I will never forget walking the streets of Cité du Peuple, outside of Cap-Haitien, Haiti, with a young pastor named Mario. He was considering a call to work in a church in the city. “I cannot imagine raising a family and pastoring a church, let alone living in this slum,” he shared. Yet this reflection is no different from people who walk the more difficult areas of my home city, Montreal, Canada, muttering how undesirable it really is. Or the people who are convinced that if they lived in a different section of the city (usually closer to the outer suburbs or more affluent neighbourhoods), worked for a different company, or worked in a better environment that it would be a lot easier to follow Jesus.
But if God, by his Spirit, transforms people, is he not interested in the places we live as well? If we look closely at the movement of mission in scripture and Jesus’ life, we see that the biblical narrative takes us from the particular to the universal in the lives of people, in specific moments in time and in geography.
Beginning in John 1:43-51, the Apostle John gives us a glimpse into a theology of place. The larger paragraph (1:35-51) deals with initial encounters between Jesus and his group of followers. John draws attention to Bethsaida, the city of Peter, Andrew, and Philip. This specific section is Philip’s invitation to Nathaniel to come and see Jesus. But this whole book is rooted in the prologue (1:1-18); in the purpose statement (1:14) John introduces us to a reference point for a theology of place when he writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The pattern of mission for John is incarnational; the tabernacle is the reference point.
Peter initially invites Philip to meet Jesus. The follow-up encounter with Nathaniel is interesting (1:43-46). Philip draws attention to Jesus’ divinity (“We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”) and his humanity (“Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”). Nathaniel’s reaction is classic: “Can any good come from Nazareth?” His reference is in part due to his interpretation that no prophet was known to have come from Galilee. Furthermore, this town and the region were attributed to be lacking in culture with a very particular dialect.1 In any event, Philip skips the occasion for debate and simply invites Nathaniel to come and see. Honest inquiry is the true antidote to all forms of prejudice and ethnocentrism.
The interaction between Nathaniel and Jesus (1:47-50) is informed by several issues. In accordance with Patristic interpretation, it is preferable to see Nathaniel (meaning, “God has given”) as a close companion to the Jesus movement rather than a member of the twelve apostles, as John is the only one to mention him.2
Yet in the real encounter, he also provides the reminder that God in Jesus is inviting Israel to return to God. Jesus gives us this clue when he states, “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Coupled with the historical reference to follow (in the conclusion to the exchange), it is not hard to see Jesus pointing back to Jacob, Israel the deceiver.3 Jesus has offered supernatural insight into the man’s character. This will confirm what Philip has stated about Jesus.
Yet Nathaniel is no hypocrite—only forthright. “How do you know me?” (literally, “Where do you know me from?”) he inquires. To a question that only Nathaniel would be able to affirm the answer, Jesus lets him know he understands more than could have been conceivably possible. “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” is Jesus’ reply. Nathaniel is invited to come and see. He realizes that Jesus was present before and saw him! The one who manifested such intimate knowledge of his person and movements had to be the person to whom the tradition pointed.
Nathaniel now affirms what Philip had explained. “Teacher, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” These two titles will be unfolded as John continues telling the story of Jesus through his Gospel.
It must have been somewhat difficult and stunning to Nathaniel when Jesus said to him, “You will see greater things than these.” What possibly could be greater than being with someone who manifests such intimate knowledge into one’s person and one’s movements?
“Bethel” and the People of Cité du Peuple
John 1:51 is a true summary statement: “Let me firmly assure you collectively, that all of you [not just Nathaniel] will see heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The reference to Jacob and the vision at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22) is inescapable. The specific place where the presence of God on earth is experienced became “the house of God” for Jacob and subsequently for Israel.
But now Jesus changes the locus of divine glory and states that the point of contact for sacred places is not where the angels touched ground, but where he, the sacred person, is! Jesus appropriates sacred place. This is the greater thing that Nathaniel and all the people of God were now going to experience.
A theology of place begins to take shape. Wherever Jesus is, one is in a sacred or holy place. All too often, we limit the sacred to places of public worship, imparting to those sites the title, “the house of God.” John challenges us to remember that where Jesus is present in his followers, that place becomes “Bethel.”
As I walked the streets of Cité du Peuple with Mario, I unpacked this text with him. “Mario, where you are, because Jesus by his Spirit lives in you, this street becomes Bethel!” The smile on his face pointed to a new perspective on God’s project in the city. Mission takes place in the particular, specific details of God’s action in the story of Jesus all the way to the universal coming establishment of his authority in all spheres of the cosmos. This includes the very streets we walk on, the offices wherein we work and the neighbourhoods where we raise our kids.
There is no such thing as a disposable neighbourhood in God’s project for human history.
1. Peter is accused of a dialect in the scenes leading up to his third denial of Jesus in Matthew 26:73.
2. Holzmeister, U. 1940. Biblica. 21:28-39.
3. Genesis 27:35. F. F. Bruce interprets the verse, “Here is a true son of Israel…one who is all Israel and no Jacob.”