John 1: 47-51
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Welcome to the Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels. The Gospel of John is often thought of as the “spiritual gospel”. Perhaps, but those ascending and descending angels we just heard about, the ones revealed by the opening of heaven, expose a world where the spiritual and the earthly exist side by side and intertwined. Consider that the heavens opening might not indicate the extraordinarily uncommon event we at first imagine. The heavens opening could be thought of as simply the dawn of a new day or as an awakening of human consciousness, a new light shining on the comings and goings of the angels among us, angels moving easily between the plains of heaven and earth, revealing the remarkable in the midst of the mundane.
As Harvard’s Peter Gomes said of this encounter of mutual recognition between Nathanael and Jesus, “Such cosmic transitions are always accompanied by angels who minister between realms”.
That’s what is going on in the last verse. The attendance of angels upon the Son of Man indicates that Jesus is to operate in the realm of the earthly and the divine. Our calling is not really so different. Ours is a calling to live in this place, to live on earth, but to recognize with Jacob and with Nathanael that we are to look for greater things than these – to look at the ordinary and glimpse the divine.
In the 1987 German film “Wings of Desire”, Bruno Ganz plays the role of an angel who longs to be human. In a remarkable scene where two angels, sit together in the leather seats of their parked Mercedes on a grim, cold winter day in post war Berlin, they exchange stories of what they have witnessed. One describes how, “200 years ago Blanchard flew over the city in a balloon” or how “a man who wished to end his life put collector’s stamps on letters and mailed them”, or of “an old man reading the Odyssey to a child. The angels talked of “a passerby in the rain, who folded her umbrella and was drenched”. At the end of the recitation of one seemingly ordinary incident after another, an angel announced, ‘It’s great to live by the spirit, to testify day by day.”
But then, the other angel admitted that he was sometimes fed up with his spiritual existence and longed to, “sit at the empty place at a card table and be nodded to” or to “feed the cat like Phillip Marlowe” or “to have his fingers blackened from the newspaper.” It seems that they were destined to remain spirit and not know what it was like to eat a sausage.
Ultimately, what moved one angel to taste humanity was his desire for love, particularly his desire to love a trapeze artist, who each day would climb the ladder leading to her trapeze and float, back and forth, through space. Wearing her winged costume she ascending into the upward reaches of the heavenly circus tent and then descended to the level of the crowd below.
This same imagery of angels ascending and descending is present in both the readings from Genesis and the passage from the Gospel of John. In Genesis there is the familiar story of Jacob bedding down for the night with a stone for a pillow and dreaming of a ladder extending from earth to heaven, replete with angels ascending and descending upon it. In the dream, God tells Jacob of his destiny as the father of the people of Israel and how all the families of the earth would be blest in him and his offspring.
In the reading from John, we find Nathanael, impressed with Jesus’ clairvoyance, with his knowledge of his whereabouts earlier under the fig tree. Seemingly, this cheap parlour trick was enough to convince Nathanael that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus immediately let Nathanael know that this was nothing – that accompanied by the ascent and descent of angels, Nathanael would see far greater things – that he would learn to recognize the truly remarkable. The lesson that Jesus had for Nathanael was not simply that he was capable of knowing that he had been sitting under the a fig tree studying the torah – before his buddy Phillip roused him from his repose. Instead, consider the story as a way of learning to recognize the divine in the midst of the ordinary. Nathanael’s voice calls Jesus the “Son of God”, and Jesus responds by calling himself, as he usually does, the “Son of Man”.
What are we to make of all this talk of ascending and descending angels? You know, if we had just met Jesus and he was able to tell us that we had been sitting under a fig tree a few hours earlier, we might have been impressed as well. After all, that’s an attention-getting feat, a splashy bit of show business. But no angels were present, no opening of heaven to reveal angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
As most of you know, I’m the church planter, my job is to work with fellow spiritual seekers in Benton County to create a new Episcopal Church. As a church planter, I spend my days finding people, much as Phillip found Nathanael and told him about Jesus, I tell people about this new band of Jesus’ followers that is forming in Bentonville.
