John 1.43-51 | Epiphany 2B

John M. Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

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 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 all, you all will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

The Gospel of the Lord

Welcome to the 2nd Sunday in Epiphany and the 3rd time in Year B our Gospel Lesson is from the 1st chapter of the 4th Gospel.  Are you still with me? Well our return requires some orientation to the place our eleven sentence lesson has both in theology and in the narrative.

Notice that the Lesson draws us in by referring to the “next day” (vs. 43). Well, this just isn’t the first time “next day” has been used in the first chapter to get us moving with the story line. It’s the 3rd time. This morning’s “next day” tells us about Philip’s witness to Nathaniel about Jesus in Galilee. In a previous “next day”, the Gospel’s witness about Jesus involved brothers Andrew and Simon Peter without a map reference (vs. 35-42). In the 1st “next day”, the Gospel’s witness about Jesus involved his baptism by John on the other side of the Jordan river (vs. 29-34 ). 

Now all this “next day’ in different locations is not merely putting x’s on a calendar and drop pins on a Google map. It conveys some brilliant theological thinking. Go back with me to the opening words of the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word.The Word was with God. And the Word was God”. (vs. 1). This is the declaration of a divine relationship outside of the restrictions of the “next day”. It’s timeless, eternal. This is followed by an eye popping: “The Word became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son” (vs. 14). The timeless, eternal has become time bound.  The Gospel’s witness about the “Word became flesh” is that Jesus is bound into real time and real places. So these three “next days” move us forward in describing/realizing how this timeless divine person lives out a time bound life. The narrative conveys a sense of urgency – the hours on the clock are ticking off as Jesus gets on with his ministry. 

Not only will our Gospel lesson be influenced, as we have noted, by the first chapter, it will also be framed by a larger purpose. We will look at that briefly in ch. 20.31 where we read “but these (signs) are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name”. So it is no misreading of that purpose that we hear Philip describe Jesus as the messiah – the one who Moses and the prophets wrote about (vs. 45), followed by a flurry of titles from Nathaniel “Rabbi, Son of God, Israel’s King (dba “Messiah”)” (vs. 49). All these precede Jesus’ favorite description of himself “Son of Man” (vs. 51).  

We’ve already heard the Baptizer’s witness regarding Jesus “Look, the Lord’s Lamb” (vs. 36) and how Andrew went looking for Jesus responding to his “come and see” (vs. 39). He joins up, then goes off and brings his brother Simon Peter to the “messiah” (vs. 40-42). Now it’s Philip’s turn to respond to Jesus’ “Follow me” (vs. 43). Like Andrew, he joins up and brings someone – Nathanael to Jesus (vs. 44-46). Surely, in this Gospel, these are calls to discipleship and the function of discipleship “witness” dominates these two scenes. So here is the proposal I want to make to you about this theme in this Gospel. Discipleship begins at Jesus’ initiative (vs. 39, 43). Disciples who are called are to invite people to “come and see” Jesus for themselves (vs. 41-42, 46) and join up with others into a community.This text tells how it works: Christian faith and discipleship is passed from person to person. It’s always person-to-person.

The Baptizer, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel appear in the chapter with Melchizedek’s abruptness “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life” (Heb. 7.3). Philip will reappear in the Gospel (ch. 12.20ff). So here, he joins up at Jesus’ invite “Follow me”.  And then explained his choice to his friend Nathaniel. But his friend Nathaniel isn’t impressed with Philip’s identification of Jesus as son of Joseph,  “the one Moses and the prophets wrote about” or his neighborhood – Nazareth.  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asks bluntly. With messiahs popping up here and there in the Second Temple period, Nathaniel is wise to be cautious. After all, “Jesus son of Joseph” doesn’t seem messianically Mosaic or prophetic at first glance. Likewise, why would any messiah come from prophetically meager Nazareth?

Philip responds simply to Nathaniel’s over the shoulder question, “Come and see for yourself.” Come and see. The words are both simple and warm, issuing an invitation not only to see something, but also, like him, to join with others. To come along and be part of something. In spite of his questions, Nathaniel goes off with Andrew and his life is about to be forever changed by an encounter with Jesus from Nazareth.

As Nathaniel approaches, Jesus comments  “Here comes a forthright person, an Israelite, who says what he thinks about messiahs.” In other words, Nathaniel isn’t prepared to take what seems to be false and make it seem like it’s true. Nathaniel voices his surprise in a question “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answers “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”.  Referring back to ch. 1.31, the Gospel tells us the Baptizer explained his ministry as designed to reveal Jesus to Israel. Nathanael, in this scene, is representing Israel. On the one hand, reference to “sitting under a fig tree” highlights a traditional image for Israel’s “good” life – every person living in peace in the Land. On the other, Nathaniel is face to face with something “good” from a place as different from Nazareth as it could possibly be. He is face to face with the Word who came out of eternity to become flesh, who knows, sees and calls, presenting Israel with the only messianic way to the “good” life.  

