Fruit, figs and fake news
‘Praying for America right now’.
That was the message I received from a friend and former US resident at 7.52pm on the Feast of the Epiphany. I immediately switched over to BBC News and witnessed crowds of angry rioters break into the US Capitol building, as talk of insurrection, revolution, and human fatalities was shared. Watching the chaos occur in real time was shocking and whilst my natural tendency is always to guard against media over dramatization of events, I winced at the memory of doing exactly that twenty years ago when I first heard a report of some plane crash in New York. And so, whilst praying for America and messaging friends across the world about what we were witnessing, my heart sank even further when one friend sent me the message ‘You seen the Jesus saves banner in the middle?’; complete with an unhappy face emoji. The more I looked, the more I saw – Jesus Saves; Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my President; and of course, that over-sized (and confusing on so many levels) flag – Jesus 2020. While some of our sisters and brothers were chalking doors, baking cakes and sharing presents to mark the Feast of the Epiphany, others were carrying weapons, breaking windows and attacking police.
We might, of course, want to say that those involved in the storming of the Capitol aren’t proper Christians; that they don’t really follow Jesus; and that they endorse wild conspiracies that would never make ground on these shores but to do so would be to too easily other those involved and ignorantly dismiss the fact that the conspiracy theories that incited the riot – stolen elections, shadowy global networks, deep state lies – have actually been shown to be most attractive within Christian communities, and not just in the States. An article in the UK Baptist Times from September suggests that, when it comes to conspiracy theories in the Church, we are facing an ‘insidious problem’ and I, myself, have heard Christians in the UK speak of vaccine conspiracies, Government orchestrated epidemics, and the belief that Trump is the new messiah. And perhaps all this is to be expected. After all, we are taught to ‘live by faith, not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7); are told that ‘God hides things from the wise and reveals them to little children’ (Luke 10:21); and we hold to beliefs that are impossible to prove or disprove. The comparisons between a conspiracy theorist and a Christian believer are significant. It’s little wonder, then, that Richard Dawkins and friends view the Christian faith as one big conspiracy designed to keep the powerful and poor in their designated place, all run by a Magisterium who quash curiosity, learning and truth!
With all that in mind, my question for us today is, why do we believe what we believe? Why do we hold the religious, political, or moral beliefs that we do? Where do our beliefs come from…or go to, for that matter? They’re all pretty fundamental questions and this season of epiphany, in which we dare to suggest that we can know something of God in this world, is the perfect time to address them. Or at least begin to. So let’s go down to Galilee and listen as Nathanael’s beliefs and life are turned upside down…
I wonder what you make of the turn of events – and beliefs – that are described in that passage. Perhaps you think that Philip and Nathanael seemed a bit eager to drop everything and follow Jesus – young men have been known to seek out leaders to follow in desperate times, after all. Or perhaps you think that Philip and Nathanael glimpsed some of the irresistible presence of God in Jesus. Perhaps you think that the account is simply sparse on detail and that, in reality, encounters and conversations would have been a lot deeper and longer. Maybe there is some truth in all of the above but for now, I’d like to suggest that there are three elements of Nathanael’s journey of revelation that we might learn from today and…given as I know you guys well…I thought we’d do this through the guise of food!
Firstly, then, we might ask what was Nathanael’s diet? What was the diet of information, beliefs and perspectives that he was imbibing? Well, we can extrapolate from the text that, like the majority of young Jewish men on his day, Nathanael would have been pretty well versed in the teaching of the Hebrew Testament. The Jewish scriptures would have informed his history, identity and worldview on a daily basis. It’s just as Jesus said last week in the wilderness – ‘one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4) so when Philip bowls over and says ‘we’ve found the one that Moses and the prophets wrote about’, Nathanael doesn’t look clueless. Far from it. In fact, when Philip tells him that the much-awaited figure is called Jesus and is from Nazareth, Nathanael retorts ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth!’. And it’s in this dialogue that I think we find the tension between the potential blessing and bias of tradition. On the one hand, tradition gives us the structure on which our understanding of the world and our place within it hangs. The stories of our people – our family or tribe; nation or faith community – feed us and enable us to make sense of an often-confusing world. They inform our sense of right and wrong; of how to behave and what to believe; of who we think we are, and in the case of faith, who we think God is. If we were starved of all of these, we would be left in a cold, random, materialist universe devoid of meaning and red in tooth and claw.
