Today, one week since the beginning of Epiphany, we move to Jesus’s early ministry, specifically as recounted in the Gospel of John.
We are fortunate in that we don’t have to break down one of Jesus’s parables (as in months past) as no one is speaking in riddles—at least not to each other. In this short passage Jesus meets one of his first followers, and then a new recruit, and they speak to each other through convention and imagery that, frankly, does not exist in modern American conversation.
When today we might greet a stranger with a wave and bright eyes, our face covered in masks, as a universal gesture of “hello, how are you?” – back then people not only greeted each other differently but the awkward conversations of first meeting have a different social context.
Today, when you read this passage, I want you to think of this conversation happening between two men, who have never met, who just happen to be sitting next to each other on a bus. Instead of reading their books or putting in headphones, they decide to speak to each other.
This conversation in the Gospel of John has the potential to be just as awkward and terribly baffling if you don’t know the local “lingo” or regional secret handshake.
So where do we begin? Well, at the beginning, of course…
The Beginning is “the Next Day”
We begin with the phrase “the next day,” which tells us we are continuing with the narrative from earlier in John. Jesus, however, wherever he is (and it doesn’t quite matter unless we want to trace his exact movements) he has decided to go to Galilee—he’s decided to go home.
He meets Philip, one of the original 12 disciples, and says just one simple command: “Follow me.”
I don’t know about you, but if some man I’d never seen before came up to me and said, “Follow me” without so much as a “hello,” I would wonder if he was serious and, if he was, begin to worry a little. There are, of course, exceptions to this. If you’re waiting for an appointment and the RN calls your name, saying to follow him, you generally do just that. There’s the awkward dance of taking off your shoes before your weight is checked, but in the end, you know you’ll see the doctor. Everything is planned and accounted for. You know exactly what to expect.
In an entirely different instance, if you have the misfortune of being lost somewhere, a stranger leading you to safety is a welcome sight. If you’re truly lost (and have been for awhile), you won’t even think when the Good Samaritan tells you to follow them back to safety and security. Most of us would do it without hesitation, especially if we’re frightened.
This, though, is a different cup of tea.
But Philip follows without question. We don’t even have his answer, as he doesn’t seem to question Jesus as most of us might. He hears the good news—he hears the godspell or the godly words/message—and he follows Jesus implicitly.
Pause – Let’s Discuss
This is not a reflection on Philip’s (or anyone else’s) gullibility. This is not even a reflection of how persuasive Jesus is. He’s not remotely persuasive as he doesn’t even attempt to persuade Philip to follow him. No persuading is happening.
Jesus’s message—his “truth” in modern terms—his mission—is pure and powerful. In its simplest and most boiled down form (“follow Jesus”), Philip comes without hesitation or question. Others do, too. One such other person is Nathanael (more on who he might be later).
That’s where we begin the baffling discussion full of social prejudices, cultural metaphors, and words that don’t quite make sense to us (yet).
Restart – Nathanael
Jesus converts Philip and Philip goes and attempts to bring along a friend. After all, the news is good, wouldn’t everyone like to hear?
This is how grassroots movements work, by word of mouth (and now social media), from friend to friend, from like-minded person to like-minded person, without government sanction or any sort of overbearing organizational structure.
Nathanael’s conversation with Jesus is different, however. It’s not quite as smooth as Jesus’s conversation with Philip, but it proves to be just as profound.
First it begins with Nathanael’s words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
This is local customs at work. I’d hate to call it prejudice—it’s not quite that well formed—but there is an element of potential discrimination.
In Galilee, towns and villages possessed rivalries. Intense rivalries. It was commonplace that everyone in Galilee would know which village was pitted against another, which town thought its baked goods better, et cetera.
In modern times, I think of soccer as a good example, but in New England the best example lies in baseball. We all know the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees. It can get bitter. Yankee fans distrust everything the Red Sox do, and vice versa. God help the innocent bystander if you’re outside of Fenway Park the afternoon of a game against the Yankees—especially if you’re wearing a Yankees hat.
So, it was between towns in Galilee.
Nathanael, a Galilean, hears Jesus is from Nazareth (a different town than his own) and thinks—“Really? Can good news and the bringer of it come from there of all places?”
Quite simple, quite basic, but baffling to those of us who don’t live in first Century Galilee.
Philip knows the good news, but he knows that it will speak for itself, and so just tells his friend to go see it for himself.
Next – The Fig Tree
The subsequent part of the passage can be just as confusing, but it is a little more complicated. Jesus, when he meets Nathanael (the new recruit, as it were), says that Nathanael is without deceit.
Why?—Because he saw him under a fig tree.
Did Jesus actually see Nathanael under a physical fig tree? Probably not. It could have happened, but that’s not what he’s referring to.
Sitting under a fig tree was a universal symbol for inner peace. The fig tree, itself, meant peace and harmony. When grown out with healthy leaves, it provided shade from the hot sun. It gave fruit for sustenance. When a man (sorry, ladies) sat under a fig tree. He did so to ponder. A man sat under a fig tree to contemplate, to search for (and find) inner harmony. Most importantly, a man sat under a fig tree to find peace, the kind of peace that only came from the Creator.
When Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree, it is clearly a message.
Jesus, when he sees Nathanael, recognizes his inner tranquility, his inner peace, and (most importantly) his healthy relationship with the God of Abraham, which is a deeply spiritual connection.
He is saying “you are a man of God” without actually saying it. He’s a bit more polite than that, a bit more circumspect, and certainly chooses more poetic language.
Finally – the Quick Wrap Up
With this message of friendship, peace, and harmony, Nathanael recognizes Jesus for what he is—a teacher (or rabbi), the Son of the God of Abraham, and the King of Israel. His eyes were opened with a greeting and Jesus’s insight into his soul.
When Jesus said he saw Nathanael under a fig tree, he was really saying, “I see your heart. I see your soul. I see your goodness. And I recognize them all in my greeting to you.”
How could anyone resist such an honest and beautiful sentiment? Few could in Galilee and throughout Israel during Jesus’s ministry.
This Brings us Back to Nathanael
If Nathanael was an actual person, he was certainly right in the ways of the Lord. He would make an ideal follower for the Word of God Made Flesh (i.e. Jesus).
Some have suggested he might be John the Beloved, others Matthew, but that’s just guesswork.
If Nathanael is an archetype, then he represents the ideal follower—someone who has a good relationship with their Lord and, so, can easily fall into a good and spiritual relationship with God’s only begotten son. Some think that Nathanael represents the Apostle Paul, but I’ve found little to support this theory.
If, however, Nathanael is the everyman (or everywoman), then he is our potential. We all have the potential to know and accept Christ upon meeting him when we least expect him. This—in John 1:43-51—is our story. Even if skeptical when we first learn of Jesus (or if we encounter skeptical moments later in our life), we can always find Jesus. He is always there, and our hearts are primed to accept him.
This is a story of hope, a story of you, a story of me, and a story for the future of every Christian. Jesus, at first, didn’t preach to thousands and then wow them by multiplying bread and fish. He began by walking home and talking to others, others who understood him and his words for the miracle that they undoubtedly were.
That miracle of the good news never ended. It survives into every facet of life on this planet. It survives perhaps in this newsletter. I hope it survives in your soul… or that it soon will rest there again.