“Nathanael asks Jesus, “where did you come to know me?” Jesus answered “I saw you under the fig tree…” (John 1.48)
You are all familiar with the work of Mark Cazalet given his striking contribution here in the engravings of the Reconciliation Chapel behind me. Striking would be the word as well for his painting of Nathanael under the fig tree, which is to be found in the Methodist Art Collection. Cazalet depicts Nathanael as curled up and asleep under the fig tree, seemingly without a care in the world, entirely unsuspecting that his life is about to be completely changed. Somehow I doubt that Oswin was quite as unsuspecting and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t asleep during his election. But when any of us responds positively to a call from Christ it changes life, and is life changing. That’s why we all pray for God’s blessing upon Oswin as he takes up his new responsibilities in this community as your Superior. I believe there is much more for us to ponder in the story of Nathanael and I will return to that in a moment. But first a word about George.
It is most definitely not the tradition in the Community of the Resurrection to give tributes on occasions like this. After all, we follow He “who came to serve and not to be served” and who told us that in losing our lives we would find them. All true, but we also see God at work in human lives and not in spite of them. The incarnation would be meaningless if that was not the case. So I’m going to bend your rule about tributes a little. I know the last thing George would want is a tribute. So he’ll be anticipating some agony now. A bit of undeserved suffering is very CR.
But that, of course, is the point. Over the past 15 years this community has been led by someone who combined a clear vision for the community with a modesty of style and character. George cherishes what the world neglects. He does not know how to be wasteful. The contents of a skip are never safe from his attention. Compared with one or two of the monarchical Superiors of the past in CR, George has shown another way. He has led this community into a new phase of its life not least in the renewal of this church, and, one prays, in the wider renewal of the religious life here.
That’s enough, George is thinking, and it is enough. And now you have chosen Oswin. I know it was an election but not the disputatious sort where opposing parties fight each other for votes. In the religious life there needs to be continuity as well as change. The way in which you have consulted each other and listened to each other in recent years means that Oswin will lead a very different community from a generation or two ago. We pray for him in all that lies ahead.
In our gospel reading I think the key text which unlocks the rest is “come and see”, the words Philip uses when Nathanael doubts that he has found the messiah. For Philip is definite when he says that they have found the one “about whom Moses and the law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” (John 1 45.) Nathanael famously responds “can any good come out of Nazareth?” This isn’t because Nazareth is a place with a bad reputation. It’s a place with no reputation. Nathanael is really saying “how can anything this good come from Nazareth, a place never mentioned in our tradition as the location from which the messiah will come?” Nazareth does not rate a single mention in the Hebrew bible. Nathanael couldn’t believe it. He didn’t trust what Philip said. But Philip simply replies “come and see”. He invites Nathanael to come and experience Jesus for himself. Come and meet him. See if you believe too. Your life may change.
As Nathanael approaches him it’s Jesus who speaks first – “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. In other words, Jesus sees Nathanael as well versed in the scripture and tradition of Judaism, faithful and devout. Jesus sees into the depths of his soul. Nathanael is struck by this recognition. “How did you know me?” “I saw you sitting under the fig tree” says Jesus. Then Nathanael exclaims “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel”.
None of this seems to make a great deal of sense. How does the fact that Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree persuade Nathanael to declare Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel? It seems obscure. But look to the book of Daniel and Susannah in the Apocrypha and you find that remembering where you have seen someone was a sign of being a true witness. Nathanael recognises Jesus as a true witness of God, who stands in the tradition of Judaism but who goes well beyond it. And Jesus promises Nathanael he will see greater things than this. He says “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”. It’s a clear reference to Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28. There God promises that he knows Jacob and he’s bound to him. He speaks of great plans for Jacob and his descendants. At the time Jacob felt isolated and alone. He is given a vision of heaven and earth joined by a ladder which the angels of God continually ascend and descend, ministering to the world. Jesus tells Nathanael that he, Jesus, is the means of connection between heaven and earth. Keep company with Jesus and you will know and see greater things than you know and see now. And then the scene ends. The call, the recognition and the promise – they are all here in a few verses.
The call to follow Christ is clear. Jesus knows Nathanael better than Nathanael knows himself. That’s the implication of Cazalet’s painting. Nathanael is pictured curled up naked under the fig tree. Jesus sees Nathanael entire, without pretence, uncovered. Jesus knows what Nathanael is and who he can be. Nothing of Nathanael is hidden from him. And yet Jesus still calls him. Through you Jesus Christ has called to Oswin to this new office. He knows Oswin (and you and me for that matter) better than we know ourselves. He knows what we can be and who we should be. And if we do not think we can become that person, that disciple, that priest, that brother, that Superior, it’s ok. It’s not our strength that will achieve it. It’s the grace of God.
Then there is the recognition. It’s to be expressed here in Oswin’s installation – recognition of the gifts he has already brought to this community. We know him. We also see more in him than he sees himself. That’s as it should be. Recognition is itself a gift, as it was for Nathanael. And recognition leads to the promise. The future is unknown, as it was for Nathanael in following Christ. The promise is the constant presence of God in Jesus Christ linking heaven and earth. Through your daily round of prayer and worship here you are a community called to be a sign of the constant presence of Jesus Christ in His Church, a spiritual ladder linking heaven and earth. By your very life together under Oswin’s leadership you invite others to “come and see”. That’s what CR offers. An invitation to “come and see.” And who knows where that may lead them – and you.