It is a truly exciting endeavor. Creating a Christian community in the shadow of, what is perhaps, the world’s most powerful corporation, presents opportunities and challenges like no other. But I’ve come to realize, over these past few months, that it is the angels among us that will show us the way. What I’m really doing is attending to the presence of God’s messengers. I am in the enviable position of witnessing the progression of angels as they ascend and descend a ladder to heaven. I’m learning that our task isn’t just to find a piece of earth – find an empty lot and build a church building – our mission is to recognize those places where earth and heaven collide.
Now I know that the progressive and fair minded citizens of Fayetteville sometimes tend to look at the goings-on in Bentonville with a bit of skepticism. You might be tempted to ask, as Nathanael did of Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Bentonville?”
And just as an answer came to Jacob as he woke from his troubled sleep amid the hard stones on the plains between Beer-sheba and Haran, I have to proclaim as well, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” And just as Jacob’s revelation was accompanied by the presence of ascending and descending angels, so has my vision of what a church would be like in Bentonville, Arkansas been illuminated by the vertical passage of angelic hosts.
Consider a sampling of the winged creatures that make up our Benton County congregation:
A wound care nurse, who for years used her unique combination of skill and compassion to scrape and peel and drain the lesions and wounds of a hospital’s sickest patients.
A financial planner, who explores not just the lofty financial goals of his clients, but hunkers down with them to help them understand what it is that is really important.
A hospital administrator, while climbing the ladder of success, struggles to quiet the insistent voices in his head so that he might engage in contemplative prayer.
A psychologist, having plumbed the depths of her own loss and grief, uses her wisdom and experience, to lift her clients toward renewal and wholeness.
A golf course grounds keeper, who desires to understand the beauty of our liturgy.
A Wall Mart Information Technology specialist, with a passion for social justice, intent on elevating the status of the poor and disenfranchised.
An artist, living with depression, seeking the consolation of community as a way of lifting himself above his pain.
An elderly couple, having raised a gay son, now seek to help other parents whose children’s lives have turned out differently than the parents might have imagined.
Teachers who daily stoop to the level of their students and enable them to attain great heights.
An architect whose work towers above the skyline, but whose passion is to create a sustainable world.
And a young man, recently returned from a Peace Corp assignment in East Africa, still intent on aiding others in their slow climb from the depths of poverty.
Angels, everyone, proclaiming of Bentonville as Jacob did of the land that was to become Israel, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” These are the angels among us who, by their presence, point the way to Christ.
Rabbi David Cooper, in his remarkable book God is a Verb, notes that angels are “concentrations of cosmic influence” – that each rung up the angel’s ladder represents a higher level of consciousness. Rabbi Cooper writes of a traditional Jewish bedtime prayer with the following invocation to the four archangels, “May Michael be on my right, Gabriel on my left, Uriel in front of me, Raphael behind me”. An awareness of being surrounded by the angelic presence of Michael the messenger, the strength of Gabriel, the healing power of Raphael, and Uriel, the light of God, is an image of no small comfort.
However, if I may be permitted to take this rather high-flying notion of angels down a notch once more, let’s understand that strength and light and healing and messages from God are also provided by angels absent wings – by the angels that live and work and walk among the people of St. Paul’s and among the emerging Episcopal Community in Bentonville.
This ascending and descending of angels – angels moving through our world showing respect for life, seeking peace, working for justice, ending poverty, and caring for the earth. The work of God revealed by the opening of the heavens, revealed by the opening of our eyes, and revealed in the mutual recognition of Jesus and Nathanael. Nathanael recognized Jesus as the communicator between heaven and earth, and Jesus recognized Nathanael as a disciple – an angelic revelation of the savior, to the saved.
And just as the cinematic angel depicted in Wings of Desire, longed to taste humanity, and fell in love with the trapeze artist, it is our love for Christ, for humanity, that enables the Episcopal communities of Fayetteville and Bentonville to recognize, empower, and create angels among us.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church