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Worship Service Message

January 21, 2024
3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Come and See Your True Nature

1st Samuel 3:1-10 & John 1:43-51

Rev. Dr. Jaegil Lee

I thought if I had stayed with one congregation over 8 years, I would run out of my preaching topics and my missional partnership with them would become stale or even boring. 

But with you, that has not happened yet. Actually, I don’t think that will happen. Rather, you surprise me over and over again as a community and as individuals. I often feel I am just an associate pastor while your lay leader, her husband (I don’t want to mention his name to keep his anonymity :) ), and you as one community are the senior pastor.

You are just amazing human beings, again, individually and as a community. Speaking like a Korean, if there were previous lives, it seems that I have accumulated a lot of good karma which finally has allowed me to meet you in this lifetime. Speaking like a good pastor, it is absolutely pure grace of God that I was appointed to your church 8 and half years ago and am still allowed to be a missional partner with you. I just wanted to let you know that.

From my view, the Gospel of John is the most difficult gospel among the four gospels to understand. Today’s story is one of them that sounds like a Buddhist Koan. Koan is a spiritual riddle used in Zen Buddhism. A few examples of Koans are, “the sound of the one hand clapping,” “Enlightenment is ‘Drinking your tea!’,” “The dog has the Buddha nature. Bud at the same time the dog has no Buddha nature,” and so on. You cannot understand or decipher these spiritual riddles with your conceptual mind.

For me, today’s gospel lesson sounds more difficult to understand even than Buddhist Koans. If you understand the core spiritual logic of Koans, most of the Koans seem to make sense to you.

However, some stories and episodes in the Gospel of John tend to slip out of the grasp of our understanding even though we have decades of Christian life and basic historical knowledge of the Gospel of John.

Like any other Sundays, today I am going to share my personal reflection and understanding of today’s story based on my study, reasoning, and prayer, and faith experience. When I first read it early this week to prepare for today’s message, I was not sure what to say because honestly, I don’t think I understood today’s gospel scripture well. However, while studying and reflection on today’s scripture, I was surprised with its richness, filled with many possibilities for a good message. I had a new problem that there were too many ideas for today’s message. But that doesn’t mean today’s message will be excellent.

Anyway, let us dive into the story. Today’s scripture begins with verse 43, chapter 1. In the previous 42 verses, Jesus was in the wilderness. Interestingly no particular geographical place has been identified. Finally, verse 43 says, “Jesus decided to go to Galilee.” It is important to recognize this seemingly minor factor since the author of John indirectly says that Jesus stands with people in Galilee, not religious elites in Jerusalem. 

Galilee was a rural area and identified with the lower class of peasants while Jerusalem was where the Temple was and was the center of religious and political leaders. It is possible that the author of John was aware of Jesus’ birth story in Bethlehem, but he didn’t include it because he wanted Galilee to be the first place to be mentioned and associated with Jesus’ appearance in his gospel.

Concerning this, Nathaniel’s first reaction to Philip’s invitational statement about “Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth” is very interesting. Nathaniel said, “Out of Nazareth can anything good come to be?” Nazareth is a small village in Galilee. Nazareth was too small and insignificant to be mentioned in the Old Testament. So, Nathaniel’s response was reasonable and understandable—“Out of Nazareth can anything good come to be?”

Despite Nathaniel’s negative reaction, how did Philip respond to him? He simply said, “Come and see.” I will come back to it later. Even though Nathaniel was suspicious about the person, Jesus, whom Philip wanted him to meet, it seems that Nathaniel went with him.

Now we come to the most interesting part of the episode. The conversation between Nathaniel and Jesus sounds more confusing and enigmatic.

Jesus said to him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” I have looked up a few academic sources to find what Jesus possibly meant. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on interpreting this line and its meaning, and also I don’t like any of them.

What does Jesus mean by this? We don’t really know at this point. However, the following communication between the two seems to lead us to possible understandings.

We hear Nathaniel responding to Jesus with a strange question: “Where did you know me?” A more literal translation is “From where are you knowing me?” We usually ask, “How do you know me?”  “From where are you knowing me?” sounds awkward. By the way, the Greek word for “knowing” implies deep intimacy and interior knowledge, not informational or conceptual knowledge.

In response to Nathaniel, Jesus’ answer also sounds like a riddle: “I saw you under the fig tree.”  What does that mean? Nathaniel asked, “From where are you knowing me?,” which is already strange. And then Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree!” Everything sounds nonsense.

Here the “fig tree” seems to be the main clue to me. Of course, not everyone agrees on the meaning of the fig tree. From my perspective, the fig tree reminds the readers of the creation story in Genesis. Last week, I pointed out that the beginning of the Gospel of John and Mark resembles that of Genesis. In the creation story, only one tree’s name is mentioned, that is the fig tree. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, their eyes were opened and they wove fig leaves to “make something to cover themselves” (Gen. 3:7). From this information, an anonymous person on progressiveinvolvement.come translates or interprets the current line: “Before Philip called you, I saw your true nature under the fig tree.” I totally agree on this translation.

“Before Philp called you, I saw your true nature under the fig tree” seems to make everything make sense. Because of this, Nathaniel’s question, “From where are you knowing me?” makes more sense. Also, Jesus’ first words to him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” seems to make more sense as well. 

What I mean by this is unlike Nathaniel who judged Jesus based on his geographical birthplace (Nazareth), Jesus recognizes him from the light of creation. Jesus was able to say to Nathaniel, “Here is truly an Israelite without deceit!” because Jesus does not judge him based on external conditions, but saw through his true nature, the true nature created by the creator of the Universe.

Dear St. Paul’s family, don’t you think that we gather together to see each other’s true nature created by our loving creator? Dear my siblings in Christ, isn’t it true that as followers of Christ we are meant to help each other realize our true nature given to us by God of all? Dear disciples of Christ, haven’t you found and experienced who you truly are through your beloved faith community? My answers are all “Yes” to these questions. 

People in our community desire to realize and experience their true nature, their soul, preciously created by God. People are lost and hurt because they have been judged by others and even by themselves based on their external conditions and labels. People are looking for somebody or some community that can guide them to find their forgotten true nature that cannot be ever lost or destroyed. 

Because we know that and because we were like them, we must become more like Philip who boldly and enthusiastically said to Nathaniel, “Come and See.” It is also obvious that we have a growing desire to say to our family members, friends, and neighbors, “Come and See” your true divine nature. Dear my beloved siblings in Christ, let us continue to invite those who are explicitly or implicitly seeking their true nature in God. 

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