Epiphany 2 B: Gracious Invitation

John 1:43-51

Dear Partner in Preaching,

What struck me in this week’s passage is the degree to which Nathaniel’s first reaction to Jesus feels rather tinged by sarcasm. I say “feels” only because sarcasm seems more frequent in our media than in our Scriptures. We are used to talk radio hosts, media pundits, cultural commentators, or sports analysts employing sarcasm from time to time to make a point. (And lately, perhaps, more than “from time to time”!) But rarely do you hear something sarcastic in Scripture, and that caught my attention.

While I first found Nathaniel’s reaction – and John’s reporting of it, for that matter – a little off-putting (I’m with Mark Twain who said that “sarcasm is the basest form of wit), I was soon grateful for it. Why? Precisely because sarcasm is so present in our culture and is increasingly directed to the church. While in former generations the church could expect fairly consistent support from the culture, those days are waning. (This isn’t meant as nostalgia, by the way, but rather simply an attempt to be honest about our current situation.) And today we can expect a variety of reactions to what our faith communities offer. Interest? Sometimes. But also doubt, sarcasm, and indifference.

John’s Gospel is characterized by a variety of encounters with Jesus, from characters that range from a devout if skeptical Jew like Nathaniel to the religious leader Nicodemus (ch. 3) to a “foreigner” like the woman at the well (ch. 4) to an outcast in the man who received his sight (ch. 9) and so forth. Paying attention to this variety of responses to Jesus may help us to prepare to address the variety of responses we receive when we share the Gospel of Jesus.

And this week, I’m struck not only by Nathaniel’s sarcastic skepticism, but also by Jesus’ incredibly gracious response. First, Jesus genuinely compliments Nathaniel, affirming the very quality – “without guile;” that is, someone who doesn’t (or can’t!) hide his feelings and so speaks his mind – that contributed to his smart-aleck and sarcastic response in the first place. Then, he lets Nathaniel know that he saw him. (“Seeing” is more than mere physical site, of course; it’s noting someone’s presence, valuing them enough to pay attention.) Finally, he makes Nathaniel a promise that he will see far greater things than what Jesus has just shown him.

Throughout, Jesus’ response to the varied reactions of these first disciples – and, indeed, throughout the Fourth Gospel – is what I would describe as “gracious invitation.” He does not get defensive, or irritable, or boastful, or demanding – characteristics that seems regularly on display by too many our own “leaders” these days – but instead he focuses on his dialogue partners, taking them seriously, and inviting them through word and deed to “come and see.” Except when it comes to Jesus, it doesn’t stop with come and see, but always moves to the deeper invitation to come and be. Be what God has called you. Be the person the world needs. Be all you can be. Be the beloved child of God who invites others to a similarly transformative experience of relationship with Christ.

The congregation I presently serve has had the same mission statement for generations, summarized in the phrase “Believing, belonging, becoming.” I love that motto. From time to time, I wonder whether “belonging” should come first, as while in years past those looking for a church were most interested in what a congregation believed (denominational affiliation), in recent years folks seem most to want a community that simply accepts them as they are and invites them to belong. Regardless of where I land on that question (and I’m not sure it matters all that much!), I’ve never doubted that “becoming” should culminate and complete our mission statement, because that is the one stretches across our whole lives and very much characterizes what it means to be a Christian. One is never left alone, that is, by grace, untouched or unmoved, but one is rather always pulled to some more, something greater, something closer to God’s dreams for us.

In one of my favorite “Luther quotations,” the Reformer said

This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified. (1)

Among other things, tucked into this observation is the good news that God is not done with us! That, indeed, God will never be done, never give up, keep showing us with grace and inviting us to become more even as God loves us just as we are.

Perhaps, Dear Partner, our task this new year is to keep offering the “gracious invitation” of our Lord. Perhaps it will result in Nathaniel’s rather stunning reversal and confession. Perhaps it will take far longer, as it does with Nicodemus, who leaves his first encounter with Jesus utterly perplexed, only to show up again at his trial and after his crucifixion near the end of the story. Perhaps it will empower people to witness to their friends and neighbors what they have experienced, as it does with the woman at the well. Or perhaps it will give people the courage to face the adversity in their lives, as it does the man who receives his sight. We don’t know. But we do know that Jesus keeps extending that invitation to our people – and to us! – to become the persons God has called us to be and the world needs. Even when we fall short. Even when we have a hard time believing. Even when we don’t feel worthy of God’s attention or care? Even when we have a hard time getting ourselves to church… or preparing this week’s sermon. Yet Jesus is still there, always inviting and loving and forgiving and redeeming…and all out of the “grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16) that he embodies, incarnates, and offers.

Blessings on your proclamation, Dear Partner, for in and through your words Jesus is still inviting, calling, and transforming disciples.

Yours in Christ,

(1) Defense and Explanation of all the Articles (1521), LW vol. 39.