This may be one of the best call stories in the Gospels. In fact, I think I prefer it to Peter’s call and the miraculous catch of fish or Paul’s incident on the Damascus road. Why? I like this story because it is real, earthy, and tangible. John doesn’t need a miracle or the seemingly unexplainable to show Jesus’ appeal to those around him. In the second chapter of John’s gospel we see what we often miss in other call stories (Peter and Paul). The call comes from within everyday conversation, dialogue, and being human. One on one, Jesus encounters the people who are going to do the real work of sharing the gospel. He wants them to know who he is and he wants to know who they are. The interactions (such as the one involving Nathanael) we witness between Jesus and his disciples are not so much about conversion as they are about understanding the “why” of our decision to follow Jesus. This is why the last two or three verses of this week’s text are crucially important.
Jesus identifies Nathanael as, “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” He is able to spot the true nature of Nathanael’s character. From the very beginning, Jesus knows who Nathanael really is. Nathanael is more than a name, a brother, or a man sitting under a tree. Jesus sees past the external qualities which we use to define a person and encounters Nathanael the human being. This is the place, a location stripped away of all the emotional finery we pile on ourselves, where Jesus finds us. Jesus comes to us when we are at our most authentic selves; that’s the person Jesus wants to be his disciple. Some would label this “vulnerability”. However, as Jesus shows, that’s where we’re strongest. What we deem as vulnerable; Jesus calls real, authentic, and valuable. Coming face to face with Jesus like this is unsettling. We’re not used to people taking us as we are. Jesus wants you as you are, where you are, and with all the stuff you bring the table. That’s good news. Because the stuff you carry with you, as I’ve said before, he can use. Nathanael gets a glimpse of that revelation.
How do we know this? Look at verse 49, he sees immediately who Jesus is, “Rabbi, you are God’s son. You are the king of Israel.” That’s the right answer, isn’t it? He knows who Jesus is. Nathanael has hit all the boxes. He’s identified Jesus as Lord, Savior, and teacher. That’s all you have to do, right? Say the words and you’re done. Here’s where it gets interesting. Jesus puts to him another question.
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree,” Jesus asks. Let me re-translate: why do you believe what you believe? Jesus wants to know if Nathanael believes because of something he said, or Philip insinuated, or because something inside him is different. Is Nathanael just saying something, uttering words he doesn’t really mean, or has he come to believe in the new reality represented by Jesus? This is why this passage is both pertinent and fascinating. Jesus is asking us this same question. We are all Nathanael. Jesus is wants to know, “why do you believe in Him?” Why do you come to church? Why do we engage in these actions week after week? Is it because we’ve been tipped off by a family member? Do we come out of sheer habit? Are we fearful for our souls? Do we believe that our continued presence in this building and saying these words somehow guarantees us an afterlife? Or, do we actually believe what our presence says we believe; Jesus is God’s son. Do we take Jesus at face value and realize he is who is says he is?
In the midst of his prejudices and preconceived notions, Jesus asks Nathanael why he believes. That’s not a question we ask in churches. We ask, “Do you believe?” Why you believe is personal and comes awful close to what many people would call meddling in areas that are none of the preacher’s business. Yet, this is what Jesus is saying. Why, Nathanael, why Ocracoke, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Nathanael says the right words. It’s easy to say what we know people want to hear and go along. It is much harder to believe them and act upon them. It’s not enough to say something or even experience a miracle. Those are just the first steps in following Jesus. Our misconception is that saying you believe and having your miracle constitutes the entirety of one’s faith experience. Then we take that misunderstanding a step further by telling the world, “If you want to be like us just say you believe and be on the lookout for a miracle.” Then we say, “that’s it, that’s the sum total of Christianity.” Being a Christian comes down to nothing more than a mantra of wash, rinse, and repeat. We have stopped asking Jesus’ most important question. Why do you believe?
If you ask this question, it means you step out of the realm of only being able to use clichés and the spiritual warm fuzzy to talk about your faith. Suddenly what you say you believe confronts the reality you face each day. When that confrontation occurs, something has to give. Either we will make our beliefs conform to the world’s ideas or we will begin to see and everything through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.