Come and See
sermon on John 1:43-51; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 1 Samuel 3:2-10 &
Psalm 139 by Nathan Nettleton, 15 January 2006
In the encounter with Jesus, our self-delusion and our scapegoating are painfully exposed, but with the possibility of forgiveness and freedom.
A few months ago, I stayed for a few days with a pastor in a small town in the mid west of the USA. During dinner one night, the topic of terrorism came up, and he made mention of the "Iraqi terrorists" who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre. I was a bit shocked, but I looked him in the eye and said, "I know you actually know this, but they weren't Iraqis." It was his turn to be shocked. He did know it, and his shock was at the extent to which he had fallen victim to the propaganda machine that just kept linking the words "Iraqi", "terrorists", and "9/11"until somehow the link seemed natural to our ears. He knew that the Iraqi people had been scapegoated in the propaganda war, but it was a shock to discover the way his own thought-lines had become complicit in that scapegoating.
Have you ever had one of those moments? One of those moments when a word or a look from someone made you suddenly aware of something embarrassing about yourself? You feel exposed; like you've been stripped bare; like some ugly dark side of yourself has just had the light shone on it and everyone around you has seen that side of you for what it really is. "You search me, Lord, and know me. You read my inmost thoughts. You know where I have been. Before a words slips from my tongue, you know what I will say. All this overwhelms me!"
Nathaniel had something like this experience in our gospel reading tonight. Nathaniel was very much a straight down the line sort of bloke. A man of integrity. Called a spade a spade. So much so that he is the bloke from whom we get the saying "one in whom there is no guile." But Nathaniel thought he knew the lay of the land, and nothing but trouble could come from Nazareth. Nazareth had become linked with all things low and contemptible in his mind. The propaganda machine had done a job on Nazareth, and Nathaniel had unknowingly bought it. But then he met Jesus, and the light shone in on his prejudices and complicity in the scapegoating of Nazareth. Suddenly he felt naked. "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus has looked him in the eye and seen right through him. "You search me, Lord, and know me. You read my inmost thoughts. It overwhelms me!" He has seen his own darkness through the eyes of the victim of it, but he has seen mercy there too. Life-changing mercy. He has seen the victim offering generous forgiveness. And before he knows it he’s on his knees acknowledging that this one from Nazareth is the Son of God.
In our first reading, old Eli was basically a good man, but he was a weak man. He treated young Samuel well, and he went about his priestly duties faithfully enough, but he had never had the courage to stand up against the corruption that had infested the Temple system, corruption that had come in at the hands of his own sons. He had consoled himself with his own simple righteousness, but failed as the leader, and as a father. By turning a blind eye to keep the peace he had become complicit in the corruption. And then there was the moment we heard about, the moment when his failure was exposed. God speaks through the young boy, Samuel, and lays bare Eli's cowardice and complicity. For Eli this is the moment of decision. In the sudden shining light of clarity there is the opportunity of grace. Eli responds with humility and acknowledgement of God, but we don’t really know anything more of his response, because the longer range of the story is more concerned with young Samuel as he grows into one of the great prophets of God. Eli disappears from view and we can only hope that he embraced the mercy which we are told his sons would never taste. "You search me, Lord, and know me. You read my inmost thoughts. You know where I have been. All this overwhelms me!"
We heard from the Apostle Paul as he tackled the Christians in Corinth, and he could have been speaking to the church nearly any where in the world today. He is tackling their thinking and practice on sexual ethics, and if there is one issue that seems to be tearing our churches apart today it is sexual ethics. It sounds as though Paul is particularly reacting to some people who have taken his teachings about the law and turned them into a licence to indulge their every appetite. "All things are lawful for me," they are saying, and they are probably saying, "Paul told us so."
"Well, sure," says Paul. "I did say that. All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. Just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean that it’s not completely stupid to do it. There is no law against living on nothing but lollies and coke, but only an idiot would do it."
What Paul is tackling here can shine the light of Christ on what we are up against in our own generation. if we listen carefully, we may find that it cuts through the delusions on both sides of the debates and lays bare the things we have become complicit with. Paul has run into the clash of two world views, two ways of seeing the nature of God and God"s expectations of us. On the one hand are those who understand the Christian faith as a new law. The old Israelite law has been superseded by the new law of Christ, but in essence it works the same way. On any given issue, if we want to know the will of God we can do a careful search and find chapter and verse to tell us what we should do. The law sets the boundaries, and if we stay within them, by faith, we will stay pleasing and acceptable to God.
On the other hand, we have those who have grabbed on to Paul’s teaching about the end of the law and the new age of the Spirit, and they have run with it joyously and irresponsibly into an anything-goes chaos where the only guideline is me and my desires. The apparent freedom from the law leads to a well intentioned desire to explore the sacredness and beauty of the sensual world and to celebrate its joys to the full, but the enthusiasm frequently runs way ahead of any compassion or understanding for the majority of us whose woundedness and vulnerability need to be treated with a lot more care and caution lest the exercise of freedom be experienced as one more instance of trivialisation or abuse.
It seems that Paul is equally frustrated with both sides, and once again in our generation, it appears that both sides are screwing it up. The desire to use the biblical laws as our definitive guide for everything frequently ends up treating the Bible as though it were the last will and testament of our dearly departed God. It is as though God is no longer available to us and all we can do is continue to be faithful to some writings that God left before passing away. There is no expectation of any ongoing revelation or even of ongoing relationship. If I only ever related to my wife by reading and following some writings that she completed at the time of our marriage, none of you would call that a personal relationship. Why would we refer to a similar approach as a personal relationship with God?
