15 January, 2012

Homily for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (B) 2012

You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ John 1:51

As a theological students first and as a member of the clergy now, I have often being engaged in conversations with every sort of people who affirm that Jesus was only as a great man ahead of His times, and that He was killed because of the what He preached. In fact, this kind of thinking is not alien to some church goers either; quite often you’ll find similar arguments used in mission, as people who have never approached Christianity seriously are told to behave like Jesus, and to obey his commandments even before having faith in Him. 

Today we see in our gospel reading that this behaviour was there right from the very beginning. Philip has been with Jesus for less than a day as, full of enthusiasm, he approaches Nathaniel and says, We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth (John 1:45). However John, who is narrating the story, knows how to put in a little irony in Nathaniel’s response; Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46).

Philip is one of the first disciples and although he has grasped that Jesus is the Messiah, he hasn’t quite understood everything about Him. For the evangelist, Philip has missed out another important part, which is Jesus, the Son of God; something that Nathaniel himself will affirm after speaking to Jesus. 
In this passage John is making two important points about Jesus and about society’s approach to Him. First, John insists on the centrality of Jesus as we read that He decided to go to Galilee, that He found other disciples (John 1:43), and that He saw Nathaniel even before Philip called him (John 1:48). For John, Jesus is in control of the situation wherever He goes; He is the one to call the disciples, and He is the one who reveals Himself through signs and miracles. Even Philip’s missionary activity has to be validated by an encounter with Jesus.

Secondly, John believes that Jesus’ role as Messiah is not the only truth about Him, but it is only complementary to the fact that Jesus is the link between heaven and earth, between our humanity and God. The Jews expected a Messiah, who would restore the ancient line of David; but for many, God was the only true King of Israel and these also expected God to come and live among them as He once did when God’s glory dwelt in the Temple of Jerusalem. It is in this frame that after Nathaniel says, Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! (John1:49), Jesus replies, You will see greater things than these (John 1:50). In many ways Jesus’ actions in the world are these greater things.

So we see that all the different layers in John’s gospel start to come to life. At first, Philip says to Nathaniel that they have found Jesus, the One who fulfils the prophecies about a Messiah; this is good, but really not enough to paint an accurate picture. Then, we hear Nathaniel calling Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel; this is even better, but still not quite there. Finally it is Jesus Himself who sets the record straight saying, You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (John 1:51). But what does this mean?

In the book of Genesis, Jacob – the ancient patriarch of Israel – dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:12) and John wants the readers to associate Jesus with that stairway to heaven; you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (John 1:51). The breach between earth and heaven was opened when the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and Jesus becomes the only link between the two places, the ladder we ascend, the way we run to reach heaven. 

Genesis continues, Jacob woke from his dream and said, Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! […] How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:16-17). In this sense, Jesus Himself becomes the sacred space in which we worship, the true temple in which God dwells. 

Next time you’ll hear people talking about Our Lord as just a wise man or even as an important historical figure; I hope you’ll remember Philip and Nathaniel and how both of them, though being right, they were not able see the bigger picture. They couldn’t see greater things than these. Their faith was inspired by signs and miracles, but they still hadn’t spent enough time in getting to know Jesus.


One last though, if you meet anyone saying that our liturgy is complicated, tell them that some of our Orthodox sister churches have a liturgical prop to represent this passage of scripture. During the Eucharistic Prayer the deacons pull out some fans that look like sticks with angel figures on top. As the priest consecrates the elements, the deacons wave the fans over the altar symbolising the angels ascending and descending over Christ in adoration. How’s that for liturgical innovations?

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