Epiphany in White Socks
Gospel John 1:43-51
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, [both instances of you are plural] you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
The multi-storey flats at the end of our street are surrounded by enormous fig trees with a smattering of Gums and Kurrajongs. A man was immersed in a slow and careful search of the underbrush and the deep leaf litter as we left on our evening walk. Our dog was full of energy in the cool after our recent heatwave, and we were away much longer than we intended. As we came home in the almost dark, I saw the same man, now on the other side of that huge compound, still searching. There was something obsessive and lost in his demeanour. My wife wondered if he even knew what he was searching for, but then said that, probably, he would know it when he found it.
I wondered where this man might take me as I considered Nathanael under his fig tree. Our local Nathanael reminded me of my great frustration in theological college, which was that few of the books they gave me to read, helped my searching. I seemed, instead, to find by accident, texts that were much more helpful, and which came alive. That accidental experience has continued life-long in taking me in unexpected directions. Have I been found rather more than I have found? There is a certain human conceit exposed by the Gospel of John in the section which contains the lectionary reading for this week.
Jesus saw Andrew, but Andrew told Simon, "We have found the Messiah…" (38-41)
Jesus found Phillip but Phillip told Nathanael, "We have found him who…" (43-45)
Francis Moloney is clear about what is happening:
Phillip professes his understanding of Jesus to another potential disciple, Nathanael, but he repeats the lie of Andrew: "We have found…" The only person Phillip found is Nathanael (vs45a), but he was found and called by Jesus. (The Gospel of John, Francis J. Moloney, Daniel J. Harrington pp55)
We may search diligently, even obsessively, but we are found. What, then, do we find?
Mark Davis writes in "The Politics of Vision"
the phrase “come and see” has been lifted out of the story as a slogan for evangelism. … However… are we even capable of looking at God, trying God on, or deciding if God fits our criteria? … The incipient Pelagianism behind … the slogan [come and see] assumes that—however active God may be in other ways—the salvific moment rests on our power of vision. It is up to us to “see”—in both the visual and the comprehension sense—then we are able to decide and choose. It is a view of humanity that resonates quite well with us when we have bought into the myth of the market, where something’s worth lies solely in the eyes of the beholder.
What a strange twist, then, when Jesus says to Nathanael: “Before Philip called you … I saw you.” Up until this moment, Nathanael’s story is a marketer’s dream. Philip had found Nathanael and his evangel was “We have found the Messiah.” Nathanael is now in the position of power, to question, to doubt, to press Philip for convincing proof… Nathanael now 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.
The whole equation changes when Jesus says, “Before Philip called you … I saw you.” Before Philip sees he is seen; before he knows he is known; before he chooses he is chosen. (I have added the hyperlink.)
Do we even know what we are looking for? Who has shaped our desires? From Australia it is very easy to see the absurdity of Americans "choosing" to have guns; a choice which seems, from here, to be absurd, and which betrays a certain obsessive and driven aspect of the culture. In my own love affair with guns, my choices and the desires beyond them are still not entirely clear to me. On what basis can we be confident about the reason for our choices?
In his Left Behind and Loving It translation for this week, Davis makes reference to Robert Scharlemann. He has expanded the reference on another page. Scharlemann writes
about what he calls “acolouthetic reason,” based on the word for “follow” [acolutheo in John 1] He argues that it is a different kind of reasoning than what has long been defined as knowing, doing, and feeling in the areas of philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics. Acolouthetic reason is immediate, non-reflective reason when the call elicits a response not mediated by weighing the cost or considering the options. The costs and the options come, in time, but the call and response is prior to that, not a result of it. I find Scharlemann’s argument very similar to what Schleiermacher called “the feeling of absolute dependence,” which is prior to knowing and doing.
With all the books which "found me," there was very soon an acolouthetic response, a Wesleyan warming of the heart, somewhat different to the other books I was reading. Only later did the "costs and options," and intellectual questions arise, along with slow recognition that I was only ever seeing bits of a story which was beyond me to comprehend. Is it too much to think that perhaps Jesus had seen me coming, searching the leaf litter under the fig trees, and had called me, in these books? And that like Phillip and Nathanael, I had seen something, but had yet little idea of what that seeing might cost or involve? My sense is that what I have found is a warming of heart, a sense of being closer to something not yet known but which promises more.
But why trust this desire more than the earlier warmings of my heart, which I now considered naïve, or even quite wrong? The man under the fig tree would hold brush aside with his foot, carefully inspecting what lay below. Perhaps Nathanael's immediate response to Jesus betrays his naiveté. When Jesus says "You will see greater things than these," we are inclined to hear, "You haven't seen anything yet!" more in terms of power and glory than in terms of a slow maturing of understanding. It's another place where society has shaped our desires and choices: I longed for deep and authentic experience, which I was taught would look like the constant hype of the local Pentecostal assembly. Instead, I was given a few momentary epiphanies which I am still unpacking, and which still bear careful inspection.