But the other side often fall into acting as though God was dead too. They have no reference point in God either. With the law superseded by grace, instead of entering into a relationship where they take their cues from and learn to imitate Christ, they find their references only in their own desires, and turn their own appetites into idols to be fed and gratified. The compulsion to gratify these idolatrous desires can become as enslaving as any form of legalism, and is just as prone to lead us away from God and into pathways of self destruction or abuse of others.
The pathway to which Jesus called us and to which Paul bore witness, and indeed to which Philip pointed when he called to Nathaniel saying "Come and See," is a more demanding path than either of these. It involves a real relationship, and real relationships of any depth always take a lot more work that following a set of instructions or just obeying your own desires. A real relationship involves coming to know someone over time and learning to discern what they are on about and what they are looking for from the relationship. Learning to relate this way to Jesus requires attention to both the law and our own desires, for both can be means through which he communicates with us, but it also involves contemplative listening and regular honest prayer. And it also involves the same sort of gut-wrenching exposure to the light of Christ that we saw Nathaniel and Eli facing up to, and Paul being a conduit of (although we also have the stories of his facing it elsewhere).
Time and again, the key to that confrontation will be in recognising who we have been scapegoating, and recognising that Christ is identifying himself with the ones we have blamed and cast out. For Nathaniel it was Nazarenes. For Eli it was those who rock the boat. But who is it in this current debate into which Paul's words sound so current. It is usually different on each side, but it is possible to identify the most common trends, and to see what they are pointing to. For scapegoating is almost always an attempt to avoid our own crises by pointing the finger at another problem which is related, but which is not ours.
The question of sexual ethics which is most obviously tearing the churches apart in our generation is the place of homosexual people in the church. Several denominations are coming apart at the seams and many individual congregations have found the whole issue divisive and destructive. So clearly there is a crisis, and whenever there is such a crisis, our basic human instinct is to point the finger of blame and try to run the culprits out of town. In a word, we scapegoat.
For the most part, those who see Christian faithfulness in terms of obedience to Biblical law have made the gay and lesbian people the scapegoats. No doubt you have all heard assertions like, "allowing and blessing gay relationships will undermine marriage and put heterosexual marriages at risk." I have never yet met anybody who can explain how that is supposed to work, but you continue to hear it. And what it points to is that homosexuality is not the most terrifying issue. There is a crisis in heterosexual marriage, and the whole way our society deals with sexuality is in a terrible destructive mess, and we are looking for a culprit. If we can scapegoat the gays, then we don’t have to face up to the terrible darkness within ourselves or within our own bedrooms. All the anger and frustration and fear gets turned on the gay community. And our use of biblical law as our only reference point serves us well because it says almost nothing about sexual ethics within heterosexual marriage, so we can point the finger at others while hiding in a cloak of biblical freedom that covers a multitude of unacknowledged sins.
But on the other side, the same dynamic goes on. Unwilling to face the crises in our own lives or face up to our own inability to negotiate sexual relationships in ways that balance celebratory freedom with responsibility and compassion, we too scapegoat. On this side we scapegoat the fundamentalists and sexual wowsers. We accuse them of being oppressive and turning everything about sex into a guilt trip, and we write them off as a hindrance to the gospel and as the enemies of Christian freedom and wholeness. Of course the criticisms that fly in both directions have elements of truth in them, but that is not the point. True or not, we make of them the defence for a vilification that exempts us from the quest for reconciling unity and justifies our flight from the light that might expose who we are and what we are hiding from.
If we would approach Jesus, we will find him saying, "Come and See." And if we are scapegoating the homosexuals, Jesus will challenge us to see the world through the eyes of homosexuals, for he too sees the world through the eyes of a scapegoat. And if we are scapegoating the fundamentalists, Jesus will challenge us to see the world through the eyes of fundamentalists, for he too sees the world through the eyes of a scapegoat. It is in that encounter that we will see that Jesus not only identifies himself with those we scapegoat, but that the world has made of him the ultimate scapegoat, and loaded all the sins of the world onto his shoulders and lynched him for it. We will see the painful reality of our own self-delusions, and our own complicity in the violent tearing apart of our world and our churches. Like Nathaniel and Eli, we will find ourselves unmasked and exposed. "You search me, Lord, and know me. You read my inmost thoughts. You know where I have been. Before a words slips from my tongue, you know what I will say. All this overwhelms me! It terrifies me!"
But like Nathaniel and Eli, that is not all we will encounter. We will also encounter the outrageous mercy of the ultimate scapegoat. We will find the one who has unjustly taken the blame for everything and who now opens his arms in welcome and offers us mercy without even a hint of resentment. It will be painful mercy to accept. If we have scapegoated the gays, it will feel like accepting an offer of forgiveness from an outrageous drag queen. And if we have scapegoated fundamentalists, it will feel like accepting an offer of forgiveness from Fred Nile. But if we have the humility to accept the scandalous mercy of the crucified one who always identifies himself with our scapegoats, then that forgiveness will open the doors to a celebratory freedom we could never have imagined and a compassionate responsibility that could rebuild our society, and all of it wrapped up in a deep relationship with the one whose love knows no bounds and whose mercy saves not only our enemies, but even us! "How deep are your thoughts, O Christ. How vast their sum, like countless grains of sand, well beyond our grasp." To the the unfathomable wisdom of the crucified and risen Christ be the glory forever! Amen? Amen.