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Come and See and Remain with Me

Australian Cityscape

Week of Sunday of 15 January - Epiphany 2
Gospel: John:1:43-51

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simonto Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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.’

As a new Christian I read the narrative (as I thought it was) of Matthew’s gospel and was captured by it. I read on in Mark and Luke, and then came to John.

Even I could see that the first verses of John were not narrative. This was poetry, and its grandeur instantly grabbed my attention!  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God...

But then I came to this bizarre quasi-narrative of Jesus choosing his disciples. It is not only very different from the  stories in the other three gospels, which I had effortlessly, and naively, melded together into the one story. It is not even a good story. If I turned this in as part of an essay, it would come back with red biro all over it.

Doesn’t make sense! would bounce out from the page.

The text this week is not narrative. Neither is it poetry. It is not meant to be read that way. It is code for those in the know. If we don’t “pick up” on the code, we will not see the intended meaning of the story. The story may even seem slightly artificial or off-key because we are seeking to interpret it at the wrong level.

We no longer do this with literature in our society. A story is meant to stand on its own. There may be a meaning or purpose, but if the code is  not be visible to you, it should not leave artefacts. We should still think it is a good story.

The best example I can think of is the ABC TV children’s program called Play School. As toddlers and little kids delighted in the antics of Benita and Noni and John, the parents would often be laughing in the background. The program was well known for its double entendre.

In one episode, [Benita]  - pretending to be a house - was standing with her arms raised like a roof. ''John was saying, 'This is a nice strong house,''' she says. ''He walked in front of me, talking about the windows and so on.'' Then he went behind me and said, 'Lovely rear entrance,' and kept going.

"Hello, I'm John. I'm a garage man today," Hamblin says in one memorable episode of the show. "Do your mum and dad have a car that sits in the garage? Benita's going to be a car. Here she comes now. I'll just crawl underneath and see what has to be done." He stops and looks up at the camera from between Benita's legs. "Well, her big end's gone but I think I can fix it."

We understand this genre. I remember a minister singing “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” with one of the Elders when I was about ten. The suggestive nature of their presentation made it clear to me that something was “up,” even though I had no clue what “it” was. I think back and smile to myself. One or two of our old prune suckers must have been mightily offended!

Or maybe they didn’t get it! Perhaps it sailed over their head like an innocent three year old watching Play School. If we don’t seek to understand this strange, esoteric style in John, things will not only sail over our head. We will be left with the sense that the book is just weird. We may turn off from it, as I did for years, and miss what it offers us.

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The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’

There is an echo here; a pointer. Is the lamb the Apocalyptic Lamb of Revelation 5? Or is the lamb the suffering servant who was dumb before its shearers? Isa 53:7 Jeremiah has such a lamb, too. (11:19) Or perhaps the lamb we are to think of is the lamb of the Passover in Exodus 12: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt....

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

One of the clear messages of John is that John the Baptist was not the Messiah. John’s disciples have to leave him, and follow Jesus. This is not just a story line; it is instruction.

38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’

The translation that is supplied for the word Rabbi, means they have not yet seen him for who he is. Later they will call him Lord. “Where are you staying,” is not just about what geographical place, but something like where does your soul live? What is your foundation?

39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

Remain (Greek: menein) is probably chosen carefully. It meant to stay with, not to lodge at. It’s not like being in a hotel. It’s mor like, “they stuck close to Jesus. They tried to understand what it was that was giving him life and sustenance.”

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

What does this mean? Why would you add such an inconsequential detail? Some have suggested it was Friday. That would mean they had to “stay” with Jesus right through the Sabbath. (Brown The Gospel of John Vol 1. pp 75) We don’t know why he put that detail in. We can only play with it, and wonder, and listen to what we begin to imagine.

40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed).

Again there is an explicit translation of a word. It is a way of making the point. Messiah is not just a name, it is a meaning... one anointed by God

42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

You are to be called Rock. (Petros)

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Jesus calls us, we don’t just find him.

44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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.’

Did John  not know the story of the virgin birth? Is Jesus Son of Joseph about whom the scripture wrote a kind of hint of the disciples only partial understanding of who Jesus is? That would tie in with the next words: how could anything good come out of Nazareth?

46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’

The invitation to Nathaniel is the invitation to us all. You will only know him if you ‘Come and see.’ He has repeated what Jesus said above. (39) This means it is important. You have to come and see. What does that mean?

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’

Nathanael is an Israelite. The problem with these people, named after their ancestor Israel, is that they are named after a man (Jacob, who became  Israel) whose deceitfulness was legendary.

John the Baptist had explained that his ministry was designed to help reveal Jesus to Israel (1:31). Nathanael is now representing Israel. Israel was the name given to Jacob. We find two references to Jacob in the passage: Nathanael has no guile – so he certainly beats Jacob on that score! And Nathanael is to have a vision reminiscent of Jacob’s at Bethel in Gen 28. Loader

48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’

Does it mean Nathanael has a good opinion of himself, believing he had no guile? It seems more likely to me he is issuing a challenge to Jesus. “What right or authority do you have to pronounce about me. How do you know my inner self? How can you claim to recognise me for who I am?”

Jesus’ reply, which demonstrates his authority, looks like magic.

Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’

It does give a sense of Jesus knowledge and insight. Some have suggested that Rabbis studied under fig trees. Or even that the Law was referred to as a fig tree. (Brown 83) Jesus knew Nathaneal was someone serious in his search for God.

And there is the sense of the good life, the world as it should be. Every man ‘neath his vine and fig tree, shall live in peace and unafraid. Jesus is hinting that he is providing the way to the good life, the fulfilment of all that is meant to be.

49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’

Nathanael understands. He sees who Jesus is.  Jesus “knowing” of him, lets him see who Jesus is. We, of course, are being invited to the same insight.

50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?

The fig tree is important, because Jesus uses the phrase again.

You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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.’

This is a reference back to Jacob who was renamed Israel.  (Gen 32) Jacob saw the angels going up and down into heaven on  a ladder. It’s not a ladder, you will see, says Jesus. I am the way into heaven. I am the ladder.

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This all seems terribly artificial. It’s easy to end up thinking we have picked the text to bits, and  are yet strangely unmoved. There’s no delighted yelling out to the kitchen, “You won’t believe what John Hamblin just said to Noni!” It’s all rather colourless and artificial, even forced, especially after the glorious poetry at the beginning of the gospel.

Will we pick at John as we read it through? Will we discipline ourselves to play with those odd, jarring bits of text, and try to tease something out of them? That jarring is our sign that he has another message afoot, if we will seek it out. Will we even imagine things; connections, that John did not have in mind?

It’s in this struggle that the gospel will do its work on us. The time we use to struggle with the text, odd as it may feel, is time we are giving the Spirit to speak into our hearts, and find us under our fig tree. We may always find this week’s verses rather artificial, but our experience of John as a whole, will become Good News.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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