So Jesus’ “knowing” Nathaniel (vs. 48) isn’t some “seeing around the corner smoke and mirrors” trick but an indicator of divine insight. Nathaniel gets it and quickly acknowledges Jesus to be a teacher – Rabbi. Not surprising! Then the flurry of significant titles “Son of God, King of Israel. Jesus is the messiah (vs. 49). Nathaniel is all in. By the end of the first chapter, the Fourth Gospel has piled on Jesus no less than seven titles: the Word, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, the one Moses and the prophets wrote about, the King of Israel and the Son of Man. Words convey meaning. In case anyone was wondering, this Gospel believes that in all his humanness Jesus embodies divine presence. He is the Chosen One who represents YHWH and will rule over Israel.

Nathaniel had seen Jesus do a great thing “divinely seeing him under the fig tree”. But “he ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”  Altering a Bible story that clearly would have caught the attention of anyone in Israel who knew their Bible from scroll to scroll, Jesus promises him “you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (vs. 51). Clearly a reference to the dream in which the patriarch Jacob saw angels moving back and forth between heaven and earth on what seemed like a staircase (Gen. 28.10-22). In this Gospel though Jesus pushes the staircase aside. “No one has ever seen God, but God the only son who is at the Father’s side has made him known” (1.18). Communication between the divine and the human is now realized fully and only in Jesus. 

My 2nd year of Bible school was also my 1st year of seminary when Campus Crusade launched its “I Found It!” national evangelism program. Messages for five chapel services the week before the program started lifted their theme “Come and See” from our lesson. It was honorable, well intentioned evangelism and as far as 4 naive seminarians were concerned it springboarded us into a church plant in SE Portland. The following years of study and American evangelism experiences slowly developed for me some perspectives on consequences that I believe were unintended at that time. It seems to me, brushing my thoughts in a wide splash, the invitation, in the words “Follow me”, “Come and see” has now spun off into an individualist, personal salvation slogan “accept Jesus so you can go to heaven” in revival stadium performances and/or the idea that a person can choose salvation as if it was a Souplantation buffet with a money back guarantee.  As the scene discloses, however, our entire perspective changes or should change when we read this scene both closely and in its narrative setting. When we do that we acknowledge that Jesus’ invitation to Andrew (vs. 39), then  Philip (vs. 43), his “before Andrew… I saw you, Nathaniel” (vs. 48 ) and his escalator of “greater revelations” (vs. 51) has the upperhand. In other words, the Lord made known in Jesus is the Lord who is in a position to judge, to test, to evaluate, to call to discipleship. It is to him, we are called to “follow”, to “come and see”.    

The “follow me” call from Jesus and the invitation to “come and see” are not marketplace slogans or lapel pins. Embedded in the narrative, “Follow me” and “come and see” are intended to lead to discipleship, not simply being saved. “Being saved” isn’t about individuals devoid of anything resembling the living Jesus in their lives. These are invitations to a life changing, life transforming encounter with Jesus. An invitation to come and see what the Lord  is still doing in and through Jesus and in the community of disciples who have chosen to follow him. Discipleship is an active recognition of Jesus’ identity, actively participating in his transformation of us in a community, actively seeing greater revelations of him. 

You probably know as well as I do that the key factor influencing someone to attend a church, a Bible study, a home fellowship meeting for the first time is a personal invitation from someone like Andrew, like Philip, like you or me.  So “come and see” would seem to challenge us whether we have anything to show people about Jesus in our words and practices and that we are able to name and share that. Well, we know our nation is broken – it’s not the pandemic only nor even partisan political/cultural  upheavals. It’s everything because Americans are just like all the rest of humanity–sinners. When we don’t live up to our own ideals, whatever they are, we should not be surprised, only a little amused at ourselves for thinking we would be able to. This broken nation is why Jesus is here. It’s why we’re called, why we’re here, it’s why we’re sent – “to do the work he has given us to do to love and serve him as faithful witnesses of Christ the Lord”. The observation that whoever marries the spirit of the age will be widowed in the next has a barb for faithful communities. Historically Christianity has stood the test of time. May I say to you, a church, any church that sought or seeks to engage in self-justification with the spirit of the age rather than stick to its character and integrity, such as found in our lesson has not/will not survive. I know the future of the church/ a church is without a doubt in the Lord’s trustworthy hands. The future of faith communities, our faith community, will, I believe, be greatly determined by a willingness, our willingness, to invite our network of friends personally and say to them “I found Him, Come and see. Follow Him”. 

Now Beloved by the Lord, Don’t ever assume that nothing good can come out of Tustin!

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