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Sermon Briefs: John 1:43-51

Bede of England, called "Venerable," treats today's scripture in Homily I.17 on the Gospels, probably preached sometime in the 720s to a monastic audience.1 His sermon is in the traditional "homily" style: Text-comment, text-comment, etc. After noting the "mystical" (= allegorical) significance of the two town names, Bethsaida ("the house of hunters" = hunters of souls, which is exactly what Philip started doing) and Nazareth ("of cleanliness," or "his flower" = the place from which an extraordinary teacher came to proclaim the flower of virtues and the cleanliness of sanctity), Bede emphasizes Philip's invitation, "Come and see," which wipes out any uncertainty by seeing and hearing for oneself. One "without guile," like Nathanael, exemplifies the sixth Beatitude, "blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8). Jesus' prior sight of Nathanael is understood to apply to his prior knowledge and calling of all Christians, borne of his love. The ascending and descending angels are christologically interpreted to intimate his dual nature announced by preachers: "The sublimity of Christ's divinity together with the weaknesses of his humanity." From his inextricably intertwined dual nature we may derive hope, that his divinity stooped to become as one of us, understanding our weakness, yet was not overcome by it. Thus, the mystery of his incarnation is the mark of our redemption.
Horace Bushnell, in his sermon, Heaven Opened,2 focuses on verse 51 of today's text. In what becomes a topical treatment, Bushnell seeks to make two points: That there slumbers in all souls a "supernatural sense," by which we may perceive beyond our natural senses, which is locked away by sin, and that Christ aims to open up this supernatural sense, that it may become an inlet of "universal society." In logical, deductive fashion, he ticks off the implications of each point. First, because we are related to God, there ought to be some kind of supernatural awareness. Such a sensibility is indicated, second, by certain signs, among which is the fact of "supernatural longings and perceptions" in each of us. Finally, the scriptures themselves boldly assume the existence of a supernatural sense in human beings, which may be drawn forth. As Christ declared to Nathanael, he will liberate this supernatural sense. He does so, first, by his very incarnation, in which he brings the supernatural solidly into the world's history. In this action, second, he is no mere visitor, but rather the savior of humanity. Thus, third, he brings to humanity doctrine of supernatural authority, namely an otherworldly righteousness which is available to us, a literal superhuman life of sacrifice, which unlocks our stultified supernatural sense. He accomplishes this by stimulating a faith borne of love, the love of Christ himself. His action in unlocking our slumbering supernatural sense overthrows any lingering rationalistic doubt, decisively proves the existence of immortality, and thus discloses salvation in its widest dimension: That we are related to a vast outspread supernatural society (his version of the eternal communion of saints), which is the eternal, immortal, transformed humanity of universal love.
Robert R. Howard
1. Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels: Book One: Advent to Lent, translated by Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst, Cistercian Studies Series, No. 110 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991), pp. 166-78. 2. Horace Bushnell, Sermons on Christ and His Salvation (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1886), pp. 435-56.