Who is Nathanael? A sermon delivered by Lynda Hergenrather, January 18, 2015

John 1:43-51 1 

 O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia. Amen. 

Who is Nathanael? 

Today’s gospel relates the calls of Philip and Nathanael, the last of the four disciples whose call stories are recounted in the first chapter of John’s gospel. After Andrew and Peter, Jesus found Philip and Philip found Nathanael. Philip told him that he had found the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote and he was Jesus of Nazareth. Nazareth? Really? Nazareth was a tiny village of 200-400 people near Nathanael’s own home town. It was economically dependent on the larger town of Sepphoris. It was insignificant. Nathanael was skeptical and scoffed openly at the thought that anything of value could come from Nazareth, especially not the Messiah. 

But Philip invited him to come and see for himself. And despite his doubt, his misgivings, Nathanael did come. As Nathanael neared, Jesus pronounced him an Israelite without guile. A surprised Nathanael asked “How do you know me?” and when Jesus replied that he had seen him under the fig tree before Philip called, Nathanael was astounded. Realizing that he was in the presence of an extraordinary individual, Nathanael confessed Jesus as the Son of God. It was an epiphany moment for Nathanael as he cast away those misgivings and moved out from under the darkness of the fig tree and into the light. But Jesus wasn’t finished with Nathanael. Discipleship isn’t a moment; it’s a process. Jesus told Nathanael that he would see greater things than this, the greatest being his life, death and resurrection. Then they set off to attend a wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. 

Save for a single passing reference during a post-resurrection appearance in the final chapter of John, this is the last we hear of Nathanael. Unlike the other three called to be disciples that day, Andrew, Peter, and Philip, Nathanael is not even mentioned in the other gospels and appears in no list of the twelve. 

The question of Nathanael’s identity has long plagued biblical scholars. Some have tried to equate him to other disciples, most especially Bartholomew. But given John’s penchant for symbolism, other scholars believe that Nathanael is a prototype for all disciples. Nathanael represents the countless host of nameless souls who confessed Jesus as Lord and invited others to come and see generation after generation until the body grew from the first handful of disciples to over two billion people today. As God accomplishes great things in unlikely places like Nazareth, God also accomplishes great things through unlikely people, through Nathanael and his successors. 

Who is Nathanael? 

Scripturally speaking, all Christians are saints and are set apart for the kingdom of God. Christians are made holy in Christ but are also called to be holy, to live into discipleship, to serve, to build up the body. One of my favorite holy days is the feast of All Saints, a day dedicated in honor of all the saints, known and unknown, named like Andrew, Peter, and Philip, and unnamed like all the successors of Nathanael. On All Saints Day we recognize that we are in communion, in fellowship with, are connected to all those faithful souls who have come before and on whose shoulders we now stand. On All Saints day I am in awe. 

Over a period of several days, after preparing the 12th edition of the Year in Pictures, which will be available at the Annual Meeting, I looked back through all 12 years, a total of 5,567 images of life at St. Luke’s. It was especially poignant to see in those images the faces of so many friends who are no longer with us. Many of them had been a part of St. Luke’s for 40, 50 or 60 years and had helped build St. Luke’s from the little Sunday School that met in the old Snowden school house to a beacon of Christian faith and life at the bend in Fort Hunt Road. They responded joyfully to God’s call. They invited others to come and see. They served on the vestry, at the altar, and as volunteer chaplains at Mount Vernon Hospital. They paid the bills, sang in the choir, taught the children, and welcomed newcomers. They delivered meals on wheels, crocheted afghans for the Episcopal hospital in Gaza, and collected food and clothing for United Community Ministries. They laughed and cried, prayed and played together. Now they rest from their labors. Their work is done. God has accomplished great things through unlikely people. Saints Mary Jane, Phil, and Roger, saints Catesby and Sylvia are Nathanael. Saints Peg, Marty, and Connie, saints Charlie and Mary are Nathanael. Saints Harry, Alice, and Drew, saints Fred, Kitty, and Gene are Nathanael. 

Who is Nathanael? 

Equally as poignant as seeing in those images the faces of those who have since joined the church triumphant was seeing the faces of our children and, in the space of several days, watching them age 12 years. The children who were mere moppets in 2003 are now either in college, have recently graduated, or are about to go. Many of them have been part of St. Luke’s for their entire life. They, too, have responded joyfully to God’s call. They, too, have served on the vestry and at the altar. They have also served barbeque and sold pumpkins, led the children’s choir, and been delegates to diocesan council. They have taught vacation bible school, walked to end hunger, and collected food for UCM. They have studied and made pilgrimages to faraway places. They may be young but they are committed, strong, and already accomplished. Our beloved St. Luke’s will one day be safe in their hands. God will accomplish great things through unlikely people. Saints Claire, Erika, and Dorothy, saints Meredith and Justin are Nathanael. Saints Maddie, Megan, and Evan, saints Erin and Jamie are Nathanael. Saints Becky, George, and Jennifer, saints Scott and Dean are Nathanael. 

Who is Nathanael? 

There is another group of people who appeared on those twelve CDs. It’s that large group of adults sandwiched between the departed saints and the ones who are coming along. It is you and I. We, too, have heard and have responded joyfully to God’s call. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and bring our own dedication, effort, and talent to the building up of the body. We invite others to come and see. We serve on committees at the parish, regional, and diocesan level. We speak out for the disenfranchised, Rock for Hunger, and walk for Cystic Fibrosis research. We sponsor a Boy Scout troop, provide meals and chaperones for the hypothermia program, collect food for UCM, and still make those afghans. We mentor our children, welcome newcomers, provide transportation to church events, celebrate our birthdays, and are faithful stewards of our resources. 

Like the children in our pictures, we too have changed. We’re a little older now, a little thicker around the middle and a little thinner on the top. One day we’ll rest from our labors. We may rest but our work isn’t necessarily done. St. Luke’s has established an Endowment Fund. And unlike the Annual Fund which is depleted and replenished every year, unlike the Capital Fund which is depleted and replenished every few years, a gift to the Endowment Fund continues to work in perpetuity. The principal remains; only the interest can be spent. That interest will allow our children to accomplish things we can only dream about given current budget constraints and fund endeavors well beyond the more mundane items in our Annual and Capital Funds – scholarships, mission, outreach. The only limit is the vision and creativity of future vestries. Through the Endowment Fund, we can provide an extra boost when our children climb onto our shoulders. 

God is accomplishing great things through unlikely people. Saints Sue, Marie, and Tom, saints John and Ben are Nathanael. Saints Richard, Joe, and Terri, saints Rebecca and Tracy are Nathanael. Saints Lisa, Bob, and Charles, saints Judy, Don, Charity, and Michael are Nathanael. You and I are Nathanael. 

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, “Alleluia.” 

Amen.