Sermon Ideas For John 1:43-51 Part 1
Call and discipleship are central themes in the readings this Sunday. The texts portray a multiplicity of ways that individuals experience and integrate a call. Jesus' calling of Phillip and Phillip's invitation to Nathanael offer contrasting models for the ways in which people respond to the Gospel. The immediacy of Phillip's response contrasts with the skepticism of Nathanael. Phillip's eager zealousness is balanced by Nathanael's determination to investigate the report more fully. John includes them both as patterns for the life of the church.
The call of Nathanael picks up a motif found in the Jacob story. Jacob is the first who is called "Israel" when he encounters the presence of God (Gen 32:28-30), but is marked by the deceit of stealing Esau's blessing (Gen 27:35). By contrast, Nathanael is "truly an Israelite" without deceit (Jn 1:47).1 The analogy extends further with the imagery of the angels ascending and descending (v. 51). The reference back to the story of Jacob's dream (Gen 28:12) reinforces the motifs of call, journey and discipleship which are grounded in the past, experienced in the present, and lead into the future. This twist on the Jacob story opens up the possibility of the ways in which the church is defined by and lives out the biblical narratives anew. With this understanding, the role of preaching shifts away from the dangers of allegorical exegesis to the task of holding up the text as a mirror for the life of the congregation.
The exchange between Jesus and Nathanael reinforces the conviction that a call is not a static, one-time occurrence. The association of call with long-term discipleship builds not only on the on-going demands of following Jesus, but also on the promise, "You will see greater things than these" (v. 50).
Central to John's theological portrait is the development of christological titles. What begins with Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth (v. 45) quickly changes to "Rabbi," "Son of God" and "King of Israel" (v. 49). It is a dramatic distinction from the Synoptic tradition where the recognition of Jesus' identity comes first from outsiders (for example see the story of the man with the unclean spirit in Mk 1:24).
John underscores the eschatological overtones of the call to discipleship with the first articulation of "Son of Man" language in the Gospel. This theme may also point back to the baptismal narrative in the Synoptics which use the image of tearing open the heavens (Ez 1:1). The call stories in the Gospel both enrich and balance the reading from 1 Samuel. The call of Samuel as a private experience is set alongside the public dimensions of the Gospel. The Samuel narrative provides a model for the need for discernment and the role of an adviser in determining how one hears the call of God. When read alongside the Gospel, the church finds a witness to the diverse ways in which we experience and respond to God's presence.
1. Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-xii), (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1978), p. 87.