Today’s Gospel reading, John 1:43-51, follows the Epiphany theme of ‘seeing’, ‘finding’ and ‘perceiving’. All these words can have quite mundane meanings: ‘I saw Fred on the bus today’: I found a pound coin on the pavement’: ‘I couldn’t quite perceive who it was because it was foggy.’ But all these words can have heightened meanings ‘Aha! I see!’: ‘Yes! I’ve found it!’: ‘I suddenly perceived that this was something really awesome!’.
I think, in today’s Gospel reading we can see a fair number of the latter. Jesus ‘found’ Philip – you can imagine Jesus looking for the right person, and suddenly, there he was. You can imagine Philips rushing around until he found Nathaniel – purposefully looking for him, and then ‘Ah, there he is’. And certainly Philip’s words ‘We’ve found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote’ is an account of finding something of great excitement’. We use the expression ‘a eureka moment’ – this is a mispronunciation of the Greek word ‘heurisko’ which is the very same word used in our reading today. So Archimedes didn’t say ‘eureka!, he said ‘heurisko’ – ‘I’ve got it! I understand!’
Similar meanings are conveyed by the word ‘see’. ‘Come and see’ is Philip’s demand to Nathaniel. He’s conveying something really exciting and important. It reminds me of Mary Magdalene’s words on the first Easter morning: ‘I’ve seen the Lord!’ Then Jesus saw Nathaniel coming towards him as he had seen him earlier under the fig tree. This is more than Jesus noticing that there was a guy with a red robe and a spectacular beard, for instance. This is really a deep understanding of who this man really was. Indeed these verses don’t make sense if the ‘seeing’ was more mundane – read them again and have a look! When Jesus saw Nathaniel, he saw him fully, understood who he was – a revelation! And of course, the reading ends with the verse about ‘seeing angels’ – not really an experience like seeing Fred on the bus!
The important thing about all this is that truly seeing, truly noticing, truly perceiving demands a kind of openness or concentration or focus. How often we go round with our eyes and minds closed. I think children are often more perceptive of wonder than adults are because their minds are more open – they are still discovering the world. So, a child can be deeply fascinated by a worm – not something most of us go into raptures about! Somehow, most adults allow the world to go past them in a blur, without noticing. And when we do notice things, it’s usually things we don’t like: we seem more likely to notice someone who pushes in front of us in a queue, than we are someone who gives way to us or smiles. For me, an important part of my life as a Christian is to pay attention to the people I meet, the places I travel through – to be open to wonder, including the wonder of people, the wonder of God’s world, and even (although this is always a struggle, the wonder of myself – for I, too, am a child of God. So are you!
Our beliefs and values play a part too: we’re more likely to smile at someone famous or important than we are at someone we don’t ascribe much value to. So, in the news this week, I read about nurses and doctors being trolled on Twitter by people who believe the pandemic doesn’t exist: ‘just get on with your job and stop moaning – it’s what you’re paid to do’! We have to watch out that our beliefs don’t make us dismissive. Christians are notoriously dismissive of people we consider immoral, or morally deficient and it’s easy for members of most religions to belittle members of others.
The key to all this is that God ‘sees’ us and ‘finds’ us. We know this because that’s’ what Jesus did, both in his life and in his incarnation – he came to be with us – he sought us out. Jesus’ way of seeing is with compassion and love. He noticed people’s pain and desperation and he healed and comforted. He also saw people who were dismissive of others – and he gave them a hard time about it.
God sees us – sees and knows us completely, our faults and strengths, our joys and sorrows. And God sees all this with love. God is able to see our faults without dismissing us as lost causes, but rather God loves us both despite who we are and because of who we are. Maybe you could spend some time today thinking about what it’s like to be completely known and completely loved.
What God certainly doesn’t do is what Nathaniel did in today’s Gospel reading: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ – a way of dismissing a whole town full of people by simple prejudice. Where I grew up, there was a saying, ‘there’s good, there’s bad, and then there’s Hutton Roof’ – not quite sure where that came from as the hamlet of Hutton Roof is actually a really nice place. The biblical scholars think ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth’ may be a similar local expression. It reminds me of the Oswaldtwistle thing about Gobbiners and Gobbinland. Or do you remember ‘If you can,do: if you can’t, teach:and if you can’t teach, become an Ofsted Officer’. These are, perhaps, humorous examples, but we all know what really happens when whole groups of people are dismissed and ridiculed. On such prejudice as this, the holocaust was carried out, slavery happened, apartheid was built, and bullying, racism, sexism and homophobia still persist. As I’ve said before, there is a human tendency to feel better about ourselves by denigrating others.
Today’s gospel requires us to see others as we are seen by God, to love as we are loved. An impossible job, but one to which we are called. It also asks us to notice, to see, to pay attention. After all, it’s a beautiful world we’ve been put in – let’s open our eyes to its wonders, and let’s pay attention to it’s slow destruction. Let’s truly see, truly find, truly perceive.
Rev’d Dr. Anne Morris
Vicar St. Oswald’s, Knuzden, Blackburn