Archimandrite Varnavas Lambropoulos
Today’s Gospel certainly has nothing to say to those who embrace the modern ‘gospels’ of self-salvation, which derive from the demonic ‘gospel of the serpent’: ‘You can become gods without God’. The words of the reading will be heard with even greater indifference by those who espouse the lyrics of a modern Greek song: ‘Let me make a mistake; I don’t feel like being saved’. Self-centered, smug people strive to feel secure about themselves in artificial ways. In the end, they wind up telling lies not only to other people but also to themselves, in an effort to persuade all and sundry that they have no need of any savior.
Do you want to be saved?
Philip not only wanted to be saved, but, having studied the Mosaic Law and the Prophets, was awaiting the true Savior of the world Whom they proclaimed. He was able to meet and get to know this God and Messiah through his fellow-townsmen, Peter and Andrew. Seeing his genuine desire for salvation, Christ called on him to follow Him. As Saint Teofylakt of Bulgaria remarks, Christ’s voice sparked such a flame of love towards Him in Philip’s heart that he ran off to pass on the message to his friend Nathaniel.
In bowing to the pressing request of his friend- ‘Come and see’- Nathaniel overcame his reservations concerning the ill repute of Christ’s home town and was startled to hear Christ receive him with the words: ‘Here’s a true Israelite in whose heart there is no guile’. ‘How do you know me?’ he blurted. Christ revealed that, before Philip had called to him, He’d seen him sitting under a fig tree. Nathaniel was astonished that Christ had seen him in a place where the human eye couldn’t have travelled. He confessed Him to be the Son of God and King of Israel. Christ replied: ‘If you believe in me just because of what I’ve told you, you should know that you’ll see much greater signs than that’. He reminded him of the vision seen by another Israelite without guile, the Patriarch Jacob, who is called ‘plain’ [or ‘mild’] in the Old Testament: the heavens opened and a ladder appeared upon which angels ascended and descended, praising God.
Faith without guile
It’s no coincidence that it’s today, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when the Church reminds us of this event, the meeting and acquaintance of Philip and Nathaniel with Christ. The extract reveals the fundamental requirements for our entry into the Orthodox Church. People aren’t Orthodox because they know the Creed by heart or they observe certain external formalities of piety which they’ve simply inherited from their grandmother. You’re Orthodox if you strive steadfastly, with a guileless and sincere heart, to build a conscious relationship with Christ, through His One Holy Church, constantly examining your life and words and humbly implementing His will. Once God had assumed human flesh and became describable and tangible, this relationship was not restricted merely to visual contact through His holy image, but culminated in the partaking of His most pure Body and precious Blood at the Holy Eucharist.
The heavens open for us, too, at least at every Divine Liturgy. At the time of the Small Entrance, when the priest enters the sanctuary with the Gospel, he prays to the Lord of Glory that the angels may come to the altar and celebrate with him.
There are more than a few occasions when God manifests the ‘open’ heavens, even to those of other religions, not, of course, to justify their delusion, but to reward their genuine search and to call them to recognition of the One Truth.
At the beginning of the 16th century, there was a Turk in Constantinople who took his possessed wife to the holy Patriarch Nifon. When Nifon began reading the prayers, the Turk saw the roof of the church open and light descending from on high. His wife was cured. He revealed what had happened to a friend of his, a Greek merchant, a certain Iakovos, from Kastoria: ‘You Christians really do have great faith’. We don’t know whether the Turk became Christian or not. What we do know, however, is that, because of this theophany experienced by a non-Christian, Iakovos, who had until then been lukewarm in his faith, became a monk and was later martyred for the sake of Christ. We honor his memory on 1 November.
For us, it’s enough to envy Nathaniel’s guileless faith and true thirst for salvation in Christ and imitate it. Before he saw the heavens opened, he confessed Christ as God and followed Him with all his heart.