Perhaps you know what it`s like when someone says: “So-and-so has just had a baby”. Understandably, the immediate response is one of great warmth and interest. But then someone chips in with: “So what was the baby`s weight?”
I well understand why this question is often asked but when I overheard this a few weeks ago, I found myself coming out in sympathy with the child in question. The baby was only a day old and already they were being measured, tested, assessed- literally `weighed in the scales`. Then I thought- it won`t be long before Ofsted goes to work on them!
The tendency to compare is everywhere and this is the time of year when our vulnerability is put to the test. Just look at the strap lines in the New Year papers- and the front covers of the glossy magazines by the check-out. The bold announcement that they have discovered that miracle: the `eat-all-you-like` diet. That easy route to that new and desirable you.
It seems that at every turn we are beset by anxiety. The name of the game is measurement, comparison and the assessment of our progress, value and worthiness. It`s no wonder so many of us live with an almost permanent sense of dissatisfaction- just ask anyone who pays golf!
So it`s no wonder that for many of us the immediate recourse is self-defence. For many this means the wearing of a `mask`. We adopt particular ways of behaving. We take to ourselves the material goods and pretentions that other will approve of. It`s more convenient, we say, to `put on a front` for fear they might find out the truth. And our fear is that if they did find out the truth, then we would be rejected; weighed in the scales and found wanting.
And we learn from an early age how important these strategies are. For we know how cruel the world can be. A Member of Parliament suggested this week that employers might consider using application forms which omit any reference to where the applicant was educated. This was to prevent this particular means of assessment having too much influence over the outcome. In the same way, we know how the mere mention of where someone was brought up- particularly if it`s from `up north` -can have the same effect. We call it `prejudice` – and it`s something of what was going on in our Gospel reading for today (John 1.43-51).
Nathaniel is told about Jesus. Now, Nathaniel is a bright lad. He knew his scriptures- all that stuff about being under a fig tree seems designed to flatter his image of himself as studious since this was favoured place for the learned to sit. However, just the very mention of Nazereth- Jesus` home town- just raised all his prejudices. But there`s something deeper going on.
Jesus evidently touched a nerve. Jesus quipped about Nathaniel being `an Israelite in whom there is no deceit`- a straight talking sort of chap. But this was a joke. He had been found out and Nathaniel bristled. “How do you know me?” he said. Jesus was, it seems, taking a look behind Nathaniel`s mask.
One of the interesting features of John`s Gospel, for me, is the way he tells the Good News of Jesus through a series of meetings or encounters. However, these meetings are distinguished by their candour. (Look for instance at the meeting between Jesus and the woman at the Well (John 4.) For the point is that Jesus will not allow prejudices, attitudes or pretentions to get in the way. The meetings are very `face to face` and Jesus take the initiative. The spirit of this is typified in a scene from the play `Son of Man` where Pilate is seen removing a blindfold from the eyes of Christ. Christ responds by telling the Governor-“There`s no need to be afraid”.
I think this is why so many of us find prayer so difficult. It`s not just that we find it hard to sit still. It`s because there`s no surrounding applause to tell us that we`re achieving something. We`re so conditioned to compare, assess and measure that we feel adrift when there`s no one to declare us `acceptable or to affirm that we`re `getting somewhere`. On the contrary it`s often very quiet indeed. All that remains is what`s left behind the mask- just US, as we are.
It was Archbishop William Temple who said “Your religion is what you do with your solitude”. In other words, it`s all about what occupies you; where your thoughts and dreams go when there is no one looking. This is not an easy reflection to make but this is where, I believe, Nathaniel`s encounter with Christ leads us. To pray with that question: “Where did you come to know me?”
What matters is that we stay with this question long enough. Because if we do we`ll come to see it not as a source of fear but of encouragement. This is how St. Paul seems to have seen things. In that famous passage to the Corinthians he says: “Now I know only in part. Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13.12). Paul submits to the gaze of Christ- and knows that Christ does not crush, or criticise or measure- he just knows: he understands.
To pray, to sit there and not to run away. That`s the thing. I`m reminded of a remark by a former Tutor of mine: “Grace swallows you whole”.
I would also invite you to notice how, in these first few chapters of John`s Gospel we are introduced to an array of different characters. We`ve thought about the bluster of Nathaniel, from behind his mask. But we could also consider the impetuous Peter; Andrew, who appears permanently in his brother`s shadow- and Philip who just seems out of his depth. But what intrigues me is how, in coming to Christ their various character traits are somehow not diminished but enhanced.
Let`s look at Philip for a moment. We are perhaps most familiar with the scene later in the Gospel where Philip makes the singularly dumb request: “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied”. To which Jesus replies with some weariness, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip and still you do not know me? The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14). However, the point s that Philip (out of his depth and failing to understand) draws from Jesus one of His most significant sayings in all of the Gospels. The irony is that even Philip`s `not getting it` was a way of serving Christ.
Part of growing up- as I see it- and part of growing up in faith is learning to recognise how we are `wired`. Understanding our own character, temperament, strengths and weaknesses and learning not to compare ourselves with others, particularly in matters of faith.
So the point is not “I`ll be a proper Christian when I`m like them”- but I`ll be a proper Christian when I`m more authentically me. Again, in the Gospel Christ calls a rich array of characters to follow him. And these characters are not flattened but enhanced. So if you are wired for liveliness- let that serve him. If you are wired as a solitary, reflective sort- let that serve him. But remember that the grace lies in the fact that even your foibles and failings can serve him if you will only offer them to him. But you can only do this once you have recognised them for what they are- from behind the mask.
In his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 6) Paul declares how important he regards our bodies. We are, he says, `Temples of the Holy Spirit`. But notice, he doesn’t qualify his remarks by saying that only those of a particular gender, weight, physique or mental quality are acceptable.
No, Christ wishes to embody you this week. Yours is the shape he chooses to adopt. Without the mask. Without the fear of inadequacy. Without the worry of what others will think. Without the nagging wish that we could be some other apparently more acceptable shape. The call is to let all the richness- and even the contradictions- in your character serve him.
Do not try to be what you are not. Do not try to be what you think you ought to be. Make the offering- and let him do the rest. Paul says: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12.1)
This is the point of the prayer we use at the end of the eucharist:
“Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work
to your praise and glory.
Make the offering- and let God `happen` to you.