January 12, 2009

Heaven and Earth

by Debra Dean Murphy
1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51 (Second Sunday After the Epiphany)

Each year on the second Sunday after the Epiphany, the lectionary steers us away from the Synoptics, where we have been immersed in birth narratives, visiting magi, and the baptism of Jesus, and into the first part of John’s gospel, which contains none of these historical particulars. But the Johannine detour is significant for Epiphany, for these texts deal with the revelation of Jesus to Israel and to the world, making the claim that this One from Nazareth (“can anything good come from there?”) is the eternal Logos, Word made flesh, whose glory we have beheld.

It is the calling of the disciples that preoccupies the fourth evangelist here. (The Lectionary for Mass focuses on Peter and Andrew; the RCL treats the call of Philip and Nathanael). In Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael it becomes clear where the gospel writer’s interests lie. In summoning his followers, Jesus reveals his knowledge of them and of Israel’s promised future. Nathanael, a “true Israelite,” receives a promise that recalls another Israel(ite)—Jacob—who dreamed of God’s angels ascending and descending a ladder. What Jacob’s dream pointed to has now, says Jesus, come to pass (v. 51). What the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth makes possible is the meeting of heaven and earth for the salvation of the whole created order.

Like the boy Samuel in this week’s Old Testament lesson, Jesus stands poised to call Israel to newness of life, to a new way of imagining what God-with-us will mean. The invitation reads simply: “Come and see.” Philip persuades Nathanael with these words; a few chapters later the Samaritan woman will issue the same summons to another skeptical bunch. What Jesus invites us to cannot be grasped simply as head-knowledge; it is lived practice. “Watch me,” Jesus seems to be saying, “I will show you who God is and who you are to be. This will take some time.”

While explications of this week’s Epistle lesson often fixate on the sins of gluttony and illicit intercourse, another interpretive strand seems promising, especially in light of the call narratives of John and 1 Samuel: We live out the call of God in specifically embodied ways. “Glorifying God in our bodies” has to do with food and sex, to be sure, but it also encompasses an array of bodily practices (hospitality, for one) that bear witness to goodness of God in the world.

And, finally, Psalm 139 sums up the truth of God’s knowledge of us and of God’s call and claim on our lives. Here we are reminded that knowledge is not only episteme, but ontos; not mere cognition but radical participation. God’s knowledge of us and our knowledge of God are enacted as we exist as members of one another and of the Triune God.

As we glimpse such participation this side of the eschaton in, say, the Eucharist, we come to know something of the meeting of heaven and earth that makes possible the salvation of the whole created order.

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