In whom there is no guile - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

In whom there is no guile

John 1: 43-end (p. 1049)

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43 The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me.

44 Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

45 Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

46 And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!

48 Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.

49 Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.

50 Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.

51 And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

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Before I was appointed Rector here at St Bride's, I was for nine years vicar of a mediaeval church in Birmingham, which was always known as Edgbaston Old Church (or 'EOC' for short) - but whose dedication was to St Bartholomew.  And there were two particularly striking images of St Bartholomew in that church: we had a rather fine carved stone pulpit, incorporating a sculpture of our patron saint carrying his distinctive flaying knife.  (Like most of the early saints and martyrs, he met a particularly grisly end.)  And when I stood at the altar there, straight ahead of me at the far end of the church was a modern stained glass window bearing his image.

So, why on earth am I talking to you today about St Bartholomew?  After all, it is not even his feast day, which falls on 24th August.  The answer is that he is, in fact, the central character in this morning's gospel reading.  There is a very ancient tradition that identifies the Nathanael mentioned in that passage as Bartholomew - because the name Bartholomew literally means 'Son of Ptolemy' - Bar Ptolomeo.  So he was Nathanael, Son of Ptolemy.  (By the way, it is sheer fluke that we also happen to be baptising a Nathaniel today - had there been reference to a Sienna anywhere in the scriptures, she would certainly have received equal billing!) 

In today's Gospel reading, we see Nathanael being utterly sceptical when first told by the disciple Philip that the long-awaited Messiah has come - and that he is Jesus, the Son of Joseph from Nazareth.  'Nazareth!', retorts Nathanael, in utter incredulity.  'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' 

And one has to say, he does have a point.  It would be a bit like the reaction I would get here if I were to announce to all of you: 'Wonderful news! We have found the Messiah!  And he is currently working as a plumber's mate in Pinner.' 'Pinner?  What do you mean, Pinner!'

But what interests me most of all, is how Nathanael the sceptic becomes Bartholomew the saint and martyr, whose image was so very familiar to me during my years in Edgbaston.  And the answer to that question is to be found in the nature of his conversation with Philip, as recounted in our Gospel reading.

You see, interestingly enough, when Nathanael expresses his incredulity at the news, the one thing that Philip does not do, is to try to convince him by argument - to give him a list of reasons why there was a case for regarding this man Jesus as God's Messiah.  Not a bit of it.  Instead, he does something much more straightforward.  He says simply: 'Come and see.'  In other words, Philip does not attempt to persuade Nathanael about anything.  Rather he invites Nathanael to discover the truth for himself by experiencing it.  And Nathanael responds by accepting the invitation, and going with Philip to meet Jesus.  And what happens when they meet is equally revealing.  On seeing him, Jesus describes Nathanael as 'an Israelite in whom there is no guile' - he sees into his soul.  And he describes having seen him under a fig tree. 

The precise details of this encounter between Jesus and Nathanael - the references to fig trees, etc. - are of far less importance than the deeper truth that they signify: which is a moment of profound recognition - a moment when Nathanael realises that Jesus knows him: Nathanael experiences for himself what it is to be known, and understood, and valued by God through his Son.  And what is also significant is the fact that Jesus describes Nathanael as an Israelite in whom there is no guile

These days we use the word 'guileless' to mean naïve; foolish; or easily duped.  But what lies at the heart of that notion of a 'lack of guile', is something very positive: it is a quality of simple openness - a willing to set aside all of one's own baggage, and innate suspicion, and pride, and arrogance, in order to encounter something (or in this case someone), as they are, and for what they are, without prejudice or presumption.

And for Nathanael, that moment of encounter is a moment of profound and instantaneous recognition: 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.'  That fleeting encounter is all it takes to transform Nathanael's utter scepticism, to total conviction.

It seems to me that there is a lesson for us all of us here.  There is an old saying that the Christian faith is 'caught, not taught'.  Which doesn't for a moment mean that there is no place for rational argument or debate within the life of faith - there most certainly is.  But in terms of what it is that plants that initial seed of interest and enquiry in someone who is outside the Christian fold, it is very seldom, in my experience, a result of being having been 'talked at' - unless that person already willing to hear.  That which is glimpsed through experience and encounter is far more likely to have a lasting impact.

A boy who was a good friend of mine during my school days, is now a very well-respected academic scientist.  He is also an absolute atheist: not only has he never had the slightest interest in any form of religion, but he has never seen any reason why he should have.  He is certainly baffled by where my life's journey has taken me, but he has no real interest in learning how or why I came to a faith, and why that exploration has for me continued to deepen over the thirty years that I have been ordained, which is why we have drifted apart over the years.  He is very ready to present a string of arguments about why religion is false and ridiculous - but doesn't recognise that what he is in fact doing, is in effect the equivalent of those scientists who were utterly dismissive of Edison's pioneering inventions - the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the first practical light-bulb - those who circled round him saying in effect, 'That'll never work.  Don't be ridiculous'.  Sometimes you just have to suspend your disbelief and 'give it a go'.  Which is why I end up wanting to say to my scientist friend: 'Why don't you just shut up and try it.'

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  There are occasions in life and in faith, when we need to suspend our disbelief for a bit and, as Philip tells Nathanael - 'come and see'.  Experience it for ourselves.  Because sometimes there is simply no other effective or lasting alternative.  And if you are ready to do that, and to do so with an open mind and an open heart - with that quality of guilelessness that was also there in Nathanael - then, as many of us here today will testify, what follows is an encounter of such power and an authenticity that it goes far beyond words.  It is a moment of recognition. 

And the point about recognition is that it is instantaneous: if I see an old friend unexpectedly across a crowded room, I do not have to take myself through a systematic mental check-list of their individual facial features, height, and other physical characteristics, to check whether this is the person I think it is.  I just see them and know them - even if I haven't clapped eyes on that person for twenty years.  That is what it is like to see and recognise a truth.

Today Nathaniel and Sienna have been welcomed into the family of our church.  Their parents and godparents have launched them on a path that can bring with it the greatest riches that human life can experience.  But there will be a point when each of them will need to choose to make that gift their own - as indeed we all must do, too.


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