A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by The Venerable Jonathan Chaffey on 14th January 2024
Epiphany concerns the unravelling of a mystery. It is a season of firsts, of events that reveal the identity, character and mission of Jesus. It started with the visit of the Magi and continued last week with the baptism of Jesus. Isn’t it wonderful, as the year stretches out before us, to know that the Son of God has come alongside us. Whatever your hopes and concerns, personal or shared, know that he walks with you. And as a church community, remember that the same Holy Spirit that remained on Jesus is also given to the church, offering us sustaining help and a sense of promise through your vacancy and through the arrival of a new incumbent, whom I know as a friend and am delighted to endorse!
The Gospel of John is a whole book of Epiphanies – there are numerous signs and symbols, stories and drama, full of paradox, irony, humour and discovery that reveal who Jesus is and what he is about. This is the way that John designed his Gospel to help people encounter Jesus. At the very beginning he sets out his stall: ‘In him was life and the life was the light of men…to all who received him he gave the right to become children of God.’ Then at the end of the Gospel he concludes: ‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs…these are written down so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’. All the encounters narrated by John are connected to this theme. And our Epiphany story today is one such example, concerning the call of Philip and Nathanael.
This is an encounter of both revelation and invitation. Notice that Jesus finds Philip, not the other way round. Similarly Jesus searches for and calls us; not we him. In Keble Chapel is Holman Hunt’s famous ‘Light of the World’, a depiction of Jesus’ words in Rev 3: “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” I love this picture of an ivy clad door with no external handle. It’s often seen as an example of Jesus not pushing in but waiting for us to open our lives to him. That may be true, but I find it comforting that Jesus first goes looking for us, even when we are seemingly a long way from him. Our psalmist today highlights this: “O Lord, you have searched me and have known me”.
I wonder what your journey of faith has been like – short or long, rocky or smooth, quite individual or strongly influenced by others? You might have been young, like Samuel, you may have known God through many years. Nathanael, a true Israelite, when approached by Philip, had questions: “Who is this guy? Since when did a prophet come out of Nazareth?” Sometimes religion can get in the way. I recall hearing Rabbi Lionel Blue once say, “Religion is OK as long as it doesn’t cost you your soul.” You may well have outstanding questions yourselves – and it’s important to acknowledge them, for faith has to take root in the reality of our lives. Yet Philip simply responded to Nathanael, “Come and See!” – the same words Jesus had used for Peter and Andrew. And Nathanael courageously stepped out towards Jesus. As he did that, he discovered that Jesus already knew him, in fact he knew him better than Nathanael knew himself and he saw the potential that lay within him. It is unnerving yet beautiful to understand that Jesus knows our characters, our strengths and weaknesses – and that he sees the potential that we may not have seen ourselves. He also works with us – he knew that Nathanael was a well-educated man, schooled in the Torah and the Prophets. So when Jesus said to Nathanael, “I tell you the truth, you will see heaven open and the Son of Man ascending and descending”, Nathanael was able to recognise the reference to Jacob’s dream and how it was being fulfilled in Jesus himself, the bridge between Heaven and Earth. So Nathanael is able to make a dramatic statement of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel”.
It’s risky to take steps of faith; you don’t know where God might call you. When I was at school it was compulsory to be part of the Combined Cadet Force – I joined the Royal Navy section, which meant that I had to whiten old-fashioned puttees, which went on top of very itchy trousers, learn how to tie knots and enjoy rainy day lectures in a dockside classroom in Grimsby. I hated it. So in God’s good economy and humour I later spent nearly 30 years as a military chaplain – I could not have imagined what privileged opportunities would open up for sharing the grace and truth of God in Jesus. Like Nathanael, we just need to answer his call, take the first step and we find Jesus is watching out for us. I want to encourage you in your journey of faith – on a daily basis, to hold on, keep saying your prayers, take courage from the stories and teaching of the Bible. ‘Come and See’ is an exciting diocesan initiative starting in a few weeks. I encourage you to look on the Diocesan website and join one of the online ‘Come and See’ groups exploring how to make faith real, or simply receive a series of online reflections through Lent.
This is a comfort for us but also a challenge for us as the parish church. Where should we go looking in his name – in Iffley, Rose Hill and Donnington? You may be amazed at how ready people are, like Philip, when Jesus simply says, “Follow me” – how ready they are to find spiritual sustenance that links Heaven to Earth. As you consider as a church how to expand your ministry within the parish, remember that Jesus sees remarkable potential and also promises more than we can imagine – “You will see greater things than these”. He will also bring all the resources of Heaven in support. So today’s gospel is personal to us – to know the voice and call of Jesus in our lives. But it’s also a call to mission, that our life together would bring revelation and faith to others.