Readings: Genesis 28:10-19, John 1:43-51, Secrets of Heaven #3539:2, #3701 (see below)
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Photo by Johannes Plenio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/spiral-staircase-1102913/
Today we hear the story of Nathaniel’s conversion. As a character, he does not appear in any gospel apart from John, and is absent from the other gospel lists of the twelve disciples. This is not surprising though; the gospel of John does not seem to define discipleship as narrowly, or formally, as the other gospels. In this gospel, Nathanael appears twice; in our text for today, and also later when Jesus appears by the Sea of Galilee after the resurrection.
He seems something of a relatable figure, doesn’t he? Perhaps it is easy to recognize his skepticism in ourselves and others. Nathanael hails from Cana, and people from Cana generally despised folks from Nazareth. So, when he scoffs that nothing good can come from Nazareth, he is revealing his pre-existent bias. We all often fall into bias or prejudice, forming opinions from preconceptions, and we deserve to be challenged on it, drawn away from it, especially if we are public figures who set the tone for national discourse. Yet thankfully, Nathanael does not appear to be hardened in his ideas; he accepts Philips invitation to “come and see.” Upon seeing Nathanael, Jesus affirms his good character. His reference to Nathanael as an “Israelite” is meant to place him positively within the history of their tradition. Nathanael asks suspiciously, how do you know me? And Jesus reveals what Nathanael had been doing before Philip had come and found him. This hardly seems like much of a revelation; there could have been a number of ways Jesus could have found this out. But Nathanael is convinced. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that a fig tree traditionally denotes a place where rabbis study the Torah, and to Nathanael it was revealing something of his own private nature and aspiration. We don’t really know. Even so, even Jesus seems a little bemused by the speed of Nathanael’s reversal, and shares rather conspiratorially, “you will see greater things than that.” As we imagine Jesus whispering the same thing to us, it feels like an exciting promise, that we are being let into an amazing secret.
As we travel through the episode though, I believe that the true revealing of Jesus character is found not so much in the titles that Nathanael subsequently calls Jesus, but in verse 51, where Jesus says you will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. This is a reference to the story of Jacob’s ladder in the book of Genesis. In our reading today we learned that, while Jacob was on a journey, he stopped to sleep for the night and he had a dream. And he saw what Jesus was referring to here: “a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” The Lord is at the top, reiterating his promises to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, and making new promises to Jacob, including: I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
A Swedenborgian interpretation of this story of Jacob, involves the joining together of what is spiritual and what is earthly, essentially the process of our spiritual journey as earthly beings becoming spiritual beings. In order to be regenerated, we need to be able to raise up our understanding beyond the less than spiritual things that we love in this world. We need to be able to recognize the truth of God’s reality even if it is different from the habits and the loves we have formed in ourselves. For example, we might love winning arguments, but the truth of reality is that conversation and relationship is about connection not domination, and so should be opportunities for listening and empathy. Our relationships will likely suffer until we can arrive at a recognition of this fundamental truth. But this recognition *itself* doesn’t mean anything for our spiritual trajectory if we don’t bring that understanding back down to earth and enact change in our actual life. To do this, we would need to put aside the satisfaction that we get from besting our conversation partners, and thinking ourselves absolutely right, in order to really hear other people, and actually practice listening. The process of regeneration of our spirit, is that we ascend to realization and then we descend to actualization, the spiritual brought down and conjoined with the earthly. There are many ways to understand or to picture how this process works; the stairway suggests a connective loop but a spiral is also an image that is often and usefully employed.
What I find especially interesting in the juxtaposition of these two stories are the two different promises that God makes to Jacob and to Nathanael, promises made to us as well, when we are in these different headspaces. To Nathanael, Jesus says “you will see greater things than these.” This is an exciting promise filled with potential. It is about what we are going to be able to learn, how we are going to be able to expand our minds and our worldview. We are going to be amazed by what God is and what God can show us. There is more to know and experience and understand and we are being invited into that knowledge.