But just as our diet enables us to live and function, an unbalanced or unhealthy diet can cause us irreparable harm. The Capitol riots are testament to that. Fed on stories of a triumphalist faith, on Fox News nationalism, on words of fear and division from Presidents and preachers who taught them that they are engaged in a holy crusade against forces of darkness, the rioters were sick with hate and anger. It’s the same diet that has allowed Christians to wage crusades, captain slave ships, and drive women, men and children into gas chambers and it’s a diet made out of othering, dehumanizing, and condemning whole groups of people. Nothing good can come from those people. It’s the kind of rhetoric we got used to hearing from the Hater-in-Chief and, clearly, Nathanael’s eaten up a version of it too. Nazareth, was said to be some insignificant village where insignificant people lived ad died. It isn’t even mentioned in the Hebrew Testament, so why would God have anything to do with it? Nothing good could come from there.
And with that, Nathanael’s life with Christ could have ended before it began. On hearing Nathanael’s remark, Philip could have shrugged his shoulders, said ‘fair enough’ and left Nathanael to his own prejudices. Instead, he repeats the invitation that Jesus previously gave to him, saying to Nathanael ‘come and see’. No judgmental rant. No clever argument, flattery or persuasion, just ‘come and see;’. Which brings us to the importance of fruit in our diets…perhaps especially in these lockdown days!
You see, contrary to what Dawkins and pals think, the Christian faith doesn’t rely on blind obedience and submissive acceptance of commands from on high. Jesus never hands out a list of 101 fundamental beliefs to which we must subscribe. Life might actually be much easier if he did! But instead, he tells the truth slant, through parables and poetry; with many more questions than he gives answers; through surprising actions and with surprising people. God decides to teach us how to live and love through a baby born in poverty, a child refugee, a crucified criminal and an Emmaus stranger. You might think that that’s a risky way of doing things when you’re dealing with, y’know – life, the universe and everything. Perhaps that’s why Jesus pointed us towards the importance of fruit in our diet –
‘A good tree cannot bear bad fruit’, Jesus told his friends, ‘ Nor can a bad tree bear good fruit’ (Matthew 7:18). In other words, don’t just accept what you are fed, look at the fruit of those doing the teaching. Are they loving? Do they promote peace and patience, kindness and goodness? Does their teaching result from, or lead to, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? If not, the teaching is not of God. If a belief, a tradition, a call to action doesn’t fit into this framework, then lay it aside, or at the very least question it, for Jesus says it’s the meek not the mighty who will inherit the Earth; the gracious, not the greedy, who will enter the kingdom first; and when Jesus marches into a capital with a band of followers, he does so with songs, palm leaves and a parody of worldly power, not with guns, violence and a desperate attempt to cling to it. So the question is, where is the fruit in our diet – are we seeing enough of it?
Which brings me to figs – of course – because, in the events as described in John’s account of things, Nathanael is yet to see the fruit of Jesus’ actions before he has his revelation about him. So what illuminated Nathanael’s thinking? Some foresight of Jesus? Some glimpsing of God’s Spirit at work in him? Maybe. It’s hard to know. But what we can say is that Nathanael had to leave the fig tree for any revelation to occur. Nathanael didn’t have to accept Philip’s invitation to come and see. It would have been much easier for him to stay in his comfort zone and remain locked in his belief that God would not work through someone from Nazareth. Being open to discover more about God might mean finding out we were wrong! It might mean feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable as we learn about our own hidden assumptions and prejudices. It might also lead to an encounter with Jesus the Christ! If we are to follow Jesus – the one who is the way, the truth and the life – we have to leave our fig trees; to admit that we don’t have all the answers; to embrace new discoveries, try new delicacies, in the belief that we will taste and see that God is good (Psalm 34:8).
