Second Sunday of Epiphany (18.1.2015)
Readings: 1 Sam.3:1-10; 1 Cor.6:12-20; John 1:43-51.
It can be a very risky thing to tell a joke. So much depends upon who your audience is; much may also depend upon the context, their knowledge of you, what things you hold in common – and then, of course, the subject of the joke and the manner of its telling. Humour has at its heart a kind of intimacy, a bond, a shared knowledge; or, if you like – a common cultural space.
The killings in France, the row over the Charlie Hebdo posters, are a terrible way of illustrating this point. French humour and culture have a space and a tradition for the kind of satire Charlie Hebdo created in its cartoons. One probably has to be well attuned to French culture to manage some of the humour – the use of racial caricatures, the apparent insensitivity to religious beliefs – and if, for instance, I find some of the satire gross, how might someone from a totally different culture be expected to manage? For humour to work, somehow a common cultural space has to be found – otherwise watch out for trouble! The TV news images I saw of university students throwing stones and protesting outside the French Embassy in Pakistan was a terrible reminder of a mutual cultural incomprehension. That is an example of a situation in which both parties simply – and quite clearly – have to admit that they don’t know each other!
All of this is relevant to our gospel this morning which demonstrates how, in the right cultural context, humour can create a bond, make a connection … when there is what I have described as a shared cultural space. Concealed in the gospel this morning, in the encounter of Jesus with Nathanael is a touch of humour, an engaging pun. The name Jacob, the great ancestor of Israel, was attributed to mean (among other things) one who is cunning or guileful – and yet, at a critical moment in the Jacob story, Jacob was also renamed ‘Israel’. So, knowing and remembering all that, when Jesus greets Nathanael there is a little verbal joke running under the text, he is in effect saying ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob’. It’s enough to make a connection. He’s saying, with a smile, here’s an honest man (but much more as well)! Nathanael is taken off his guard and, by this wry jest, drawn into this quirky but endearing encounter with Jesus. To find someone who, against the odds and all expectations, really knows you is hard to turn away from – Nathanael is hooked!
When I reflect on this section of John’s gospel, especially the passage we are reading, I am moved and encouraged to see in this encounter what it means when God takes on our humanity and greets us through the incarnate Son. We are met in our humanity, not as mere incidental persons but as individuals who are known through and through – and lovingly embraced. Nathanael discovers that he is truly known – understood in all his being, the good and the bad. If I were Nathanael – I wonder what I would say to this Jesus? I think I might say something like ‘Where have you been all my life?’
Ah, the sheer relief at being ‘found’! This morning we are all Nathanaels. We are so made that we all have in our humanity, our spiritual DNA, the need to be known through and through and held and loved in that knowing. St Augustine knew it. Remember his prayer in the Confessions, where he prays “O God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” When you get home also look up Psalm 139 which is all about being known (and found) by God.
In this first Chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus is collecting followers – and there is something slightly comic in the response of those who are found by him. Philip is one of several who say to others ‘We have found him’ (the Messiah etc). But when you think about it that is not at all true; they are all speaking very loosely; in fact in every instance it is Jesus who has found them and invited them to follow. Their exuberance, their excited claims about finding Jesus is really their inner transformation and joy at having been found. When we come to the Eucharist this morning, as always in our sharing of bread and cup is the mystery that here, in this sharing, we are most deeply found and known.
In a complicated and troubled world, our gospel reminds us that God finds us and calls us through circumstances as diverse and as varied as our natures and our world. God finds us beyond cultural boundaries and within other faiths – as anyone who has shared in an inter-faith dialogue soon comes to understand. Here, this morning, in this Cathedral we encounter the Jesus who called his disciples and who surprised and teased Nathanael: he found them and by his finding they found themselves. We are all Nathanaels.