2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
“Calling and Confession”
There are two threads that run through this reading from John 1. The first is the prominence of “calling”. Both the calling to faith – and the calling to service, or what we often speak of as “vocation”. We'll explore that a bit first.
Then there is the Epiphany emphasis, the unfolding of Christ's identity – as the one who calls, the one who knows all, the one about whom the prophets wrote, the man from Nazareth, the Son of God, the King of Israel, and the ladder to heaven. That's a lot to cover, so let's get started.
When Jesus calls us to faith, much like when he calls the disciples, he also calls us to service. The call is “follow me”. First, this invites a trust in him as one worthy of following. They would follow him, first of all from Bethany, across the Jordan, to Galilee. But more than physically following him, they would follow him by faith. They would become Christians. They would follow him, thus, even to death.
We, too, have been called to faith. We confess as much in the Small Catechism, concerning the Holy Spirit – who has called me by the gospel. I can't believe in Christ of my own reason or strength. I can't decide for myself to follow him, as my will is bound in sin. The Old Adam in us is at war with God and in rebellion against him. There's no reason to think we'd follow him, believe in him, or trust him. But God breaks into that with his calling – the Spirit calls us to faith, just as Jesus called those disciples to follow. And by this Gospel call, grace is extended to us, each of us, and we are saved.
But the call to faith is never alone, just as faith is never without works that follow, so the call to faith is always coupled with a call to serve. In the case of the apostles, Christ called them to serve in a very particular way – first as disciples and witnesses, learning and observing everything for 3 years - then as preachers and even fathers of the church, through whom he would build and establish his body on earth.
But the call to you and me also comes with work to do. For all Christians are servants, first of God, but also of one another. All of us have a place in the body, a calling to fulfill, a role to play. These vocations – husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, preachers and hearers... all Christian vocations are callings from God to be done in faith and for the benefit of our neighbor. Faith doesn't sit in the vacuum. Faith is active and living. It seeks to fulfill its calling.
Notice how, when Jesus calls Nathanael, he doesn't do so personally and immediately. He uses a go-between. Phillip, who himself had just been called to follow, now calls yet another. So also, we are called by the Spirit through the agency of another Christian. Perhaps it was your parents who taught you the faith. Maybe a pastor or teacher. Maybe a faithful friend or neighbor. Sometimes we are the Phillip. Sometimes we are the Nathanael. Sometimes we are the one who invites others to hear Christ – to come and see. Sometimes we are the one being called.
The calling of Nathanael also teaches us that Christ's call to faith is by grace. What was Nathanael doing when Jesus called him? Sitting around, under a tree. What qualifications or bragging rights did he have? What mighty works or holy credentials? Nothing we are told. Although, Jesus did pay him a high compliment – he called him a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. High praise compared to the many in Israel who were full of deceit.
When it comes to deceit, self-deception is among the worst of it. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But here was Nathanael, who appeared to be a true believer – waiting, like all true believers of old, for God's promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled. A true Israelite would have humbly acknowledged his sin, and sought the mercy of God for his salvation. And this true Israelite would find it in the one who now called him.
That calling leads to confession. At first, Nathanael was skeptical. What good can come from Nazareth? Perhaps he knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. What good can come from the son of a carpenter? But little did he know, this was truly the Son of God. Until he did. When Jesus demonstrates his divine knowledge to Nathanael, the new disciple confesses just that – that this Rabbi is the Son of God!
Notice all the titles Jesus receives in this brief reading: Messiah. Rabbi. Son of God. Son of Man. It's the Epiphany season, after all, so why not mention some of the many aspects of who Jesus is?
He's the Rabbi, the great teacher. He has something to teach us – namely, the Word of God. He knows it like no one else does. He fulfills it like no one else can. Indeed, these scriptures are they that testify to him. He would spend years teaching these hard headed disciples he had just called, and only after his resurrection, by the power of the Spirit, would they come to understand so much of what he had been teaching them.
He's “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote”, that is to say, the Messiah. He is the one, the anointed one, set aside to save his people Israel. He's the one and only savior, who does what no one else can do. And he was appointed to this from the very foundation of the world. He's the fulfillment of their hopes and expectations. He's the one the prophets saw from afar, now arrived, in the flesh. Jesus himself would teach us of the scriptures, “these are they that testify to me”.
He's the Son of Man. He is a true man, like us in every way yet without sin. He is the one man, in whom all men are represented. He is the one man, to become the scapegoat for all men's sin. The one man to bear the iniquity of us all. That as in Adam all men fell into sin, now in the one man, the Son of Man, Jesus, all men would be saved.
He's the Son of God. Not just a favorite or high ranking son. The only Son of the Father. Not a created offspring but the eternally begotten Son.
And it is important that the Messiah be both Son of Man and Son of God. Man, to live and die for us. God, to conquer death for us and have it count for all of us.
But there's one more moniker or description of Jesus in this reading – and it is from Jesus himself. He identifies himself as the ladder or stairway to heaven.
Remember Jacob's dream as he left the promised land to flee from his angry brother Esau and to find his wife and fortune in the land of Padan-Aram, in the house of his uncle Laban. On his way, he stopped to sleep and with his head on a rock – had a dream of a stairway to heaven, angels ascending and descending on it. God reiterated to Jacob his promises to Abraham, and that this land would be his and his offspring's. Though Jacob was about to go away for some time, God would be with him always.
Jesus uses this story, of which a true Israelite like Nathanael would have been very familiar, and he applies it to himself. He says, “Hey Nathanael. You think it's so great that I showed you a little divine knowledge. You'll see greater things that that. You'll eventually come to see that I, the one standing before you, that I am the very stairway to heaven. That it is through me and only through me is heaven is opened to sinners.”
Heaven is opened at Jesus' Baptism and Transfiguration, as the voice of the Father confirms his Son. Heaven is opened to receive Christ's Spirit, when he commits it to the Father in death. Heaven is opened to receive the resurrected and glorified Christ, as he ascends there to regain his rightful place. And in Christ, heaven is opened to us his people, for he has promised to prepare us a place and to come to bring us there.
And so, we are called to faith, called to service, and finally called to heaven – all through Jesus Christ – who we, like Nathanael, confess as Rabbi, Messiah, and Lord. He is the one worthy of following, both in this life and even unto death, and through the grave to a resurrection and eternity with the Father. Be faithful to your calling, Christians, for he is always faithful to you.