‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
‘Our seas are in danger,’ you may have said after the last episode of Blue Planet 2, ‘but can anything good come out of the politicians?’
‘My family is impossible,’ you may perhaps have said, ‘can anything good come out of my brother / sister / mum / dad / kids?’
‘Can anything good come out of Haiti, El Salvador or certain African countries?’ is a question that seems to be exercising the President of the US just now.
And sometimes these people surprise you. Suddenly the Prime Minister announces a move against the plague of plastic in our oceans. The person you have written off as impossible or terminally uncool turns out to have a wise thought about online banking, or your love life, or what subjects to choose at school. And sometimes the people you have decided have nothing to offer will come up trumps. As it were.
This season of Epiphany is a time of showing and seeing, a time to look at those moments in the Christian story that show who Jesus really is. Last week, we heard of wise men coming to see a child they saw as the king of the Jews; and we remembered the baptism of Jesus, with the voice from heaven identifying him as God’s Son. Today, Philip meets an adult Jesus and sees in him the one that all his people’s history has been leading up to, the one Moses and the prophets spoke about. Philip becomes a follower of Jesus, and the next thing he does is tell Nathaniel his friend.
Now comes the first obstacle to Jesus in his ministry. He may be the Son of God, but he’s also from the wrong town, at least according to Nathanael, who asks whether anything good can come out of a hole called Nazareth. Philip disagrees, but he doesn’t argue. He just says, ‘Come and see’.
Philip and Nathaniel each stand for something important. Nathaniel stands for the prejudices that we all have to a degree: the assumptions we make that we know all about a place or a person or a group, and that they can never surprise us and have nothing to offer us. In a mild form these prejudices make our lives less rich, less fun than they might be. In their stronger forms they produce snobbery, sexism, homophobia, racism. For an antidote, try the Christian gospel, which introduces us to a God who seems to have a genius for using unexpected people.
Philip, on the other hand, stands for something at the heart of that gospel, and God’s purpose for you and me, when he says those three short words ‘come and see’. ‘Christianity,’ said Samuel Taylor Coleridge (writer of ‘The Ancient Mariner’) ‘is not a theory, or a speculation, but a Life, and a living Process. Try it.’ This means that Christianity is not at its heart about being good or having a certain philosophy of life, though it involves both, just as sport is not at its heart about being fit, and singing in a choir is not at its heart about being mentally agile. These are among the benefits, they may even be what draws you in at first, but if they are your chief reason for playing or singing, then the music or the sport will become a grind. No, the heart of it must be love - the love of making music, the love of the game.
So with Christianity. At its heart is not about being good but about seeing God - and loving it. That seeing may come through a dramatic experience, like John’s vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation this morning; or it may come more gradually, like a photograph developing (for those of you old enough to remember what that means). No matter - as long as you see in Jesus the one in whom your longings are beginning to be answered, the one who shows us the human face of God. And like most things that really matter, it loses something if it’s not shared; which brings us back to Nathanael.
Nathanael also stands for all those people who are decent enough, but don’t think much of us, who ask, ‘Can anything good come out of the Church of England?’ Nathanael; or his female counterpart - Nathalie perhaps - let’s call them Nat. So who is Nat?
If Nat is one of those people - just over one in three in the Salisbury area - aged 55plus, then her cohort is quite well represented here (though there is always room for more). But if Nat belongs to the 16-30 age group, just under one in five in Salisbury, then he is under-represented here.
And what might that Nat be doing this morning instead of being here? He may just have surfaced from bed, may be a bit hung over, though statistics suggest that this is now a little less likely than in the past. Or, of course, she may be at work, part of the 7-day economy.
And Nat may not think much of us, if he thinks of us at all. According the British Social Attitudes survey just 3 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds now consider themselves to be members of the Church of England. If she watched episode one of BBC2’s A Vicar’s Life on Friday (unlikely) she’d have heard these words, just seventeen seconds in: ‘Times are changing…congregations are ageing, and faith is fading…People in this country do not go to church.’ So - can anything good come out of the Church of England? ‘Nah!’ says Nat, and flicks back on to Netflix.
Now it’s not all that bad. There is a fair crowd of us here at this our third service of the day. In a few minutes we are going to dedicate the paper stars that nearly a thousand people hung on our prayer tree over Christmas, each one inscribed with hopes and fears and thanks and longings. Here at least, quite a few people do ‘come and see’ - when the stars ran out they used scraps of paper and even part of a coffee cup - but still there is the sceptical Nat, and we care about him and her, we want to share, not least because Nat may sometimes spend time hanging out in the Cathedral Close.
The people who will be interviewed next week to be Dean of Salisbury will have read in the blurb that we need the new Dean to help the Cathedral engage with the Nats of this world. But to what end? What is our agenda with Nat? To criticise or condemn? Not at all. To convert? No, at least, not if that means arguing Nat out of one set of opinions and into another set that you or I agree with. We just want to be inviting: to say, like Philip does, ‘Come and see’. All the rest, is God’s business and can be left to God.
This is not easy. The Diocese of Salisbury is offering us some expert help in the task. I know of no master stroke that will achieve this; but I do know that the most inspired ideas will fail - unless we can be like Philip, unless those who are regulars here can be ‘open-hearted insiders’. The original Nathaniel does not really find Jesus: it’s Jesus who finds him. Philip gives the invitation but Jesus has already spotted Nathaniel, and Philip - though he is an ‘insider’ - is not the true host in this act of hospitality. His job then is to do or say nothing to distract from Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus. In the end his master stroke is not to get in God’s way.
Open-hearted insiders a phrase from Nina Simon’s book The Art of Relevance.