Invited to Come and See
For those who think that God was guiding the hand of those who consequently gave accurate record of the life and mission of Jesus in the gospels, there are unexpected problems with the gospel of John. It leaves out things which might seem important like the birth of Jesus, his baptism, temptations, the last supper, Gethsemane and the ascension. John alone talks of the wedding at Cana, he changes the order in which things happen and by mentioning three different Passovers, John appears to describe a three year ministry mainly based in Jerusalem and Judea as opposed to the one year ministry based mainly in Galilee which fitted the other gospels. Yet for all that, in my view at least, from detail John supplies and the accuracy with which he describes places, his thoughtful theology, he is well worth the read.
Although John sets aside the parables, he brings Jesus’ interactions alive with details of conversation, even if his account of the first recruitment is very different to those of the other gospel writers.
When Jesus met newcomers we read (particularly in John) he often demonstrated three characteristics that set him apart from many others. It was almost as if he was determined to meet those he encountered at as deep a level as possible, and more than this, to leave them changed and thinking for themselves.
In John’s eyes, Jesus’ first characteristic was to notice what people were like. This sounds easy yet it is surprisingly rare. Think for a moment of your last walk through a city street. How many of those you encountered did you notice to the point where you picked up something interesting that told you something about these passing strangers. Did you for example have any inkling where they came from – or even better, did you read their body language? I guess most of us are concerned primarily about ourselves and simply don’t have the time for such attention. There is a New Year challenge in this for all of us.
Perhaps as those who claim to follow Jesus, we too might start giving our encounters this same intense attention and start really noticing those we meet.
Jesus’ second characteristic was to move the conversation past the conventional simple shallow statements to deeper issues….issues that required serious thought. The rich young man, the tax collector up a tree, the Samaritan woman at the well, the mere fishermen who Jesus thought to be potential disciples … for each the conversation often went far beyond the shallow pleasantries to a memorable challenge.
His third technique was to leave those he met with something imaginative – perhaps an unexpected act or even something he said that might have appeared miraculous or even mysterious. Think for example of the apt stories he would use from well known scripture or traditional folklore – or if none such came to mind, a simile that would take a hold of the imagination…..maybe to stay for many years.
As indicated at the start, strangely enough Jesus’ parables are largely missing from John’s gospel. Nevertheless compared with the other gospels in John’s account there are more detailed interactions with people recorded, and even without the parables, Jesus would leave plenty to make people think. Remember too, the gospel writers were assembling their remembered stories of Jesus many years later – yet think just how many words and actions that were still recorded to cover what John records as an estimated three year period.
Watch now as Jesus uses each of these techniques with Nathanael.
Nathanael is an unlikely potential disciple. When Philip goes to fetch him to meet Jesus, on hearing where Jesus is from, Nathanael immediately shows prejudice. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. This may even have been a fair question considering the size of Nazareth – (which I understand was in those days thought to have of the order of 200 villagers – and up until that time, none as far as we know of any significance).
The lazy view – and we would have to say, by far the most common attitude to strangers from a known area, is to lump them together as a class and treat them as a group – often with casual prejudice. For example here in Auckland you often hear disparaging comments about South Aucklanders or Westies. I dont know about now but a few years back there was plenty of prejudice between Maori and Pakeha in Pukekohe. Even amongst the Polynesians those born in New Zealand there are those can make disparaging comments about the new arrivals. How could they be any good if they were a “fob” (fresh off the boat).
Is this very different to what Nathanael was saying in this case when he makes his prejudgment about those they came out of Nazareth? Phillip is not arguing that Nathaniel’s prejudice is wrong – but he takes the pragmatic view. Come and see for yourself.
As Nathanael arrives, Jesus immediately puzzles him by knowing his name and identifying him, not only as an Israelite – but even one without guile. To me there is no need to invent magic where none is needed. Phillip may well have told Jesus who he was going to fetch, which might explain knowing his name, while recognizing him as an Israelite might have been no more that noting how he dressed and cut his hair… but to see what sort of person Nathanael was and describe him as without guile goes much further and suggests that Jesus was reading his body language. When challenged by Nathanael to know how he knew these things, Jesus says that he had noticed him earlier under a fig tree.
Nathanael rightly realizes that this is no ordinary degree of observation. One doesn’t normally take notice of people who are strangers merely because they are standing under a tree, nor to find who the stranger is before even being introduced and to even read their character simply in the way they move and hold themselves.
