Sermon Ideas For John 1:43-51 Part 1
The early church was already curious about its own past history. The stories of the calling of the disciples are our "family of origin" stories, our genaeology. The gospel writers recorded stories of how the disciples were called, and over the course of the first centuries of church history, these accounts were further overlayed with legend. One odd thing about the recorded calling of the disciples is that there is no consistent pattern from one gospel to the next. Each gospel writer wants to make his own point about what was important in the calling of the disciples, and so tells the story in a manner designed to support his particular emphasis. Thus we need to look at John's account of the calling of Philip and Nathanael, to see, John was trying to emphasize in his special account of that calling.
Philip and Nathanael were in Bethany, a village north of Jerusalem, for this was the center of the work of the disciples of John the Baptizer. Philip and Nathanael were faithful Jews who were moved by the Baptizer to follow his teachings and, of course, to expect "One who will come after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not fit to untie." We don't know how many of Jesus' disciples were previously followers of John the Baptizer; certainly not all of them were. The ones who were followers of the Baptizer, however, were somehow ripe for a conversion experience to a faith in Jesus; their faith in John had prepared the way.
As we read John's accounts of the various callings, one common fact emerges: Each disciple received one, and only one, call. There was neither chance nor need for a second. This onetime call was initiated by Christ, though sometimes delivered through another human mouth, such as Philip's words to Nathanael. Whoever the agent, Jesus issued but one call, and each disciple responded. We must note one other aspect of this call: The call was not to immediate deep faith, but rather to "Come and see." Philip says to Nathanael, "I have found the man we were taught to await. Come and see what you think."
Of course there were hesitations and questions. When Philip says "Come and see," Nathanel responds doubtingly: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" But soon enough, Nathanael senses the invitation, "Come and see," and starts down the road to see Jesus. As he looks up, Jesus greets him as "truly an Israelite in whom there is no de ceit!" Nathanael had been sitting under a fig tree. This is no simple coincidence; rabbinic literature points out that a fig tree is a particularly appropriate tree under which to sit to study the Torah. So when we are told that Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree, the implication is that he was studying his religious texts. Jesus says, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit," a simple man who in his basic faith sits under a fig tree to study the commandments of God.
Nathanael is taken aback and asks: "How do you know who I am?" Jesus replies, "Nathanael, is it such a miracle that I know who you are? You will soon see even greater things." Faith grounded on a miracle is inferior to faith grounded in no such signs. The deepest, most desirable faith is one which responds to the being and nature of Christ as he is, rather than to signs and wonders which he does. Jesus says to Nathanael, "When your faith is deep enough, you will understand something even more wonderful, that in my nature is the link between heaven and earth." The imagery originates in the story of Jacob's ladder, but is now so modified that the very nature of Christ himself is the ladder, the channel through which the grace of God flows from heaven and earth. This is the true miracle to which faith must respond, not to clairvoyance or some overturning of natural law. Our faith must respond to the miraculous nature of Jesus as the Son of God.
How might we apply the lessons of this story to our lives? First, we, like the disciples, come from different places and in different ways to our faith in Christ. There is no set of rules which says that in order to be a follower of Christ you must first be this kind of person and then do such and such. What moves one person to a faith in Christ may be quite different from that which draws another person to Christ.
Second, each person who does move to Christ does so in response to a particular, a onetime call demanding immediate attention. The call might surprise us; we might respond "How did you know who I am?" Christ's call comes to us at some time, whether by surprise when we least expect it, or very gradually over the course of a long period of time. Somehow, somewhere, some agent of God will say to you, "Come and see, come and see if Jesus is the Christ, come and see what you think, come and see what difference it can make in your life."
Third, we learn that Jesus the Son of God wants us to respond to who he is, to his true nature, and not to signs and miracles, and certainly not to "what can Jesus do for me?" God does not like to be put to the test anymore than we do, and Christ prefers not to have to perform signs and wonders in order to convince us to respond. We are called to respond to Jesus as Author of our lives, not Jesus as the miracleworker. The signs and wonders may come, but they are not the core of the faith. The core is rather that deep faith response to the power of God in Christ, a faith response which demands no confirmation or proof, but rather which gets up from under the fig tree and moves down the road in response.