Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You can imagine Nathanael as a pretty snarky guy given how he jokes about Nazareth. You can imagine him following Phillip, not really sure what to expect, and going up to Jesus and thinking, as Jesus welcomes him, “who the heck does this guy think he is?” You can imagine the sarcasm, perhaps, in his voice, “How do you know me?”
Jesus’ response would have been spectacular enough had this omniscient fellow said, “I saw you under the fig tree earlier,” or “I saw you under the fig tree before you came here.” Instead what we get is, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” “I saw you” before you were even called. Or as the Psalmist today says, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”
Jesus takes Nathanael’s words and refashions them. Nathanael’s knowledge is an acquaintance’s knowledge of a stranger. But for Jesus, knowing Nathanael has less to do with being omniscient and far more to do with the fact that God knows us—and calls us—before we know God.
What we see then in today’s moments of calling is deeply distressing. Calls interrupt our daily lives dramatically and happen in incredibly unexpected ways. For Samuel, this takes place late at night as he verges on sleep, on the borderline of a world beyond our consciousness, before he is brought back into reality by God’s call. For Nathanael, this takes place as he flippantly jokes about Jesus knowing him, and as he receives a sublime response in return. Nathanael hears a voice—and witnesses a presence—that draws him near, and that captivates him.
The call from God is a call to enter more deeply into God’s presence—and as some have put it, to know God is to realize, more and more, that you are known by God. For both the Psalmist and for Paul in Corinthians, we are known by God, not in abstract, otherworldly ideals or terms, but in the context of our fleshly lives, frail that they are, on this earth. The Psalmist affirms God’s good work shown forth in Creation, even in a fallen world: not only does God “discern [our] thoughts from afar,” but God also “created [our] inmost parts” and “knit [us] together in [our] mother[s’] womb[s]”—and we are “marvelously made.” Even in our frailty ad vulnerability, God knows us.
Paul’s words—sharp rebuke that they are—also make this clear. “The body is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body,” and “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God.” And at the altar in the Eucharist, as a Rite I prayer states, we ask God to “accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, whereby we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.”
When God calls Samuel, Samuel perceives something to which he longs to respond with his entire body. He comes to Eli and talks to him, and later speaks with God. When Jesus sees Nathanael under the fig tree, he doesn’t just imagine Nathanael’s thoughts about Nazareth; he sees Nathanael himself, all of him, throughout eternity. And Nathanael in turn responds by dedicating himself to Christ entirely, even, as Tradition has it, to the point of death after being flayed alive and crucified upside down.
In other words, these calls, however perceived, draw us out of ourselves, out of the normalcy and regularity of our daily lives, and create in us a yearning for God that we strive to satisfy through the very means that God has given us in this world around us, throughout our entire lives. These moments we find written before us may not happen frequently or even at all—and yet we need not identify those moments explicitly with God for them to be divine. The moment may take place as it did with Samuel or with Nathanael. On the other hand, it may take place when injustice around us arouses righteous anger. Or it may take place when we witness beauty in the world around us. All of these experiences beg for us to respond—to be changed in such a way that we are transformed by God’s grace in order to show forth Love, whether in the midst of its abundance, or… in the midst of its absence.
Throughout millennia, Christian mysticism has tried to express these moments in poetry and prose. St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, echoes this back-and-forth, between God and humanity, in the Spiritual Canticles, where he describes the bride’s quest for the bridegroom as an allegory of humanity’s quest for God. In her agonizing opening lines, the bride cries out:
Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You… were gone.
The bridegroom has wounded the bride with a perpetual, incessant, terrifying and terrible longing. A longing for something outside herself that nothing else can satisfy. And the bridegroom responds a bit later…hauntingly:
Return, My Dove!
The wounded hart
Looms on the hill
In the air of your flight… and is refreshed.
The hart who wounded us is God in Christ, whom humanity itself wounded on the cross. And both wounds, for John of the Cross and for Paul as well—the wound that we bear and the wounds that Christ bears for eternity, the very wounds into which he invites Thomas to thrust his hand to prove his resurrection later on in John’s gospel—both are wounds of love, wounds that invite us nonetheless into union with God, a union characterized by God’s call and our response.
And we enter into that union, as this week’s Collect suggests, by worshiping and obeying God, and making him known—in other words, by modeling our own lives after Christ, who while himself being God humbled himself to share our humanity, who out of love entered into the depths of alienation, sin, and despair, even unto death. It means putting our entire selves in the service of God and the Incarnate Word in other human beings and throughout Creation, even in the face of hatred. It is to bear the wounds of love—to realize that God has wounded us for a longing outside ourselves and to allow ourselves to love others though the call may be difficult.
This is not to say that we should be masochists about this. But it is to say that God asks us as a Church, as Michael Ramsey puts it, to seek to alleviate the sufferings of humanity, to heal them and to remove them, since they are hateful to God. Yet, when they are overwhelming and there is no escape from them, to transfigure them and use them as the raw material of love, and the place where the power of God is known.
In this journey, then, let us, in John of the Cross’ words, “go seeking [our] beloved / Over mountains, along rivers— / [we] will gather no flowers / Nor fear any beasts; / [and we] shall pass fortresses and frontiers alike.” To respond to God’s call—to reply, “Speak, for your servant is listening”—is to invite the Love that moves the Sun and other stars to move in our own lives, not that we may escape the world, but that thereby we may, by God’s grace, transform it.
The call to worship, to prayer, and to Eucharist is a call to offer up ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation in the world. It is a call shaped by the wounds of love that we forever share with God, who calls us throughout our lives and has known us before time itself. It is a call, as Rowan Williams paraphrases of Gregory of Nyssa, that draws us to an end without end. It is a call, as Jesus tells Nathanael, to “see greater things than these.”
“My soul is occupied,
And all my substance in His service;
Now I guard no flock,
Nor have I… any other employment:
My sole occupation… is love.”