Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 14, 2024

John 1:43-51 Commentary

Our lectionary text picks up in the midst of calling and witness narratives. After the prologue in verse 19, we start with the witness of John the Baptist (including his account of Jesus’s baptism, which isn’t recorded in John’s gospel) and then follow along as Jesus begins to call his disciples. He starts with brothers Andrew and Simon (aka Peter) in verses 35-42, then comes the callings of Philip and Nathanael.

But really, the Epiphany season focus seems to hone in on Nathanael. What’s extra interesting is that Nathanael is a bit of a mystery disciple in the New Testament. There’s this story and then one final reference to him in John 21.2—he’s not even listed among the twelve. (Though, a number of attempts have been made to connect him to one of the names in the original twelve, under the assumption that he, like Simon Peter, had two names.)

And yet, here Nathanael is at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, and there he will be with Jesus’s closest disciples when Jesus appears to them after his resurrection. Presumably, he was there all along the way, then. Our mystery man might be a revelatory gift to us—someone who we can pretend to be as we re-read the gospel narratives, imagining ourselves in his “silent” sandals…

We don’t know if there was more to Philip and Jesus’s interaction, but we are given a glimpse of what leads Nathanael to his conversion. Like we saw throughout our Advent and Christmas texts, God decided to use another human, Philip, to invite Nathanael to faith. And Philip’s approach isn’t to argue or chastise Nathanael’s insulting comment about Jesus’s hometown. His approach is to invite Nathanael to get up and get going and see for himself what Philip is trying to describe.

How Philip chooses to describe Jesus, as the one “whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” seems to point to Nathanael being a student of the Scriptures (or at least commentators tend to think so). As a student of the Scriptures among a people in waiting, Philip knows that Jesus will really matter to Nathanael so he persists in inviting Nathanael to come and see Jesus for himself—it’s the whole “Big, if true” phenomenon.

Whether it was the relational capital between them, an inkling of hope, his own curiosity, the work of the Spirit, or some combination of these motives, to his credit, Nathanael follows Philip to this Jesus from a nowhere town.

Evangelism is about inviting people to “come and see.” It’s about sharing what’s happened to you and following Jesus’s example of inviting more to experience their own moment of being-found-while-finding. What I mean by that is it’s worth reflecting on the fact that being found by Jesus feels like finding something very important and special yourself—like having an epiphany! (See the textual point below for a little more on this pattern in the text.) The being-found-while-finding sensation is the dynamic that is conversion.

For Nathanael, it’s when the head knowledge he has about what the Scriptures have promised for God’s people becomes experiential in the knowledge Jesus shares with him about Nathanael’s very self. It leads Nathanael to offer back to Jesus the truth: “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

These words will echo at the end of the gospels, as a sign hung on Jesus’s cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19.19, Luke 23.28, Mark 15.26, Matthew 27.37) But so too will the other part of the epiphany, as the Roman centurion exclaims as Jesus died and the earth quaked, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Matt 27.54, Mark 15.39) With God, conversions happen in all kinds of circumstances.

But back to Nathanael’s conversion… Hearing his statement of faith, Jesus basically says, “Just you wait.” You think being known by the Messiah is awe-inspiring? Just wait and see what else God does.

Jesus is speaking from personal experience and what he saw at his baptism: the heavens opened and God’s Spirit came down to be with him. We now come to find out that the rending of heaven caused by God’s great love is still open and the angels are now moving freely between heaven and earth to do the will of the Father, attending to the Saviour of the world. Jesus uses the Greek perfect tense for “opened”—it’s already happened and the consequences are continuing—we are all just catching on, eventually seeing through the eyes of faith what was there all along.

Reflecting on this awesome revelation, Martin Luther remarked that the heavens opened at Jesus’s baptism and they never closed. God’s angels continue to attend to God’s beloveds, the Spirit continues to come upon and be with the co-heirs of Christ. This truth is supported by every epiphany that leads to conversion. Can you see it?

Textual Point

There is a pattern of parallel movement and repeated Greek verbs in the narrative. First, Jesus finds the ones he is going to call; in this case Philip. Jesus invites Philip to follow him, which leads Philip to go and find Nathanael. Philip says that they have found the one prophesied about. To Nathanael’s scoff, Philip offers his own invite that leads to discipleship, “Come and see!” And it is as Nathanael is coming towards Jesus that Jesus talks about what he has seen of Nathanael. Then there will be even greater things to see…

Illustration Idea

I’m not really sure that they are still a thing, but do you remember those Magic Eye books? The technical description of the images are autostereograms. It is a 2D image which creates an optical illusion that, after a lot of staring at it, reveals a 3D shape to the viewer. Technically, the 3D shape was there all along—it just needed to be seen. The first volume published in North America was even subtitled, “A New Way of Looking at the World.” What an apt description of what an epiphany and conversion experience produces in us!


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