The Need to Be Real

John 1: 43-50  Jesus appreciates the realness in Nathanael

“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” This is what Jesus said the first time he met Nathanael (John 1:47).  I can imagine Peter, Phillip and Andrew nodding in affirmation. They knew Nathanael well and did not contest the statement. Nor did Nathanael, in fact he acknowledged it by asking “How do you know me?” Of course Jesus knew by supernatural insight. But I don’t want to focus on how Jesus knew; I want to focus on what Jesus actually said. It’s huge! If you know Jesus’ history you will know that he often accused the Jews, especially their leaders, of being false. He called them ‘whitewashed tombs’ (beautiful on the outside – dead on the inside), ‘hypocrites,’ ‘a brood of vipers.’ So to describe Nathanael as “a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false” was no small thing!
Jesus loved people that were real
You could be forgiven for thinking he would be interested in those who prayed a lot, or perhaps those who fasted every week, or maybe those who were faithful to the Law of Moses. But the people Jesus spent most of his time with were not known for their spirituality. I mean think of it, there was Mary Magdalene – a young lady that had to be delivered of seven demons. Whatever she did in her previous life, it wasn’t good! There was Zaccheus the tax-collector. He was a known con man. The community was horrified that Jesus went to his home and had dinner with him. And of course Jesus’ twelve disciples were not exactly innocent either. Among them we find Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a violent revolutionary group who were out to break Rome’s hold on Judea. And then there was James and John who Jesus called ‘Sons of Thunder.’ It was no doubt a reference to their explosive personalities. In fact when the Samaritans rejected Jesus, James and John wanted him to call down fire from heaven to burn them up, and Jesus had to explain that this was not his way. So what did Jesus see in these people? Why did he make them his friends? Why did he prefer them to the religious leaders? If it wasn’t their righteousness, or their spirituality, what was it? It can only be one thing; they were genuine while the religious leaders were false. They knew they were bad and didn’t hide it. The religious leaders posed as righteous men on the outside, but were bad on the inside. Jesus could help the honest-sinners, but not the false-righteous. This is why Jesus said to the religious leaders “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthews 21: 31). Jesus loved people who were genuine; people who were real. He still does. How would you like Jesus to welcome you into heaven? Would you like him to say what he said to Nathanael, “Here is a true believer in whom there is nothing false”? I would!
What does it mean to be real?
A person that is real, is a person that is genuine. The way they are on the outside is the way they are on the inside. When Jesus called the religious leaders ‘hypocrites,’ he was using a Greek word (ὑποκρίτης – hypokritēs) that refers to actors on a stage. The Greeks and Romans loved their plays and actors usually wore large masks to portray a character. So when Jesus said ‘hypocrites’ the Jews listening would immediately have thought of these actors with masks on. He was basically saying, “You act like you love God, but it’s just a mask. You’re really into religion for your own gain.”
I have no doubt that Jesus would say the same thing today. When we look around the church we see something that strongly resembles a stage show. We find preachers parading platforms in shiny suits, preaching messages designed to make people give money. And when you visit their websites, whose face do you see spread across the front page? Jesus? No, it’s them! Today’s play actors are alive and well! We desperately need the Nathanaels, Magdalenes and Zaccheuses of the church to rise up and set a new example!
I want to briefly discuss two areas of church life that cannot function properly unless we are real.
Relationships
We cannot know someone if they are not real. So often now days when you meet someone in a church you meet someone with a religious mask. They quote reams of scripture to look knowledgeable, and use religious language to appear spiritual, but they don’t reveal themselves.
Usually people hide who they are because they think you won’t be impressed with what you see. We need to create an environment where people can feel free to talk without being looked down on. If we all open up about our faults and our weaknesses, we will form strong relationships.
When pastors of different churches meet, it’s natural for them to ask, “How is your church doing?” and usually they say something like, “Oh great, we are blessed, God is good.” And when they say this, I think, “Oh, what nonsense!” Churches always have ups and downs. It’s never ‘plain sailing.’ If we open up we can help each other!
