Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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John 1:43-51: Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’
Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’
Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’
Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” These are the first words we hear Nathanael say in this scripture and they are a little judgey. Can you imagine if anyone ran into you and said to your face, “Can anything good come out of Winthrop?”... “Can anything good come out of Monmouth?”... “Can anything good come out of Readfield?” I imagine that if someone said that to you about your hometown, you might take offence. Thankfully, Phillip is from Bethsaida and does not appear too phased by the exclamation. Maybe he himself had said something similar. After all, Nazareth was a small town, a village really, according to Obery Hendrick’s notes on the scripture. There’s no way that the one that Moses and the prophets were writing about came from there.
To be fair, not everyone is as quick a study as Phillip... or Andrew... or Simon for that matter. Jesus didn’t work alone, and early in his mission began to invite people, strangers it seems, to join him. In the verses just before today’s reading, Jesus’ baptism had been observed by Andrew and a friend, who, when he saw them following him and asked what they were looking for, they recognized he was the teacher they had been seeking. Andrew found his brother Simon and introduced him to Jesus, saying “We have found the Messiah.” When Jesus decided to go to Galilee, these men were ready to go with him. It hardly took any convincing. Just a simply “Follow me.” And, they did. Nathanael, though, needed a little more convincing. You see, even though we don't know much about Nathanael, we know one important thing. It seems like Nathanael was pretty sure he knew where and how God would show up.
It is useful to remember a few things about the people and places in this story. For one, Audrey West points out in her commentary that Nathanael isn’t usually listed among the 12 disciples, despite being called early in Jesus’ ministry. He is only in one other story in John, a story which occurs after the resurrection. Jesus appears to him and several other disciples in their hometown of Cana. We also have a sense that Nathanael carried hope that God would provide the promised Messiah who could restore their nation's fortunes (Remember, Israel had been conquered by Rome at this point and Rome was often cruel to the territories they conquered).
It’s also clear that Nathanael expected a royal Messiah, which, to be fair, is kind of how the messiah is portrayed in prophecy. He was not wrong to assume that’s how he’d encounter the anointed one: as a king to stand up to Caesar. West puts it this way: “Surely, they thought, he would appear in or near the great city of Jerusalem, site of political and economic power, religious authority, and God’s own dwelling place in the Temple.” It is hard to blame Nathanael for initially doubting that the Messiah could come from a dinky village like Nazareth. Why on earth would God work through someone from a community that everyone else thought was insignificant?
It is interesting to see how much Nathanael trusts Philip despite his initial misgivings. Phillip hears his initial hesitation, and sticks with him. “Come and see,” he says. To his credit, Nathanael goes and looks. Despite some misgivings, he is willing to go and see Jesus himself. Jesus says something unexpected when he sees Nathanael. He says of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Audrey West notes that this is a reference to Jacob from the book of Genesis. Jacob was actually known for being a trickster before he wrestled with God and took the name Israel. Perhaps Jesus knew that Nathanael could gain what he needed without trickery. This sparks another question from Nathanael, “Where did you get to know me?” Because how could Jesus know his character without ever having spoken a word to him before?
Jesus answers him with something that must be a story best understood by insiders, because I have no idea why this response would move Nathanael so. He says to him “I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you.” In her commentary on this text Jan Schnell Rippentrop points out that scripture does not tell us why this statement from Jesus so moved Nathanael. We have no idea what was going on under the fig tree. Is this a metaphor for something that was going on in Nathanael’s life that only Nathanael would recognize? Did Jesus literally see him under a tree when Nathanael had assumed no one had? I have yet to see a good explanation of why seeing him under the fig tree might matter to Nathanael, but it definitely does. This one pronouncement changes his whole outlook on who Jesus is and how God might be working through him.
Nathanael will cry out in amazement and call Jesus three very important and good things: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Rippentrop helpfully unravels the meaning of each of these terms in her commentary on this text.
With these words, Nathanael changes from the one who was, at first, cautious, to one who is all in, and ready to go. Even though we won’t see him again until after the resurrection, he must have been there, if not in the closest 12, then in the bigger group of disciples who followed Jesus. His commitment to Jesus continued to be strong enough to merit, here in John at least, a post-resurrection visit where Nathanael certainly saw the “greater things than these” that Jesus promised him.
We are in the season of Epiphany, a season where we attend to the ways that Christ may appear in our lives with surprising clarity. May we be grateful for the fact that, as West says in her commentary, “God is not obliged to be confined by Nathanael’s (or our) limiting expectations.” May we be reminded that Jesus was not disappointed by Nathanael’s questions, and he wouldn’t be disappointed in ours. Questions aren’t the opposite of faith. They are a vital part of it. May you ask good questions this week. And, may you see Christ more clearly through them.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
John Obery M. Hendricks Junior's notes on John in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Aubrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-john-143-51-6
Jan Schnell Rippentrop: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3529
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.