’s ladder which follows). When he asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus mentions seeing him under a fig tree. There is no clear indication whether Jesus means that he saw him in some miraculous way across an impossible distance, or whether he is simply referring to some previous moment when he had noticed Nathaniel in a way that gave him insight into his character. The idea of sitting under the fig tree also has significant symbolic meaning for the Israelites – it was an image of “shalom”, peace and well-being that would come when God’s Messiah brought God’s Reign into being (See Micah 4:3,4).
Nathaniel’s response seems excessive, even to Jesus. He is immediately convinced that Jesus is the Messiah (“Son of God” was a Messianic title) and offers his devotion. What the reason was for this sudden and complete change of heart cannot be identified with any certainty apart from this: Nathaniel knew that he had been seen – completely, honestly, truly and lovingly seen.
But, then Jesus responds, and his response now includes all of his disciples. Nathaniel may have been touched by being seen by Jesus, but they were all embarking on a journey in which they would see God manifest in Christ as they had never, in their wildest dreams, expected. To describe what they would be seeing, Jesus returns to the Jacob imagery – specifically the ladder which Jacob saw in a dream when he was running away from his angry twin Easu. Jacob (the trickster who became Israel, the father of Nathaniel’s people) as he lay under the stars with his head on a stone had dreamed of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. He had become convinced that God was in the place, and had created an altar and named it Bethel – the House of God. This place had become one of Israel’s most important centres of worship. Jesus now claims this image for himself – the disciples will see angels ascending and descending on Jesus, the Son of Man.
The title, Son of Man, is a prophetic one, used by Daniel to describe a divine being who is given authority over the nations (Daniel 7:13,14). The image of the angels is a poetic way for Jesus to say that he was now the “house of God” and that it was in him that God’s presence and glory would be recognised. John’s Gospel teases this out in all sorts of exciting ways. In the Prologue John says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us” (John 1:14). In John 2 when the religious leaders asked Jesus for a sign, he told them that if they destroyed “this temple” (which the Gospel identifies as Jesus’ body) he would raise it up again in three days. “It’s not just that you will be truly and lovingly seen,” says Jesus. “Now you will truly see! You will be known and you will know!” God’s presence and glory would no longer be hidden behind a veil, but would be visible, accessible through the incarnate Word.
It’s significant then, that Jesus’ first sign in John’s Gospel is performed in Cana – Nathaniel’s home town – and that John describes this experience as “the first time Jesus revealed his glory” (John 2:11 NLT). For Nathaniel – and for the other disciples – the message of this whole journey must have been growing clearer. Not only could they now rest in the knowledge that they were not invisible to God, that God was seeing and loving and honouring them, but they could also know that God’s presence and glory was everywhere – even in their own home town. They were learning to see God. They were learning to see their world as radiant with the glory of God, and they were learning to understand that, as they had been seen, they would be called to see others.
The gift of glory that God had placed within humanity was revealed in Christ. And now, because of Christ, we can learn to see God’s glory in all people – including ourselves. This is the seeing that our world longs for, that promises healing and reconciliation and justice. God sees us – really sees us. Now it’s up to us, up to whether will we choose to see one another as we have been seen. May God open our eyes that we may see God’s glory revealed even in those we consider – as Nathaniel did of Jesus from Nazareth – unlikely.