The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Come, follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, Andrew and Peter’s hometown.
Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.
As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here’s a genuine son of Israel — a man of complete integrity.”
“How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”
Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you’re the Son of G‑d — the King of Israel!”
Jesus asked him, “Do you believe this just because I told you I’d seen you under the fig tree? You’ll see greater things than this.” Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you’ll all see heaven open and the angels of G‑d going up and coming down on the Son of Man.”
In our Gospel reading today, Jacob’s Ladder is the backdrop to Jesus’ coded message in the last verse.
It’s a great children’s story from Sunday School. In that story Jacob has cheated Esau, his twin brother, out of his blessing and inheritance. Because of this, Esau vowed to kill Jacob. So, Jacob ran away! On his journey, he fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream, he saw a ladder (or staircase) stretching from earth upward to “heaven.” Jacob saw Yahweh’s messengers ascending and descending the ladder. Then Yahweh appeared and told Jacob —
“I am Yahweh, the G‑d of your father Abraham and the G‑d of Isaac. I’ll give you and your descendants the land on which you’re lying. Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you’ll spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. I’m with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you” (Genesis 28.13-15; CEB; adapted).
Jacob woke up terrified because he recognized that he’s slept in a sacred place — “It’s G‑d’s house and the entrance into G‑d’s Realm” (verse 17; adapted). He then took the stone he used for a pillow and made a sacred pillar out of it — a standing stone. He poured oil on it and named the site “Bethel,” meaning “G‑d’s house.”
In ancient times, the Celtic people also erected standing stones for various reasons — mark territory, burial sites, etc. And, just like Jacob, some standing stones marked sacred places. The stone was used to mark a thin place — a place where our world and the Other world was believed to be easily accessible. Some used the stone as a warning. Others, as a place of ritual.
When Christianity came to the island, some of these stones were used as places for Christian worship. Some were decorated with Christian symbols. In other places, the standing stone evolved into the celtic high cross. This cross was used as a place to build communities. Often one would find it marking the center of a monastery.
So what does Jesus mean by using this as his backdrop? More often than not, one will hear sermons about how Jesus is the ladder; how he’s the way to get to heaven. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.
In Jacob’s understanding of his dream, he slept in a thin place; a place where heaven and earth met together. And that’s exactly the message that John tries to convey over and over again in his Gospel. Jesus isn’t saying he’s the ladder for taking people to heaven. He’s saying he’s the place where “heaven” comes “down” and meets “earth.” He’s saying that he’s the place where “heaven” and “earth” unite. He’s saying that he’s the place where G‑d’s Realm and our realm become one.
For those of us who follow The Way of Jesus, that’s our story, too. We’re suppose to be the place where “heaven” and “earth” meet. Too often, though, I’m more “earth” than “heaven.” May G‑d grant us the courage and the grace to be a thin place. May we, too, be a standing stone for those around us. May we be the place that opens others to The Way of Jesus.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.