This past week I walked by a car with a personalized license plate – one of those that takes awhile to work out – like a brainteaser. It was NOK9MA. OK, Number 9, Massachusetts? No. MA – is that mother? I finally worked out that K9 meant dog. A mother with 9 dogs? But, then it was clear – the license plate said, “N0- K9-MA” – “NO DOGMA”. Ah. There is somebody who has been hurt by the church early on.
Who can blame the bearer of the license plate? Nobody wants dogma. I think that is the appeal of the Pope Francis – people see his love and compassion, rather than a representative of institutional teaching. At our core, we long for relationship rather than religion. In Pope Francis, many people who have been hurt by the church feel they have found something or someone to believe in.
The desire for relationship clearly motivates people to come to church. There are other benefits too. A few weeks ago I met with a family new to Christ Church. The mom told me that one Sunday after coming back to the pew after receiving the wine and wafer at communion, her 4 -year old son said to her, “Mom, I really like this church. It’s friendly…. and they give you a snack!”
The desire for relationship rather than religion is what motivates the soon to be disciples in this morning’s gospel reading from John. Philip and Andrew are looking for a specific person, a person whom their religion has foretold. They are so excited about their discovery that they find their friend Nathaniel and exclaim, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. They have found someone to believe in.
Here’s where the exchange gets a little snide and snarky. To his friends’ obvious enthusiasm about having found the Messiah, Nathaniel, in his wry, hipster, ironic way, responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Granted, it was a kind of maxim of the day, given that Nazareth had a reputation for being backwater and unpleasant. Maybe a little bit like the old Saturday Night Live skit with Joe Piscopo lambasting New Jersey. “You from Joisey? I’m from Joisey! What exit?”
That may have been the common response to Nazareth, but do you know that feeling of saying something ugly about someone, only to realize that they have just come in the room and are standing behind you listening? (A little bit like the people from New Jersey who have just left the building.) Or the dreaded moment when you hit the “reply all” button by mistake, rather than just the “reply?”
Well, it turns out that Jesus was listening in. Jesus was spying on Nathaniel when he wisecracked about the people that come from Jesus’ hometown. Oopie! When Nathaniel approaches Jesus, Jesus makes an ironic comment himself, calling Nathaniel an Israelite in whom there is no guile. No one is exactly sure what Jesus means here.
What He doesn’t mean is that Nathaniel is clean as a whistle inside – his caustic comment is enough to prove that, even if we didn’t have all the other corroborating evidence about the unfortunate state of every human heart. As St. Paul says, “No one is righteous, not even one.” Some commentators think Jesus is making a play on words about Jacob, the deceitful one who tricked his brother out of his birthright, and later was renamed “Israel.”
Whatever the case, Jesus’ greeting alarms Nathaniel – “How do you know me?” Jesus confesses his espionage – “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Not only had Jesus seen Nathaniel from a long way off, he has also seen straight down into Nathaniel’s heart. Or as we say in our communion liturgy, He is the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”
This is a most frightening prospect, is it not? Sometimes I wonder why everyone doesn’t run screaming out of church after the Officiant says those words. To have all your desires known, and all your secrets revealed? Only those in deepest denial about the true nature of their hearts will not shudder at the thought.
Historically, churches that major on dogmatic religion rather than relationship make people feel they need to hide in church. In her biography of her father, John Cheever, Mary Cheever writes about their respectable ancestor Ezekiel Cheever.
But she says, “Even old Ezekiel got into some trouble in New Haven for “uncomely gestures and carriage” in church. (His offense?) He smiled during the sermon. Then, to hide his amusement, he lowered his head and stuffed his handkerchief into his mouth. The tribunal that was called to investigate this egregious behavior chose to believe Ezekiel when he said that a dreadful toothache had caused his grimace, his bowed head, and the application of his handkerchief, but soon after that he moved north to Ipswich.”
Of course, a look straight down into our hearts will reveal actual egregious behavior, and if not behavior, at least intent. The Neverending Story, by German fantasy author Michael Ende, has a brilliant scene to illustrate the fear of being fully seen for who we actually are. The hero named Atreyu is assisted by a wise old gnome named Engywook. On a quest, Atreyu must go through the Magic Mirror Gate.
Engywook says, “When you stand before it, you see yourself. But not as you would in an ordinary mirror. You don’t see your outward appearance; what you see is your real innermost nature. If you want to go through, you have to—in a manner of speaking—go into yourself.”
Atreyu responds, “Well, it seems to me that this Magic Mirror Gate is easier to get through than the first.” But the wise Engywook cries out, “Wrong! Dead wrong, my friend! I’ve known travelers who considered themselves absolutely blameless to yelp with horror and run away at the sight of the monster grinning out of the mirror at them. We had to care for some of them for weeks before they were even able to start home.”
Although Jesus spies straight into Nathaniel’s heart, Nathaniel does not need to worry. Nor do we. And here is the gospel. Although Jesus spies into the secrets of our hearts, we don’t need to run away. This is because, in the words of Carly Simon, Jesus is the “Spy who loved me.” Even if we do try to run and hide, He will come after us.
You remember the song – Nobody Does It Better – which is oddly appropriate for this gospel interchange between Jesus and Nathaniel. “I wasn’t looking but somehow you found me. I tried to hide from your love light. Like heaven above me, the Spy who loved me, is keeping all my secrets safe tonight.” So, in fact, something good has come out of Nazareth. Someone good has come out of Nazareth – Jesus, the Spy Who Loves Me.
After having been seen for who he is, and nevertheless accepted, Nathaniel changes his tune. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” In other words, nobody does it better! We have found someone to believe in!”
Nathaniel points to the reason that Christianity will never fade away, why it will it’s enduring power will last from generation to generation to generation. This is because at its core is not dogma, but a Person. At its center is not religion but relationship with the Spy Who Loved Me, “who loved me and gave Himself for me, an offering and sacrifice to God.” Because of the cross, God looks into your heart and sees not a monster, but a new creation in Christ. He looks at you and says, “Here is one in whom there is no guile.”
And for anyone interested in meeting such a Person, a Person who will look at the very worst of you and will still love and delight in you, then Philip’s words to skeptical Nathanial still ring true – “Come, and see.” And you’ll even get a snack.
- John 1:43 - 51