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Why Nathaniel?

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Why Nathaniel?
 
        Several years ago someone who was making the Spiritual Exercises with me referred to the experience as an "intimate intrusion". I thought it a particularly apt description. Silently as if on tiptoe in the night, the Other slips inside our locked and bolted door and insists on proclaiming truth, a reconciliation of differences, and a sacrificial peace. Ready or not we are loved beyond our stammering.

        So it was with Nathaniel.

        The first moment is lost to memory but sometime in the early days of 1992, while leafing idly through my Bible, my eyes fell upon the Nathaniel story. It is good in the spiritual life to notice the blinking lights within the soul. For some days "John 1", "John 1" had been beckoning to me. I did not know why. My expectations seemed uninspiring, and so it was with some sense of tedium I turned my attention there. The Nathaniel story (John 1.43-51 and John 21.1-14) is a familiar one but it had never spoken to me before. On this day Nathaniel became a metaphor for the seeker on his/her journey to God. He became something more too: he became a companion.

        There he sits under the fig tree. Was he seeking a time for meditation under the ample shade a fig tree casts? Was he simply dozing or enjoying the afternoon? What brings you, Nathaniel, to this particular spot in all the world where heaven and earth would meet? Perhaps the humor of the Spirit has brought you to the spot where figs display their ripeness - by falling to the ground beneath.

        Whatever the reason, Philip's first foray falls on cynical ears, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, the one about whom the prophets wrote: he is Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth." "From Nazareth?" said Nathaniel. "Can anything good come from that place?" The idea sounded unlikely to him.  He scoffs.

        Here is the spiritual pilgrim who has defined the good too narrowly and made himself Lord of the Future. The Holy Spirit enters by a way that is not being watched. The Spirit comes in the side window. We are focused on our desires ahead and our fears behind and one day we look around and notice to our surprise that the leaves have changed color. We are in a new season. The temperature has changed and with it the agenda and the possibilities. A new-found friend or an unexpected occurrence has radically changed the equation. Phillip knows that argumentation will not help but only personal experience and so he simply responds, "Come and see." The next movement in Nathaniel's soul is of crucial importance for the rest of his journey. He could have turned the invitation down but instead he gets up and goes to meet Jesus. It must be noted that there were frequent appearances of people who thought they were the Messiah just as today people claim they know when the Second Coming will be. We tend to dismiss them as mentally unbalanced but something moves Nathaniel the other way. Apparently his confidence in Philip is such that he trusts his judgement and surmises that there must be something here. It could also have been the urgency he heard in Philip's voice. Or it could have been hope.

        The universe claps its hands, the trees sing his praises: Nathaniel responds.

        At the depth of his being Nathaniel perceives that his response is worth the risk of disappointment or failure. To grow in the spiritual life requires risk. At some level the early seeker fears that the object of the search does not exist or will elude discovery. What if I seek and do not find? What if I find out there is a price to pay? What if the person I become is a stranger to me now. Simply to be aware of the questions is significant progress on the journey because we have been engaged; we have sensed the dimensions of the task; the hero is awakened from slumber and begins the journey to knowing and beyond it to unknowing.

        As Nathaniel proceeds towards his rendezvous with the Messiah he suffers the agony and ecstasy of the risk taker. He is uncertain, insecure, not sure what he will find, confused about how to act but life is joined; something is happening of ultimate significance; the mystery has appeared perhaps to reveal itself, or to reveal Nathaniel to himself.

        And now the Source appears: Jesus the Christ. Later He will exhort us all to love one another as He has loved us. This is a taller order than the Hebrew Scriptures which teach that we should love one another as we love ourselves. God loves us more than we love ourselves and so the mandate is set at a higher standard. How does God love us? By taking the initiative, by being creative, magnanimous and by not keeping score, God lifts us to a new plane of self-affirmation, consciousness, love. So here, before Nathaniel even reaches him, Jesus calls out as if in reassurance and celebration "There is an Israelite who deserves the name incapable of deceit."

