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Preaching John 1:43-51

One question which the preacher will need to settle in preaching the lectionary text from the gospel will be the extent to which the description of the call of Philip and Nathanael needs to be placed within the setting of the whole first chapter up to verse 43. The setting in which this particular pericope is offered may be outlined in the sermon's introduction or reflected by comment throughout the sermon but should not be overlooked because it creates the ambiance and suggests the direction for the passage.
The text up to this point has proclaimed the word made flesh, full of grace and truth, and offered John the Baptist's testimony and disclaimer that he, John, is not Elijah, the promised one, or even the prophet. Lifting his gaze one day, John has beheld Jesus and identified him as Lamb of God, sin bearer, the pre-existent one far greater than John himself. John has testified to seeing the Spirit descend upon this stranger and has announced that he is the one who will baptize with Holy Spirit. A series of encounters has begun between Jesus and others who become followers and witnesses. Two of John's disciples take their master's cue and go after Jesus. They ask him where he lives and hear him utter an invitation that will become a theme of the gospel—"Come and see." One of the two turns out to be Andrew, the brother of Simon, who brings Simon to Jesus.
It is within the pattern of this widening circle of encounter, call, quest, and incipient following or discipleship that the call of Philip and Nathanael fits. As descriptive terms for Christ are offered in growing profusion by the successive respondents, it is clear that the appearance of Jesus to these first witnesses is a revelatory one (an epiphany). The terms used conjure with the identity of Jesus and make the mystery of who Jesus is and the revelation of the light that comes from within that mystery the principal theme of the text. The names invoked also link him to Israel's hope and expectation. Already the earliest followers are doing what the church has been doing ever since, ransacking the world for the titles and language to describe their experience of his astounding significance and influence upon their lives. While focusing upon the epiphany and revelation of the Word in the person of Jesus, John's account also manages to convey a quality of hiddenness and mystery. Jesus appears, in Schweitzer's words, "as one unknown, without a name." The sense of hiddenness is also achieved by the lack of any descriptive detail as to what there was about Jesus that led these early witnesses to recognize him. Only at the end of the whole passage is there a first clue when Jesus demonstrates a knowledge of Nathanael's character and speaks of having seen him "under the fig tree," before Philip actually led Nathanael into Jesus' presence. Hiddenness and mystery guard the transcendence of the divine. At the same time, the hiddenness and mystery of the revelation arouses curiosity, challenges pursuit, and invites discovery. Psychologically, hiddenness and subsequent insight through engagement with Jesus squares with the way in which personal knowledge of the other always comes. The theme of the way the Word appears concealed within the mask of the other and is encountered in a meeting that is to all outward appearances ordinary, underlies the Evangelist's narrative and may well serve as a major one for the sermon. Nathanael's question, "can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (a place so completely ordinary and close to home) is a typically Johannine question, the fat pitch that makes the point by missing it.
During the days of the great western cattle drives, one young man told of having heard at a Sunday morning church meeting of a drive that was forming up nearby. He left church and joined the drive without going home or even stopping to change his shirt. Such is the abrupt manner in which disciples and witnesses seem to be made in John's narrative.
Perhaps one of the most essential themes of the text is that of the faithfulness of God to be, through Christ, present and accessible to any and every human soul. Some contemporary writers may cast the issue in a fresh light. In his recent Letter to a Man in the Fire,1 Reynolds Price questions the common Christian assumption that God gives infinite and close attention to every one of his human creatures, that he marks the sparrow's fall and counts the hairs of our heads. In his earlier book A Whole New Life2 he expresses his doubt that God communicates with just anybody. Along the same line, Annie Dillard in For the Time Being3 reflects upon the vast hordes of anonymous humanity that have lived and died throughout the millennia and wonders how we maintain a sense of the worth and significance of individual lives amidst such an infinite throng. Yet, the text says that Jesus found Philip and later that he had close knowledge both of Nathanael's character and even of his whereabouts before Nathanael walked into his presence. The good news which the preacher has to proclaim from this text is the astounding affirmation that the Christ is faithful and sure to show up, to manifest himself, not only in holy history or to select and special people but even to the last and least of us and within the fabric of ordinary and common life. This is the mystery and the hope of epiphany.
The preacher may choose to take as a sermon theme the invitation uttered first by Jesus and echoed by Philip to Nathanael to "come and see." The invitation is understood by the church as the call to all and each to become a follower of Christ, a disciple. To be a disciple is to be an apprentice. Apprenticeship takes place under the supervision of a master of a craft and within the setting of the actual work that the master is doing. It is laboratory or clinical training—hands on.
There is today in the art world an unresolved dispute as to how many actual paintings of Rembrandt exist. Of all the purported Rembrandts, critics disagree as to which ones were done by the master himself. A major part of the problem is the way Rembrandt worked. He taught many students. He allowed some of his students to work on the paintings that he himself was painting. They tended not only to work on his paintings with him; they also imitated his style. The result is many paintings in the style of Rembrandt that may have been painted by Rembrandt, a student of Rembrandts, or by Rembrandt and one or more of his students. Christ operated in the same way, inviting his followers to come with him, learn by observation, and do his work with him and after him. He even promised that they would do greater works than he.
In his closing lines in The Quest of the Historical Jesus,4 Schweitzer offers a beautiful statement that provides a remarkably apt outline for unpacking John 1:43-51. He says that the Christ appears to persons still, as he did to the first disciples, and calls them to the work he has for them to do in their own time. They come to penetrate something of the mystery of who he is and to know him on the way as they do the things he calls them to do. There are some insights and under standings, some knowledge that can only be known from the inside, from experience, on the way.
Like those in the text, the person who heeds the invitation of Jesus to "come and see" becomes, in turn, a witness. Witnessing has a two-fold nature. The witness sees or experiences an event or revelation and then attests what has been witnessed. Policemen and lawyers sometimes use the comically redundant expression "eyeball witness." Philip and Nathanael are eyeball witnesses. The task of the follower is to give testimony. As St. Francis said, the commission is to preach the gospel wherever one goes, if necessary using words.
James H. Slatton
1. Reynolds Price, Letter to a Man in the Fire (New York: Scribners, 1999), especially pp. 36, 40.
2. Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life (New York: Atheneum, 1993). 3. Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, (Knopf), cited by Paul Feigenbaum in The Wilson Quarterly, Volume XXIII, No. 3, Summer, 1999, p. 141. 4. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (New York: MacMillan, 1961), p. 403.