“Come and See” 14th January 2018 Madingley
1 Samuel 3:1-10 Rev. 5:1-10 John 1:43-51
Older sisters can be so annoying. One evening last weekend, when I was searching for something to watch on my laptop while catching up on some basic paperwork, I came across a TV programme from 2015 which I had never seen. It was narrated by David Suchet, of “Poirot” fame, and was about Saint Peter. It was an interesting, if somewhat factually flawed programme, but I was amazed when, on visiting the supposed site of the Holy Sepulchre, David Suchet knelt down reverently, and on rising, crossed himself. I sent an email to my sister saying, “Fancy that! I thought his background was Jewish.” To which she responded with chapter and verse about his becoming a Christian, his work for the Bible Society, his contribution to a series of well-known courses used by churches, and on, and on, and on …. Once again, I was put in my place as the ignorant little sister.
Why have I brought this up? No, I’m not seeking your sympathy. It is because during this programme there were some beautiful pieces of film of the northern part of the Sea of Galilee, including an extensive piece about a suggested site of Bethsaida. That caught my attention, because I knew it would be mentioned in the readings this morning. Being shown the area where a significant group of the disciples came from, and seeing both the remains of a contemporaneous fishing boat, and a reconstruction of such a vessel with a description of how it was handled, and the numbers of men it would take to do that, was fascinating and moving. It helps us to recognize how very human and real the events we read about in the NT are.
And so today we heard about the call of Philip, and then of Nathanael. Jesus simply says to Philip, “Follow me,” and there is no record of what he replied; just the inference that he responded immediately. But what we are told is that Philip was from Bethsaida, the same place as Andrew and Peter, who had already become disciples of Jesus. Although in the text Bethsaida is referred to as a city, in fact it was not much bigger than Madingley, so you can imagine that these men probably knew each other pretty well already. Andrew knew his brother’s thinking well enough to just say to him, “We have found the Messiah,” for it to be sufficient encouragement for Peter to come and see who this person was.
Philip on the other hand, took a slightly different approach when he decided to share the news with Nathanael. To him, he reported, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” giving us a clear indication that Nathanael was someone who studied the Scriptures, perhaps with Philip, looking for the coming of the Messiah. Unfortunately, Philip’s excited words finished with, “He is Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nazareth too, was really just a small village, and little is known about it at all. It certainly did not figure in any of the OT prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. So Philip’s comment almost ruined the invitation; Nathanael’s scornful response, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” might have discouraged a lesser man, but Philip knew his friend well enough not to try to argue with him, and just said, “Come and see.”
As a result, we have one of the interesting conversations between Jesus and one other person which John is so intent on recording in his gospel. As Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Within the space of one sentence Jesus says a huge amount, most of which might float over our heads. He not only knows that this man is Jewish – well, that could be almost taken for granted, although that area north of Galilee had a strong Greek presence – but he also knows his character, revealing his ability to see to the heart of a person.
But there is also a hidden play on words here, which is revealed more fully after Nathanael answers Jesus, asking him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus replies that he saw him under a fig tree; that response has commentators struggling to find an explanation. Maybe Nathanael was sitting in its shade as he studied and meditated upon the Scriptures. But the fig tree was also a symbol for the nation of Israel, which may have elicited Nathanael’s exclamation: “Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” In other words, Nathanael thinks he has found the person he has been reading about in the Scriptures.
However, Jesus’ slightly enigmatic statement which follows also sheds light on his first comment. As he says that Nathanael will see, “the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” those versed in the Scriptures would have known that Jesus was speaking about the experience of Jacob, who saw just such a vision, as the angels moved up and down a ladder which had been set up between heaven and earth.
Now Jacob was not, “an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” In fact he was the one who had duped his twin brother Esau out of his birthright, and the name “Jacob” means supplanter, or deceiver. However, after a later experience of spending a night wrestling with God, his name was changed to “Israel.” So Nathanael, a true Israelite as a descendant of that flawed patriarch, also wrestled with God as he studied the Scriptures, and was a man who surpassed his forefather by being of total integrity. And Jesus knew all this about him before meeting him for the first time.
John’s Gospel constantly points to the importance of Scripture as the means by which we will see who Jesus really is. It is not that the other gospels don’t do this, but John has his own particular approach, especially in seeing the symbolic connections as indications of Jesus’ true identity. So here he is saying that Jesus himself becomes the connection between the realm of God, and the earth. Jesus is the one through whom God is making himself known in full.
Consequently, those who long for the coming of the Messiah, those early disciples, are portrayed as looking for, finding, and being found by Jesus. The question for them is whether they will move on from knowing Jesus as coming from Nazareth, whose father was apparently Joseph, to being able to acknowledge that Jesus is in fact the Son of God.
The invitation to potential disciples in this first chapter of John is to, “Come and see,” whether it is issued by Jesus himself to Andrew, or by Philip to Nathanael. The call is to use your eyes, look at what you see with deep discernment, to decide who this is. I always give sermons a title, and this one has the heading, “Come and See.” When I preached on this set of readings 3 years ago, I chose to concentrate on the OT story of Samuel, and then the title was, “Hearing God speak.” It would seem that both approaches are necessary for those who would seek to follow Jesus; we need to use all our faculties in order to grow in the knowledge of God, and what he is calling us to do.
It might also be a source of encouragement to realize that one of the main characters in today’s gospel reading, Nathanael, may not have been a major member of that original group of disciples. He only appears one more time in this gospel, and in fact is referred to in the others by his patrimony, Bartholomew: Bar – son of; Tolmai. Bartolmai. Yet this one conversation with Jesus takes up more space than the record a few verses before of Jesus giving Simon the new name of Peter, to the man who would become a leader of the early church. We all, however unimportant we feel, play an important part in the history of the church, and should not consider ourselves too insignificant to have any influence on others, the wider church, and the world in general. Even ignorant little sisters end up ordained, however surprising that may have been to everyone!