Bethany beyond the Jordan (from Qasr al-Yahud on Israeli side).

John 1:43-51 (NRSV). 43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

Ever since I started doing lectio divina and trying to really engage the gospel of John, I’ve liked the stories of the early days when Jesus calls his disciples among followers of John the Baptist at “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” wherever that was. (Or was it Qasr al-Yahud? The exact place doesn’t matter.) There are little bits of circumstantial detail in those stories that might … just might … have been handed down by followers of the “beloved disciple,” whoever he was, and included in the redacted gospel that was written down about 90 or 100 CE.

But in our weekly bible study session on Zoom — have I mentioned what a godsend it is in this endless pandemic? — I learned different. I learned it’s also a story about faith.

Let’s start with my initial thought. Since I know that Galileans were thought of as hillbillies by the self-proclaimed cosmopolitans of Jerusalem, and I’m from East Tennessee, I feel like I can relate to the disciples. Especially since I’ve been dwelling amongst the tents of the flatlanders and Yankees. I imagine the story of Nathaniel incorporating an earlier oral tradition that originally went kind of like this:

So there’s this Nathaniel guy sitting under a fig tree down by the river Jordan, and Philip comes up to him. He’s from way up in Cana, and Philip’s from Bethsaida. But us’uns from Galilee, we stick together.

“Hey, buddy,” Philip says, “I think we found the Messiah.”

Nathaniel just looks at him, sitting there under the fig tree.

“I bet you’ve heard of him,” Philip says. “Son of Joseph the carpenter in Nazareth.”

And Nathaniel says, “No way, can’t nothing good come out of Nazareth.”

Philip has a good laugh, and Nathaniel gets up. They walk down to the river Jordan, talking earnestly.

That I can relate to. They’re kidding. Kind of like how Vanderbilt and UT fans talk during football season. We’re rivals, but we’re all Tennesseans. The story continues:

A couple of minutes later, Philip and Nathaniel walk up to Jesus on the riverbank, and Jesus says, “Hey, man, you look look like a righteous dude!”

Nathaniel does a double take. “How d’you know?” More banter.

“Easy,” says Jesus. “I noticed you sitting under that fig tree over there.”

Good eye, thinks Nathaniel. (Especially for a guy from Nazareth.) …

So that’s my take on the calling of the disciples in John. A little group of home folks from Galilee meeting up down by the river Jordan. (The exact place is disputed, and some commentators say Nathaniel came on board back in Galilee, but I don’t think the exact location matters.) And out of this small beginning will come a new religion that will alter the course of history.

Well, when I mentioned my idea to the group on Zoom, everyone was polite.

And then after a decent interval, we moved on.

The story’s about faith, someone said. And we all agreed, The kind of faith that makes Philip drop everything and follow Jesus. The kind of faith that makes Nathaniel really believe the heavens will open up and angels will come down. The kind of faith that makes him stick with Jesus till the very end, when they’re back in Galilee after Good Friday and Easter.

The kind of faith that gives us courage to keep going, day by day, in the middle of a pandemic when there’s only the faintest far-off glimmering of light at the end of the tunnel … a longer, darker tunnel than anyone could have imagined going into it last spring.

Or the kind of faith that helps see me through new projects? Like a major expansion of the paper on Swedish immigrants I presented last year? Maybe even a book?

Is now the right time to start something that big? In the middle of a damn pandemic when the soon-to-be-ex-president of the United States just fired up a lynch mob to storm the U.S. Capitol and they have to call out the National Guard to inaugurate the next president? When life is fragile anyway, when I’m just managing to keep going day-to-day and I have no idea what tomorrow will bring?

Or is now the best time to have faith … and plunge into it? I’ll have to think about that one.

And while I’m thinking about it, I’ll have to think about Nathaniel, trudging up to Galilee trusting the word of a guy from Nazareth who spotted him under a fig tree and promised he’d see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on Son of Man.

