Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Come and See..."

Many thanks today to D. Mark Davis, Mick Bradley, and Michael Rogness for their insights into today's reading.

The quote from Aaron Weiss comes from "Linear," by his group mewithoutYou.

JOHN 1:43-51
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 toward 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I can't help but identify with Nathanael right off the bat: He has some pretty strong opinions, and you know that filter that most people have, that little voice in their heads kind of helps keep them from blurting out stuff they shouldn't? He doesn't have that. Most of the time I don't have one, either.

Nathanael only appears by that name in the Gospel of John. Most of the commentators I've read think that he's Bartholomew in the other Gospels. Why John didn't remember his name correctly is beyond me; it may have some symbolic significance, since Bartholomew means “son of Tolomei,” and Nathanael means “gift of God,” but that's just a guess.

And make no mistake, that's only one of the things about this passage that leaves me guessing. I don't know, for example, why, so many times in the Gospels, just like here with Philip, the disciples just drop whatever they're doing and follow Jesus. I don't know why it is important for John to note that Philip is from Bethsaida. It is translated like a toss-off comment, but I don't think there are any of those in Scripture. I don't know why Nathanael thinks nothing good exists in Nazareth, or why his reaction to Jesus having already seen him is so strong.

At its core, this reading is a passage about evangelism, but I don't know if it can be so easily categorized. I've struggled to find a word for what's going on here – intentionality, maybe? After all, in addition to the fact that Philip specifically sought out Nathanael, Jesus found Philip in the first place. Oh, Philip and Nathanael had been looking, in their own way, too – looking for the Messiah, the Hope of Israel. Something in Jesus convinced Philip, apparently on sight, that his search was over. And though, this side of the Resurrection, I'd like to think I'd react that same way to Jesus, I think it's more honest to say that I am more familiar with Nathanael's first reaction to news of the Messiah.

After all, what do we most associate this kind of evangelism with? “Come and see” usually translates to “come to church,” “come to this or that meeting,” “let me tell you about Amway,” that kind of thing. There is an entire industry built around evangelism – marketing tools, how-to-guides, videos and websites and tracts and training programs... you can use the Five Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road or any more of dozens of mnemonics and other catchy devices, all built around the idea that any time we mention Jesus or Christianity, whoever we are speaking to will react in the same way Nathaneal did: “Nazareth? Yeah, right.” And we are to react with well-thought-out rebuttals and systematic theological arguments.

All Philip said was, “Come see for yourself.” Period.

If it had been me, getting invited to someone's church meeting or some such, I probably wouldn't have gone. Or maybe...

I guess it would have to do with who invited me. If it was some random stranger, or a FaceBook invitation, or someone at work? Not likely. One of you, or a family member, on the other hand, I would be more likely to go, and I'm not just saying that because you're here and it sounds good. What I mean is that I am more likely to respond positively to someone I have a relationship with – friends and family trump strangers and FaceBook notices any day.

If Nathanael in John's Gospel is the same disciple as Bartholomew in the other three, then we have an idea of the relationship between Philip and Nathanael. Every time we read Bartholomew's name in the other Gospels, it is in association with Philip. Those two were inseparable friends, like they were joined at the hip. Jesus found Philip and the first thing he thought was, “I gotta tell Nathanael, he'll love this!”

Yes, there are times when people come to a church meeting or a revival and whatever they see or hear causes them to respond to Christ. There are times when a stranger's word can bring a person to faith in Jesus. There are examples in the New Testament of this: Peter preaches in Acts and five thousand people become Christians, before they even had a word for it. Philip – the same Philip we meet today – comes across an Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah and ends up baptizing him into the faith.

But there are so many more times, in Scripture and in day-to-day life, where it isn't a chance meeting or a preacher that makes the difference in whether or not someone chooses to follow the risen Christ. It's personal. Friends and family. It's relationships.

Words only do so much, after all. Philip seems to have known this, and when Nathanael scoffed at the idea of a Messiah coming out of Nazareth (since nothing in Scripture said anything about that), he didn't try to beat him down with superior logic, or by yelling louder. He just said, “Come and see.”

But let's just wait a second. When you think about it, however much I've tried to frame it as personal, as relationship, up until the point Jesus greets Nathanael, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” the whole passage reads like an advertiser or marketer's dream: “come to church, come to my meeting, come try this new-and-improved cheese spread, come see my movie, come try this more comfortable bed.”

In response to Nathanael’s skepticism Philip replies, “Come and see,” an invitation akin to offering a ‘money back guarantee’ or a “Don’t take my word for it, try it on for yourself!” Nathanael approaches Jesus as one who is in the position of power to judge, to test, to evaluate whether this one whom Philip has found is indeed the Messiah.

But is God like a garment, hanging on display, subject to our choosing? Are we even capable of looking at God, trying God on, or deciding if God fits our criteria? Is the Messiah an exhibition at which one comes to gawk and make judgments? Are we really able, on our own, in our power of vision, to decide whether or not Jesus is “good enough?”

It's what we're comfortable believing, after all. We've bought into the myth of the market, where something’s worth lies solely in the eyes of the beholder.

Jesus turns that idea on its head when he says to Nathanael: “Before Philip called you … I saw you.” Suddenly, Nathanael is no longer in the position of power, to question, to doubt, to press Philip for convincing proof. Before we see, we are seen; before we know, we are known; before we choose, we are chosen.

In our Reformed theology, we believe that we don't save ourselves, after all, and if it weren't for God's grace, we wouldn't give a first or a second thought to faith. We believe that God seeks us out, God in Jesus Christ calls us to faith, we love because he first loved us.

It is not that humans have no free will, no capacity to see, no power to evaluate, judge, or choose. It is, rather, that human will has been contextualized, human capacity has been circumscribed, and the human power of vision has been dethroned as the ultimate power of the universe.

In God's vision, things have value, even if we treat them like nothing; in God's vision, some are worthless, even if we would choose to kill for them; in God's vision, some things are necessary, even if we would not buy into them in a million years. Our estimation of utility is not the final arbiter of value; the customer is not always right; and what something costs may have nothing to do with what it is worth.

Maybe... maybe this is why Nathanael reacts so strongly? The fact that Jesus saw him before he even knew Jesus existed, that he had value in Jesus' eyes before he approached, he was known and had worth before Nathanael decided one way or the other about Jesus...

Arguments and theologies and doctrines are fine, as far as they go. But in the end, they are words, and nothing more. Poet and vocalist Aaron Weiss puts it like this: “However much you talk, however well you talk, you make a certain sense, but it's still only stupid talk.”

In the end, all we can do – all we must do – is, like Philip, invite people to “come and see” - but not come to church, not come see this preacher or that musician, not come hear this convincing argument or that flawless doctrine...

We have to show them Jesus. And the scary part is that all we have that can and should show Jesus... is us. Our lives. Our actions. Our selves.

“Come and see.”

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