Okay…I think I’ve pushed the food metaphor beyond breaking point now…but let me just make ensure that by encouraging us all to reflect on what our diet looks like. Are we taking in things that are good for the body and the soul? What’s the agenda of the stories, the headlines, tweets that we are taking in? Do those from whom we’re eating produce good fruit? Do they promote a world of kindness, divine goodness and sacred solidarity or one of fear, scarcity and division? Are we prepared to leave our fig trees, to believe in and look out for God’s presence in the yet undiscovered?
If we are, then perhaps that banner in the rioting crowd will be true for us. For Jesus can save us from naive certainties, conspiracy theories and power games; from narcissist leaders, the tyranny of our own egos and much more besides. Not convinced? Come and see. Amen.
 And if you’re going to do that, there’s no better place than a fig tree as the Bible tells us their fruit can be unreliable (Mark 11:12ff) and their leaves can hide ugly realities (Genesis 3:7!)
Prayers of intercession –
taken from the Church of Scotland’s Weekly Worship – https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/worship/weekly-worship
We pray for Your World. May all that is divided by doctrine or politics, class or nationality, be united in hope. We pray for a peaceful world, where children grow up without fear, where security rests on trust rather than threats, and where nations fight against poverty rather than against each other.
We pray for all in authority, that those who lead us, may establish right priorities, and that by Your wisdom and their vision the world may reflect Your kingdom.
Healing God, we pray for those who are ill and suffering, for all who are worried for those who are grieving or experiencing trauma and for a world gripped by the repercussions of pandemic. May we all know the power of Christ to sustain us and the love of friends near and distanced to support us.
You know our greatest fears, our longings and our hopes, sometimes these are expressed in so many different ways, so Lord, in Your mercy, hear, now, the people and places on our hearts and minds today… [Time of silent prayer].
Eternal God, Present among us. You are with us in our gathering. You are with us in our distancing. Hear our prayers, and blend our voices together, unite us by Your Spirit as we join together in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, saying, in the language of our heart, Our Father, who art in heaven…
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: 18–25 January 2021
Abiding in Christ
8 Daily Meditations by the Sisters of Grandchamp
“You did not choose me but I chose you” – (John 15:16a)
Genesis 12:1-4 The call of Abraham John 1:35-51 The call of the first disciples
The start of the journey is an encounter between a human being and God, between the created and the Creator, between time and eternity.
Abraham heard the call: “Go to the land I will show you”. Like Abraham we are called to leave that which is familiar and go to the place that God has prepared in the depths of our hearts. Along the way, we become more and more ourselves, the people God has wanted us to be from the beginning. And by following the call that is addressed to us, we become a blessing for our loved ones, our neighbours, and the world.
The love of God seeks us. God became human in Jesus, in whom we encounter the gaze of God. In our lives, as in the Gospel of John, God’s call is heard in different ways. Touched by his love, we set out. In this encounter, we walk a path of transformation – the bright beginning of a relationship of love that is always started anew.
“One day you understood that, without your being aware of it, a yes had already been inscribed in your innermost depths. And so you chose to go forward in the footsteps of Christ….
In silence in the presence of Christ, you heard him say, ‘Come, follow me; I will give you a place to rest your heart.’” [The Sources of Taizé (2000) p. 52]
Jesus Christ, you seek us, you wish to offer us your friendship and lead us to a life that is ever more complete. Grant us the confidence to answer your call so that we may be transformed and become witnesses of your tenderness for the world.
- Have you ever been aware that God was asking you or someone you know to begin a new journey in life – whether literally moving to somewhere else, or ‘changing direction’ in some other way? How did you respond?
- What changes could your church or group of churches make to empower God’s people to walk more faithfully the path God has set for you, or to discern God’s guidance more clearly?
- What are some of the stories of the ‘new’ members of your community, whether they have crossed a county boundary or journeyed across continents to get there?
Go and Do
Global: Get informed about and take action on global refugee and asylum issues and campaigns.
Local: Participate in any hospitality being offered locally to those who have had no choice but to go on a long journey to find safety in an unfamiliar place across the world.
Personal: Spend time exploring what is unfamiliar to you in another Christian tradition and which might help lead you to greater understanding and unity.