Kind of a tangent (except when it isn’t)

Working title of my paper, in its latest revision, is “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Inclusion [or Welcoming?] and Community in Swedish Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860.″ It deals with the adjustments made by Swedish Lutheran pastors, who were used to including everyone in their congregations since the Church of Sweden back home was an established, or “folk,” church open to all subjects of the King of Sweden.

In America, the prevailing norm was a “gathered” church community that welcomed only people who had a conversion experience — who had been “saved” — and rigorously excluded others. So they had some major adjustments to make, and the adjustments dealt with basic items of faith. Who is a Christian? What is the duty of the church to the people in the society it serves?

So I’ve been reading a lot of Swedish church history. And that in turn has led me to check out the version of Luther’s Small Catechism on the Church of Sweden’s website. (It’s in Swedish, but with a lot of help from Herr Professor Doktor Google I can get around in it.) In his explanation of the Apostle’s Creed, Luther writes:

Jag tror, att jag inte av eget förnuft eller egen kraft kan tro på Jesus Kristus, min Herre, eller komma till honom, utan den heliga Anden har kallat mig genom evangelium, upplyst mig med sina gåvor, samt helgat och behållit mig i en rätt tro. [Herr Professor Doktor Google translates: I believe I cannot by my own reason or my own power believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him, but the Holy Ghost has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in a right faith.

This is basic Lutheran doctrine, of course. We can’t believe (tro) or come to Jesus on our own power, but the Holy Spirit calls us, enlightens us (upplyst or lights us up) and guides us in our faith. But what jumped off the page at me was this word tro. I believe (jag tror) that I cannot believe (inte … kan tro) … except in a right faith (i en rätt tro). The Swedish word, tro, also means to trust. It’s the same word for both.

So Swedish kids learn to trust where our kids, including this kid in his long-ago confirmation classes, learn to believe. The difference is subtle, but I think it’s important. Sweden, like its Nordic neighbors, historically has been a high-trust society. Swedes even trust their government to make good use of their taxes. Americans, of course, do not.

And a tangent to the tangent …

… but it’s an important tangent, because it’s crucial to the way I think about faith.

According to the etymologies in Wiktionary (part of Wikipedia), the Swedish word tro comes down from Old Swedish and Old Norse words that in turn derive from the proto-Germanic root *trūwāną, to trust.

So to have faith is to trust.

And this is where your friendly local neighborhood linguistics bore takes over, and things get wonkish. Next I rummaged around in an online Old English translator, and sure enough I found a related Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, word. Tréowan was a weak (regular) verb with a variety of meanings including to believe, trust in, hope, be confident of and/or rely on.

All of which have something to do with faith, as I understand it.

It isn’t an intellectual proposition you agree with. It’s something you do — you believe, you hope for, you rely on. Above all, you trust. At least that’s what I aspire to.

By now I felt like I was on the trail of something. I’ll happily rummage around in dictionaries and historical linguistics books all day long. So going back to Wiktionary, I looked up the etymology of “trust” and traced it back — through a related proto-Germanic word *traustaz (“firm, strong”) — to a proto-Indo-European root *deru- (“to be firm, hard, solid”). It’s also related to Danish, Frisian and Dutch words meaning comfort, consolation and solace.

Wiktionary promised more etymologies at “true” and “tree,” but I had what I needed.

And what I needed was a way of looking at my faith that goes beyond reciting a creed (or learning a passage from the Small Catechism). If the 19th-century Swedes on the North Side of Chicago that I’m writing about trusted it, and our common Indo-European ancestors 6,000 years ago on the steppes of Central Asia thought it was firm, hard, solid as a tree, maybe I can work up a little trust in it, too.

So if I were Nathaniel and some dude from Nazareth stepped up and said “follow me,” I like to think I’d trust the situation, get up from the shelter of my fig tree and follow the guy.

[Revised and published, Jan. 27, 2021]

One thought on “Of faith and trust under a fig tree, East Tennesseans, Galileans and a Swedish-American historical research project

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