Sunday, 14 January 2018

Epiphany 2: Being Known

‘Where did you come to know me?’ asks Nathanael of Jesus. ‘Where did you come to know me?’

Jesus’ answer surprises him.  “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”  That may not make much sense to us. What fig tree? We haven’t heard anything about a fig tree. But that’s the point. Jesus knows something he shouldn’t have known, something the narrator hasn’t even told us.  

Nathanael had originally been very sceptical about this man Philip had dragged him along to see. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he’d asked. We don’t know what he had against Nazareth, but it obviously had a bad reputation in the city of Bethsaida, where he lived. Every area has a town or a district which is bottom of the pile in terms of desirability – the wrong side of the tracks, the sink estate, the place where you know that if you put its postcode on your job application you are probably killing your chances. It may not be fair. It may not be right, but that’s how it is. Nazareth was that place, at least in Nathanael’s mind. He couldn’t imagine that any Messiah would come from Nazareth.

Still, Philip is his friend, so he decides that he will at least go and meet this man he’s so excited about.

But when he gets to Jesus he finds that Jesus, who has never met him, knows him through and through.  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”, he says. The word translated as deceit also means cunning, craftiness, the ability to be economical with the truth – an essential quality for diplomats and politicians!  Nathanael isn’t like that, says Jesus. And he’s quite right. We’ve already discovered that Nathanael is a plain speaking man. He wasn’t prepared to accept Philip’s opinion of Jesus uncritically just because it was the opinion of a friend.  He didn’t sugar the pill or pull his punches in expressing his opinion of Nazareth. Blunt would be the less polite description of him, or even rude. This is a man who calls a spade a spade. He doesn’t swim with the tide or blow with the wind. As Jesus says, there’s no deceit in him. He is who he is, take it or leave it. But how does Jesus know this, when they’ve never so much as exchanged a word before?

 “Where did you come to know me?” he asks. Was it a lucky guess, or something Philip had said?  No, it’s not that. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” says Jesus. That’s impossible – thinks Nathanael – unless God had showed this to Jesus.

It may not seem a very dramatic thing for Jesus to know, but it’s enough for Nathanael. And just as Nathanael was outspoken in his doubts about Jesus, he is now outspoken in his affirmation.  “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  Being known is the thing that swings it for Nathanael. He’s not just a-n-other person, he is someone whom the Son of God has seen and noticed, someone whom the King of Israel has sought out and called to himself.

Being known is a fraught business these days. I’ve spent quite a lot of time this week trying to decipher the requirements of the new General Data Protection Regulation – hereinafter referred to as GDPR. It’s a new law that’s coming into effect in May, which strengthens the existing Data Protection rules. It applies to every organisation and business which holds information about people, including churches, just as the old law did, so we need to know about it and put it into practice. If an organisation has a record of your name and address, your phone number, your email address, let alone any information that is more sensitive about you, then it has to comply with these regulations. We have to be clear why we’re collecting data and get explicit consent to use it, for example to send out mailings. We have to store it safely. We have to delete it if people ask us to. It enshrines our legal right to be “forgotten” – to have our details scrubbed from the records if we want to.  

Being careful with data helps to protect against identity theft and fraud, as well as giving people control over who knows what against them. People have a right to their privacy if they want it, something that’s even more important than it used to be now that the internet makes it alarmingly easy to find out all sorts of things about people that they might prefer us not to.

The irony is, though, that this new regulation is coming in at a time when we are also very  aware of the rise in loneliness. We guard our privacy, but we also want, and need, to be known by others, to feel connected, part of a community. The Loneliness Commission, a brainchild of the late Jo Cox, who was murdered before she had a chance to see it really gain ground, has uncovered some alarming statistics from research done by various organisations. A study done by the Co-op and the British Red Cross discovered that over 9 million adults in the UK– more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely. Action for Children found that 43% of young people using their services were lonely and fewer than half felt that they were loved. Age UK says that 3.6 million people over 65 feel that the television is their main form of company. Fifty percent of disabled people say they are lonely on any given day. Refugees and migrants report loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge according to charities that work with them. Not poverty or the uncertainty of their futures, worrying though those things may be, but loneliness, the feeling that no one notices or cares. Loneliness is now reckoned to be as bad for our health as obesity or lack of exercise. It seems it can literally kill you. Knowing and being known isn’t an optional extra which we can do without; it’s a life and death issue.  And it can affect anyone. People can be lonely in a crowd, lonely at work, lonely in the middle of a family, lonely when they are apparently successful and wealthy as well as when life is tough.

Of course, the new Data Protection regulations are important. Safeguarding personal information is important. We need to keep confidences confidential. But how do we balance that with the equally important need to be connected to others, known by them, open to one another? It’s a puzzle our society hasn’t really got anywhere near solving yet. When does keeping ourselves to ourselves turn into dangerous isolation? When does the friendliness we long for become the nosiness we hate?

As I thought about this in the light of today’s Gospel story, I wondered how I would have felt if I had been Nathanael, what it would have been like to know that someone knew something about me which I thought was private? To be sure, he’d only been sitting under a fig tree – it wasn’t as if he was up to no good – but isn’t it a bit unsettling to feel you might be being watched when you didn’t know about it? You wouldn’t get away with that under GDPR - you’ve got to tell people if you are using CCTV. GDPR would say that you can’t just go spying on people, however you do it, and I don’t think that being the Son of God would be any justification in law! And yet, Nathanael doesn’t seem to feel alarmed. Quite the reverse. He is so touched by the fact that Jesus knows him that his whole life is transformed. He becomes one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples.

The key is, of course, that Nathanael realises that the one who knows him also loves him, the one who sees him also cares about him. Like the Psalmist whose words we read this morning, he is comforted and honoured to know that he is known. There’s no sense in Psalm 139 that the writer feels his privacy is being invaded.  God created his inmost parts, and knit him together in his mother’s womb. God knows every word on his lips, when he sits down and rises up, where he journeys and where he rests.  You can’t invade someone’s privacy much more thoroughly than that. But the Psalmist trusts God. He knows that God isn’t going to use his knowledge of him to condemn him but to help him.

That raises some  important questions for us. How do we feel about God knowing us? If God were to offer to show us ourselves as he sees us, would we be alarmed or comforted? Would we rather not know? If we are cringing inside at the thought of being so thoroughly known, why is that? It might be that we are feeling guilty about something, afraid of being found out, but it might equally be that we know we have gifts, talents or longings which we don’t want to own up to, because if we did, we’d have to do something about them.

Being known can feel comforting and enabling but it can also feel threatening and invasive. The difference lies in whether we feel we are loved as well as known. If we are truly convinced of God’s love for us, we have nothing to fear from whatever he might show us of ourselves.

The same is true of our relationships with each other. Saying hello to our neighbours and smiling at our fellow commuters is a good first step – hardly rocket science -  but genuinely knowing and being known, which are the real antidotes to loneliness, take trust and courage and most of all love to achieve. We hold back because we’re afraid it might all go wrong and we’ll find we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. But trying to be open to others is worth the risk. It transformed Nathanael and it can transform us and those around us too. We need to start though, where Nathanael starts, by discovering that we are known and loved by God. That enables us to know and love ourselves. That’s the key to creating communities where we can know and love each other, where we can reach out to those around us and let them reach out to us, so that no one need be lonely.


...and here is a recording of the choir singing "View me Lord, a work of thine"  Words by Thomas Campion. Music by Richard Lloyd.

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