This is the promise that is spoken to us at the beginning of the ascent of the stairway. We begin here in all of our earthly details but sometimes we look up and we know there is more to life. We might be reasonably skeptical in our hope, we might take each rung carefully and that is okay. But the *promise* is that the stairway exists and it goes upward. The promise is that we can improve our state, ever increasing our capacity to love and make the world a better place. This kind of outward looking aspiration is what drives much of human learning, both secular and religious.
The other promise is to Jacob. God says: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” This is the promise of the descent. If the ascent is exciting and exhiliarating, the descent is not always so. Changing our habits, our desires, our selfish impulses, our social structures, is actually very hard work. Psychology has informed us that it takes nine positive thoughts to counteract one negative one, or that forming new habits takes three skills: attention, focus and purposeful repetition. Do any of those three things sound like they are supported and lifted up in this modern day and age? Not so much. Spiritual work can be discouraging, exhausting, and embarrassing. We will fail many times before we succeed. Think of trying not to lose our temper, for example. It is so very hard to dismantle our emotional habits around our various triggers. What about facing the reality of white privilege? Many of us will encounter layers and layers of shame and regret and defensiveness and uncertainty around this topic before we are able to contribute usefully to the dismantling of systemic racism. The promise of the descent though, indeed the promise contained within the incarnation itself, is that God does not stay at the top of the ladder while we go down into the scary hard work. God comes down with us, is present with us, through all of it. God’s whole purpose is to make a heaven from the human race, to connect the earthly and the spiritual within us, and this is a game way too important to coach from the sidelines. So God goes where we go, into the details, into the slog. And Jacob wakes up, recognizing that the lowly crossroads where he laid his head is the house of God; God was present and he didn’t realize it.
And this is one of the ways in which we can become derailed in our process, whereby we think that God only presides at the top of the stairway and that freedom and peace and satisfaction only exist at the top. It is possible to become so obsessed with self-actualization, with aspirationally being our best selves, that we forget about the descent when it matters, forget to be present to our life. The mistake is when we see the stairway as an escape from our life, not the way to transform our life.
The exact opposite case is demonstrated in the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He writes: “When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both—to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it Engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”(1)
And the gospels of Jesus underscore this point, as we progressively see how Jesus follows up on his comment to Nathanael. When he said “You will see greater things” he could have simply meant all his superhuman miracles, the transfiguration, the resurrection. These were awesome, awe-filled things. But he also meant touching and healing the unclean, he also meant the garden of Gethsemane, he also meant the cross, he also meant his fellow people of Nazareth. Jesus entered into the most broken and despised aspects of human life, as well as the good parts, as well into the potential. With him, the angels were ascending *and* descending all the time: You will see greater things AND I will not leave you. Jesus’ glorification was, and needed to be, a reflection of our own process, a reflection of the ascent and the descent, a reflection of a whole and connected loop, because God means to offer salvation to everyone and redemption to everything. A manufactured superhero Jesus bids us escape our lives and our contexts, and sometimes we really do wish that is what redemption is about: escape. But it is not, it is about transformation. A very wise lady once said to me: There is no way out but through.
And in the end, how else can we imagine that God and humankind could have any real partnership but with this balancing, this fundamental connection, between transcendence and immanence, between the great beyond and the right here. God powers the movement of the human spirit with a twin engine of divine promises: The divine carrot moving us forward, the divine companion holding us up. Praise be to God.
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, p91
10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” 18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” 48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” 50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Secrets of Heaven 3539:2
The goal of rebirth is for us to develop a new inner self and therefore a new soul, or spirit, but our inner self cannot be remade or reborn unless our outer self is too. Although we are spirits after death, we take with us into the other life aspects of our outer self: earthly emotions, doctrines, facts—in short, all the contents of our outer, earthly memory. These form the foundation on which our inner depths rest. Whatever priorities determine their arrangement, then, those are the priorities that inner things take on when they flow in, because inner things are modified on the outer plane. This shows that not only our inner, rational self needs to be reborn or remade but our outer, earthly self as well.
Secrets of Heaven 3701
And look: God’s angels going up and going down on it symbolizes infinite and eternal communication, and resulting union; it also symbolizes an apparent climb from the lowest level and then, when the pattern reverses, a descent.