Nathanael sees this as so extraordinary that he thinks he has witnessed supernatural powers. His response – that Jesus is the Messiah, the king of Israel, may be prescient but notice carefully Jesus will have none of it. As far as Jesus is concerned Nathanael’s view, regardless of whether or not it happens to have a sense in which it is true, is also a view which is entirely premature and not based on sufficient evidence.
In effect Jesus asks Nathanael to join him – and work out what Jesus’ status is by what he might then witness. Jesus is asking Nathanael to suspend judgment until he has seen proper evidence. “Greater things than this you will see”.
Perhaps we should remember that when Peter later makes the same connection between Jesus and the Messiah or Son of God, far from rejecting Peter’s assessment, Jesus praises him for it – and yet there is a significant difference with Nathanael. Peter has been part of Jesus mission for maybe three years before he comes to his conclusion. He has done what Phillip has asked of Nathanael – he has come to see for himself.
Perhaps more striking, Jesus gives Nathanael an enigmatic reference to something really strange, which seems to be an oblique reference to Jacob’s ladder… a ladder connecting earth to heaven…and more mysteriously, one on which angels might come down and go up.
This is one of these seriously strange comments. And no doubt one which would be remembered in years to come. In terms of a prediction there is certainly no indication that Nathaniel ever witnessed such an actual ladder or saw angels physically ascending and descending, but I guess if you think of Jesus himself playing the part of that ladder there was a sense in which he set up a connection between humans and what we might call for the want of a better word, the divine. It is as if those who assumed the role of disciples would in time come to realise that what they were witnessing.
I said earlier Nathanael was an unlikely disciple. I know a number of Bible literalists act as if they would like him to go away. John’s account of the first disciples certainly doesn’t match those in the other gospels. The other gospels do not mention him in their lists of disciples and for this reason some literalists try to reconcile the lists by saying he is probably the same as Matthew or Bartholomew. Maybe Nathanael did go away at least for a while.
Yet perhaps there was something in that first meeting that kept him from forgetting Jesus. Towards the end of John’s gospel, if John has it right, Nathanael is certainly one of the disciples mentioned that Jesus appeared to on the lakeshore.
But Nathanael’s status is not the most important issue for us. There is a more important unspoken question which remains for us to answer. As distant observers of this first cameo exchange between Nathanael and Jesus – is it just history or there now a walk on part for us?
It is certainly true that we cannot simply do as Phillip did and invite others like Nathanael to come to meet Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is now no longer around – and to hear some talk, it is as if with other great figures of history, he is now safely removed. We can admire those in the past with equanimity whereas those in our present or those who now invite us to dream of the future can be unsettling. Be honest, if the equivalent of Jesus was to suggest to you today a future experience with a ladder and with angels, how would you react?
But for better or worse it won’t be Jesus making suggestions on this day of 14 January 2018. So who is physically there in our present and future, if it is not to be Jesus? And who will we suggest newcomers to our faith meet for themselves? Surely all we can now do is invite them to come and meet those who appear to have been changed by Jesus’ teaching.
To bring it right home, if we honestly believe we are representing Jesus, it is our lives we should have available for scrutiny. This may be almost embarrassing.
Remember for Jesus it was not enough to settle for a casual meeting. In His view, this was no way for Nathanael to form a view. Even knowing a person’s reputation or title is not enough for a sensible judgment to be made. “Come and see” Phillip might say, meaning a first meeting – but Jesus asks for more. “Come and see” is a good place to start, but it only makes a difference if we look for long enough to form a reasonable view – and even then it will only help us what we then see attracts us sufficiently to make it part of our way of thinking and acting. If not why would we expect others to join us in what we call Church?
Church membership of confessions of faith won’t do it. Because it is rather easier to join a Church than it would have been to join Jesus on his mission it does not follow that the casual hanger on to a congregation will necessarily show an intentional focus on living according to Jesus’ principles.
Those who now act on Jesus behalf will only be seen by others to do so if they can be seen in action and check that their words and actions match their claims…. just as we too will be recognized as acting on Jesus’ behalf, only if others see in our lives the sorts of interactions expected of someone like Jesus.
“Come and see” is the ultimate test for anyone considering the worth of a new faith. The real question is what others will see when they watch to learn how our faith has affected us.
NOTE TO THE READER
This lectionary sermon is part of a complete set of sermons for the three year cycle. As the aim of the series is to encourage thought on the part of visitors to the site, disagreement or suggestions for more appropriate illustrations are welcome. Feel free to borrow whatever is found to be helpful, but in return, if you, the reader, notice aspects I have missed, or in your view, got parts wrong, please join the discussion by adding comments at the end. Questions are also encouraged, and if I can’t help, no doubt others can. If you find the sermons helpful please encourage others to the site.