        Do we expect to be met with praise from God? Do we live in the presence of a God who praises? Is our praise a response evoked by His? God has first loved us. This is the truly awesome fact. God takes the initiative. Even when we have strayed, the slightest glimmer of a change of heart evokes in God a flooding cascade of rejoicing. All of God's energy is basically directed to convincing us of this simple fact. God delights in humanity like a mother delights in the baby at her breast. Bonded. Secure. We do not always need to be focused on sin and repentance. Nathaniel here is filled with curiosity and hope. Jesus' words take him beyond his limited expectations and they change Nathaniel's mood and affect. Now he is not inspecting a Messiah; now he has been touched; now he is being saved before he quite realizes what is happening.

       Salvation does not just refer to our eternal state. It refers to a daily process of being cleansed and rescued from our lesser selves, presented with life-giving choices, challenged to rise to the eucharistic level of encounter. It means being transported back into the realm of light from the kingdom of darkness whose armies are ever at the door. It is a daily ongoing labor of love carried out just beneath the level of our perceptions but apprehended by our sixth sense of faith. Not always blind faith either but informed, experienced faith--a faith that recognizes the sound of the shepherd's voice. Prior to all other experience with God, prior to our recognizing God, is the first healing of the hero's quest: recognition by God.

        In the experience of being recognized by God the sojourner feels an affirmation and elevation of hope, an exhilaration confirming meaning in the universe and the assurance that one has a place in it reserved by God's own Self.

        Things which seem too good to be true often are -- but not always. In this case Nathaniel must inquire "How do you know me?" In our own culture we might put it, "Have we met somewhere before?" Have we ever.

        Jesus responds "Before Philip came to call you, I saw you under the fig tree." Indeed Psalm 139 tells us it was God who created our inmost selves and put us together in our mother's womb. Jesus recognized in Nathaniel a brother. The spark of recognition in Jesus' eye is a mystery to Nathaniel. How can this be? This is not how things ordinarily work.

        This is precisely the point. In Jesus we meet one who makes things work differently. Seemingly from outside us He works His ways from within, massaging the human heart, inspiring new thought and visions which really are only reflections, glimmers of distant memories hearkening back to the way we were. Not just the way we were in childhood, but at the time of birth, during our time in the womb, our pre-natal period, and at the moment of our conception. "You know me through and through, from having watched my bones take shape, when I was being formed in secret, knitted together in the limbo of the womb." (Psalm 139)

        Longer though than even that, God has known us from pre-conception. From a time lost to our memory but glimpsed through myth and symbol as a time of union with God. Our special image is a time of walking with God at evening in the Garden. The truer, deeper memory though goes back still farther to a time of bliss so long ago that we have come to hope in it as future restoration, looking forward to God's coming in glory.

        Look Nathaniel: He comes in glory now.  "Out of God's infinite glory may God give to you the power through God's Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and that, rooted in love and grounded in love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth until, knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God." (Ephesians 3.16-19)

        The first surge of enthusiasm of the newly convinced Nathaniel is to exclaim "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel." A true comment and a sign of progress and accurate discernment. Its source though is too limited. Do not settle for a Messiah, Nathaniel, just because he saw you under the fig tree. Jesus replies "You believe that just because I said I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that." And then he added "I tell you most solemnly, you will see heaven laid open and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending."

        Here the Messiah raises the level of Messianic hope and with it the imagination of Nathaniel is stretched, his limited expectations are expanded, and in a stroke he is invited to dream. The picture Jesus paints is one that would remind Nathaniel of the ancient story of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 8. When Jacob awoke from his dream he said "Truly, Yahweh is in this place and I never knew it!" Then Jacob made a vow, "If God goes with me and keeps me safe on this journey I am making, if he gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return home safely to my father, then Yahweh shall be my God."

        In Jesus' words to Nathaniel he is being told that God is inside him and he never knew it. Jesus is telling him that he, Nathaniel, is a meeting place of heaven and earth, nothing less than a house of God. He himself is awe inspiring, the gate of heaven, because the place where Jacob's ladder now touches the earth is the human heart. And so, Nathaniel, do not fail to dream, do not set your sights too low, do not underestimate this Messiah or His desire to give it all to you.

        Tiptoe to his door, Nathaniel. Peek through the window. Do you see a hint of angels? Is the ladder being lowered to your heart?

        And so it was that Nathaniel made his presence known in my spirit.