Some months ago I was having coffee with a pastor I had never met before, and I sensed that he was a humble sort of guy, so I mentioned a weakness I had, and he responded, “Oh me too! I’m useless at that! I keep messing up, it’s terrible!” And I thought, “Wow, you’re awesome. I want to know you!” We’ve had a good friendship ever since. Realness is vital to strong relationships. Let’s drop those religious masks!
Spiritual growth
Realness is strongly related to humility, while falseness is strongly related to pride. Real people admit what they don’t know; false people act like they know it all. This makes the real teachable and the false unteachable. I have seen this often in church small groups. A person who is acting like a know-it-all can’t ask questions, but someone who is open about their lack of knowledge is free to ask all the questions. People that are real and honest, grow.
Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for the way they require an individual to introduce themselves. A person called George is required to say, “I am George, and I am an alcoholic.” Why do they require this? It is because healing begins with acknowledging your problem. Spiritual growth works the same way; it begins with acknowledging how sinful we really are and how little we really know.
If we want help we need to be real, and if we want to help others we need to create an environment where they can reveal who they really are.
Let me confess something. Some years ago I got fed up with the expectations of church. I had been operating in ministry fulltime and decided to back out and do it part time. In my quest for an environment where I could relax and be myself, I found myself visiting bars. There I met people who I can only describe as ‘honest sinners.’ They were bad but didn’t hide it. As strange as it may sound, I found these people to be quite refreshing in comparison to the religious setting I had just escaped. Many of them wanted to be better people but didn’t know how. Some were open to talking about Jesus, but they didn’t like the idea of going to church. They saw Christians as false and legalistic, and to some extent I had to agree with them. My heart went out to them. I started feel like I was meeting the kind of people that Jesus enjoyed.
Years later when I started a church in Mombasa (the one I now pastor) I started it with quite a number of people I had met in bars. The church has now grown and I give most of my time to leading it, but my passion is still for the odd Magdalene and Zaccheus that I find in a bar.
How real should we be?
I know this seems like an odd question, but people sometimes ask it. Christians fear that if they just be who they are then they will end up expressing their bad side. The concern is that we could use the whole idea of being real as a license for sin.
Here I need to make one thing very clear. You can never be too real. If you are 99% real then you are 1% false, and all falseness is bad. So our aim is always to be 100% real.
It is actually impossible to be holy and righteous without being real. God is holy because he is always true and never false. In fact God hates all that is false; he hates false gods, false prophets, and false people. God never deceives, he never acts like something he is not; he has no masks. Our church slogan is ‘Real God – Real People.’ We want to be real because God is real. And this means being 100% real all the time.
But back to the question; does being real mean you express your bad side? Does it give you a license to sin? Definitely not! If you are a Christian, you believe in Bible morals; they are your core values. If you are tempted to commit adultery and you give in to that temptation, you have gone against your very own beliefs. But if when tempted you don’t give in; then you have upheld your beliefs. So giving into sin isn’t the real you; resisting sin is the real you. Being real is following the laws that have been written on your heart by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was open, honest and real
Our Savior practiced what he preached. You can tell this by the reactions of the people that knew him. At the last supper before Jesus was arrested, John lay against his chest while chatting to him. You don’t do that with someone who is pretentious or someone who is hard to know. At Martha’s house, Mary poured perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped the excess off with her hair. You don’t do that to someone who is hiding something or someone who is aloof. Peter jumped out of his boat and swam to Jesus when he saw him on the shore. You only go that far to be close to someone if you know they are someone you can be close to! These people knew Jesus intimately. He was open and real.
Although the church today has a lot of falseness, I was fortunate enough that the first Christians I met with very real. They were open about their weaknesses and that encouraged me to be open about mine. I was so moved by who they were that I gave my life to Christ. Unfortunately this is not everyone’s experience; many have rejected Christ because they saw falseness in his followers. I urge you to make being real a matter of priority and even a matter of passion.

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