Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Epiphany 2, 18 January 2014 (Year B)
- 1 Samuel 3:1-20
- Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
- 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
- John 1:43-51
I’m going to do something a little different this week, something I don’t usually do. First, I’m going to split this post up, that is, this blog commentary will actually be two separate commentaries. And second, I’m going to focus on the gospel reading. 🙂
So, let’s get started.
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (ESV)
The first chapter of the Gospel According to John is a fascinating series of stories. It is about seeing and bearing witness, specifically to Jesus. It’s fascinating what happens — and doesn’t happen — here.
Let’s back up a little from this story. There is the beginning of John’s Gospel, which is both creation story echoing the first creation account in Genesis 1 and the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. In this, Jesus is the eternal Word, through which the world is breathed into existence. “Let there be light,” and yet Jesus is also that very same light which “shines in the darkness” and which is not overcome by that darkness.
After we get through the poetry about light and the Word becoming flesh (which is also the light, which is why we can speak of the light being created, as opposed to the Word, which was not created), we meet John, who is credited with testifying to the very truth written in the first 18 verses of this chapter. “Who are you?” the religious authorities ask John — suggesting that they are trying to make sense of who he is given what he says. It is also suggests they are looking for the Christ (ὁ χριστός), the Messiah (המשיח), the anointed one. And not just looking, but actively seeking, eagerly expecting his appearance.
As an aside, it’s interesting that they have no idea what to make of John and what he does — baptizing with water. He clearly says he’s not the Christ, and he’s not Elijah, and not the prophet (whatever that lats bit means). “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John stands outside of polite society, and what he does — testify to the light coming into the world and baptizing with water — makes no sense to the religious authorities.
They don’t know how to peg him. (Hmm, I wonder what that feels like?)
John precedes Jesus in each of the synoptic gospels as well, and in Matthew he’s very harsh on the sadducees and pharisees, calling them “a brood of vipers,” and doing so without any prompting from them. (John was like that, and it was a small wonder he lived in the wilderness wearing crude clothes and eating bugs.) But here in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is asked by priests and Levites dispatched by others to find out who he was. This is a dialogue between agents, with an emphasis on dialogue.
Next, John sees Jesus, and says those remarkable words — “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” There’s an echo here in John’s words of things said and done in other gospels — John testifies to the spirit descending upon Jesus — but what’s missing here the actual baptism of Jesus (it happens in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It is suggested by what John says, maybe, but it doesn’t actually happen here.
What John does, however, is bear witness (καὶ ἐμαρτύρησεν Ἰωάννης): This is the Son of God.
What follows, then, is Jesus calling disciples. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus says “follow me” and those he calls drop everything and follow. But not in John. The response to Jesus — and note well that Jesus is simply “walking by” when John bears witness to who and what he is — is to begin a dialogue with Jesus.
37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. (ESV)
This is not a “follow me” story like we have in the other gospels. If anything, this reminds me of the call of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21. Jesus did not call these first disciples. Rather, they saw him and followed him, and then engaged him in conversation. And they don’t say, when asked, what they are looking for — they’ve met it, it’s right there in front of them. They want to spend time with what they’re looking for. And so they stay with him.
And then something else happens that doesn’t happen often in the synoptic gospels. They go and tell others about Jesus. In this case, it’s Andrew, who goes and bears witness to his brother Simon who has found: “We have found the Messiah.” He brings Simon to Jesus, who gives Simon a new name — Peter.
So, we get to this week’s gospel reading.
Jesus is on the move. With or without Andrew and Peter, the text doesn’t say. Here we have a much more typical call story. Jesus sees Philip and bids him, “follow me.” (Ἀκολούθει μοι.) But instead of leaving everything and following (as Matthew/Levi does), Philip goes and finds Nathaniel (a friend? relation?) and bears witness to who he has found, to who and what Jesus is. Nathaniel doubts this — “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” — but he is challenged by Philip. “Come and see.”
And in this, Jesus bears witness to who Nathaniel is. And how he knows.
What strikes me is the two have a conversation of sorts. In the other gospels, the disciples seem a little frightened of, or overawed (or even overwhelmed) by Jesus. They follow him, and sometimes speak to him, but they rarely seem to engage him in conversation or dialogue.
But not here in John. Jesus is constantly talking with the people he meets. Not just to them.
And what is also interesting is that the people who meet Jesus know who he is from the moment they meet him and they confess that reality — they bear witness — almost immediately. Matthew/Levi simply leaves his place of work and wanders off with Jesus (and if Luke is to be believed, makes him dinner that evening). In the synoptics, being called to follow Jesus means leaving everything and joining Jesus in his wanderings.
But not in John. Meeting Jesus means telling others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves. Because seeing Jesus, meeting Jesus, is believing — no, it is knowing — who and what Jesus is. It’s a different kind of experience of Christ, one that knows who and what he is this side of the cross. Frequently, in the synoptics, Jesus is telling people he meets who acknowledge him as Son of God not to tell anyone, that we cannot really know what it means that he is Son of God this is side of Golgotha and this side of the empty tomb.
But for John, meeting the walking, breathing Jesus (on either side of the cross and the resurrection) is to know who he is — Lamb of God, Son of God, King of Israel — and to know who he is means inviting others into that meeting. “Come and see” becomes the “follow me” of the synoptics. It is to enter into a dialogue with the divine presence, a dialogue that is part of the encounter, a dialogue that ends with a confession, with bearing witness.
In turn, Jesus bears witness to us. It is something of a dialectic faith, except this isn’t thesis-antithesis-synthesis (so dialectic isn’t applicable here, I know) so much as it is Jesus constantly telling us that we who believe upon meeting and seeing will “see greater things than these.” A mutual confession, this. We meet Jesus, we bear witness about Jesus, he meets us, and then bears witness about us.
It all leads up to something, and I’m not sure what Jesus is actually describing here when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” John has already confessed to something like this, and perhaps Jesus is referring to his passion, to his crucifixion and resurrection, or something else entirely. I do not know.
What I do know is this — we who have met Jesus are called to bear witness to who he is as Lamb of God, Son of God, and King of Israel. And we have been called to do that from the moment he set foot on this good and dusty Earth.