The most remarkable words in today’s Gospel reading (John 1:43-51) are these words spoken by Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” In painting this picture, Jesus is alluding to an incident in the book of Genesis (28:10-22) where Jacob has a vision of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven and angels ascending and descending on it. Jesus is clearly saying he is that ladder; he is the link between humanity and God! It is in this light that we should understand that other saying of Jesus, that no one comes to the Father but through him (John 14:6). In saying that Jesus was not promoting a particular religion or particular church or particular view of salvation. He was saying the same thing about himself as here speaking to Nathanael.
The other image in today’s Gospel reading is the fig tree. Fig trees are often used in the Bible as images of fellowship. Note the following examples from the prophets:
Hosea 9:10 Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors.
Micah 4:3-4 He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
Zechariah 3:10 “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.”
Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree the way God saw Israel (Hosea 9:10, Micah 4:4). The fig tree was a place of fellowship (Zechariah 3:10).
In the reading from Hebrews we hear a long list of heroes of faithfulness. But the greatest hero of faith is Jesus himself, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Did you notice that? We are so used to thinking of the Cross as the instrument of salvation that it comes as a surprise here to read “for the sake of the joy that was set before him” he endured the cross. What is that joy? Clearly the joy of being the ladder, the place of communion and fellowship, between God and humanity!
The best way to tell another person about something wonderful you have discovered is simply to say, “Come and see.” It’s the language of children who want to share their discovery of a new hiding place, or the nest of a bird or new animal in the neighborhood, or a new video game they got on their birthday. “Come and see” – there is joy and excitement in those words.
So with joy Jesus speaks those words first in John’s Gospel, to Andrew and another disciple. Then Philip spoke those words to Nathanael. Seeing is more powerful than hearing. We say, I want to see with my own eyes if I’m to believe. Words don’t always convince us. We have to see. And so here in the first chapter of John, seeing is believing. At the end of John’s Gospel, seeing is believing in the case of Thomas.
Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree. And he promises Nathanael that he will “see greater things than these….” He “will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
The language is the language of seeing, of vision. Perhaps that’s why it’s a good reading for today, when we commemorate the restoration of icons in the year 843 after a century of iconoclasm in the Byzantine empire. Even if you look at our small selection of large wall icons, the message is clear: Jesus is indeed the link. He enters into the physical world in his baptism,
he enters the city of Jerusalem to fulfill his mission,
he enters death to open the floodgates of union with God,
he shines with divine glory on the mountain to allow his disciples to see with their own eyes the glory that would be theirs,
and we see with our own eyes in the dormition of Mary her entry into that glory.