Sunday, 14 January 2018

Stairway to Heaven

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ (John 1) 
Strange little encounter. And in Nathanael's case, a strange identification. Based on some simple elimination, it's been deduced that Nathanael in John's Gospel is Bartholomew. Maybe, maybe not. I suppose it doesn't really matter. Except to Nathanael, and maybe Batholomew. As Eric Mascall apparently said:

Beneath a fig tree once
there sat a very pious Jew
And if you then had asked his name
He’d say “Bartholomew”
But then the higher critics came
with “L” and “M” and “Q”
And if you now would ask his name
He hasn’t got a clue.

Sitting under a fig tree sounds like a nice thing to do. On a drowsy day, down by the sea side. And Nathanael is, it seems, musing on the story of Jacob's Ladder. In that passage in Genesis, you'll remember that when Jacob with travel was weary one day.... he had a dream and saw the ladder that went up to heaven and the angels of God going up and down.  One of those very - for want of a better word - pagan bits of the Old Testament. Full of awe and numinousness. If that's a word.

I always wondered about that expression - is it a stairway to heaven? Or is it a ladder? Then I visited Thomas Hardy's birthplace. And saw the second staircase they put into the house, when they extended it for Hardy's parents' growing family. They put it in so the lads could go dowladders without traipsing through their parents' bedroom. And it's not quite a ladder - the steps are bigger - but then it's not quite a staircase - it's too steep. If you're going down it, you have to turn round as if you were climbing a ladder. I guess, when you're saving space and health and safety hasn't really been invented, it makes sense.

And so when Jesus sees Nathanael he makes a really strange identification.  He tells him that he is Jacob's Ladder. He is the one who will make the bridge between earth and heaven.

Nathanael seems shocked by Jesus knowing the obvious thing - that he was dreaming under the fig tree! Yet he's not surprised when Jesus tells him that Jesus is the ladder to heaven - because, for some reason, Nathanael has already made that jump - already recognised him as the Son of God.

What they will all discover, as the story unwinds, is the way in which Jesus is that ladder to heaven. The way he will join heaven and earth is by hanging on a cross. The ladder by which we can be carried up to heaven is by his body - hanging there.

And the ladder that God puts in place breaks forever the gap between earth and heaven. The route to heaven is clear - and yet the angels go down the ladder as well as up. So heaven is here - in believing hearts, in those moments when we know we are reaching beyond what we thought was ordinary, in bread and wine. We are not cut off from God - because God himself has made the route from heaven to earth, and earth to heaven. Maybe we need to take some time out - maybe not sit under a fig tree, in this weather - but heaven is here. Because Christ has brought it here.

Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.


  1. Interesting the stairway to heaven. I hope that they're aware of the Disability Discrimination Act and have an appropriate Stair Life fitted.

    1. Better had for their fans these days

  2. In the words of Toyah Wilcox

    “Somewhere in the distance
    Hidden from view
    Suspended in the atmosphere
    Waiting to come through
    Sometimes it's so far away
    Sometimes it's very near
    sound being carried by the wind
    Just loud enough to hear
    feel its power within me
    Bells ringing in my head
    So often I have heard its cry
    But forgotten what it said
    It's a mystery, it's a mystery
    I'm still searching for a clue
    It's a mystery to me
    shot in the dark
    The big question mark in history
    Is it a mystery to you”?


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