As well as the words "find," and "come and see," there is another repetitive pattern in John 1, based around the number of days. The connection between the days means that Nathanael's role extends beyond the little cameo in the reading.
The Gospel begins with the phrase "In the beginning…" which might put one in mind of Genesis; that is, here, says John, is a new creation. Indeed, if we count the days, as I have outlined them below, we can count seven days, with Nathanael being found on the fourth day. There are then three more days, because the Wedding in Cana is "on the third day" after Nathanael. This when the mother of Jesus tells him the wine has run out. (2:1) Changing the water into wine, "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him." (2:11)
We could understand, then, that these seven days align with the seven days of creation— they are a sign of the new creation. We might also remember that on the third day after his death Jesus is also revealed in his resurrection, just as he reveals himself on the third day mentioned by John. This would mean the new creation is being revealed in the first of the signs.
However, Francis Moloney suggests that John's intention is for us to notice the numbering of the days for a different reason. The allusions to scripture are deeper than only the week of creation.
Fundamental background to these days, which close in 2:11 with the revelation of the doxa of Jesus to the disciples, is the description of the gift of the Law in Exodus 19…. YHWH tells Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow… and prepare for the third day, because on the third day… YHWH will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people." (19:10-11) …The description of the gift of the Law then begins: "On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as thick cloud … on the mountain." The glory of God is revealed "on the third day."
Moloney goes on to say
In the ancient celebration of Pentecost, commemorating the gift of the Law on Sinai, the three days of Exodus 19 remain but they are prefaced by four days of more remote preparation. These four extra days of preparation for the revelation of God and the gift of the Law culminate in the fourth day, which is both the final day of remote preparation and the first of the three days that come to the celebration of the biblical account of Exodus 19. On the third day the doxa of God is revealed… This time scheme shapes the order of the events reported in John 1:19-2:12. There are four days of preparation.
These days come to their climax in 2:1-12, which opens with the exact words of LXX Exodus 19:16: "on the third day," and closes with an indication that as the doxa of God was revealed at Sinai… the doxa of Jesus is seen by the disciples (John 2:11) (The Gospel of John, Francis J. Moloney, Daniel J. Harrington pp50-52)
Everything that has happened around the days is about Jesus, the revelation of Jesus, and the actions of the disciples are quite secondary.
When Nathanael is found, Jesus makes him a promise— you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man— and already, in John 2:1-12, the promise begins to be fulfilled.
The promise to Nathanael has its own Old Testament allusions. An "Israelite in whom there is no guile" is a pointed comment about the man Israel who had been named Jacob, and who was in no way guileless:
Genesis paints the character Jacob as a trickster. He deceives his whole family: his father Isaac, brother Esau, and uncle Laban. God had changed Jacob's name to Israel, (Genesis 35:10) and all Israel counted Jacob as its Father. A true Israelite, unlike Jacob, has no deceit. Nathanael stands as the best of Israel, God's chosen people, and the question is whether we will be like him. (Andrew Prior)
Jesus then alludes to the dream in Genesis 28, where Jacob sees the angels ascending and descending into heaven, on a ladder. Nathanael will see the way into heaven also, but the ladder will be Jesus: "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (1:51)
There is more here than we English readers discern. Firstly you is, in both cases, plural. The promise is to all Jesus' followers. Secondly, there is Jewish commentary which suggests that the ladder was often interpreted as being Jacob himself. (The Johannine Son of Man: Second Edition, By Francis J. Moloney pp27) If the author of John knew this tradition, what does it say about Jacob/Israel the ladder? Perhaps that this new ladder is without guile.
I want to try to bring together the idea of being more found than choosing, of Jesus' self-revelation that he is the ladder which opens heaven— the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it (Gen 28:16)— , and the sign of Cana. I want to place them alongside what Mark Davis called the "myth of the market" which is that value lies where we think it lies, and alongside the story-myth which suggests that we can market the gospel. I'm referring to the mindset where "come and see who has found me under the fig tree— a man who 'told me everything I have ever done'," (cf John 4) seems to come out as "Come and see what I have found," as if I were the significant actor.
The man under our local fig trees was living in a significant poverty. He was searching in white socks, without shoes. Would he follow the brash confidence of Phillip— I certainly seized on the words of every Phillip I met in my younger days. Or would he recognise that humanity is, by nature, "outside in its socks," and that our healing is rather longer than we imagine?
Clearly, Phillip is immensely important to Nathanael. He is his evangelist. He might even become his mentor! But where does the role of Phillip end?
Some answers crystallise for me in words which took a little unpacking.
Bailie bridges to his comments on John 1 with a reflection on the key teaching of the Markan Jesus: Anyone who wants to save their psyche, will lose it; and anyone who loses their psyche for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. There’s more revelatory power in this one verse than in all the psycho-analytic literature to date. We haven’t even begun to plumb the meaning of this verse. But we’d better start, because it is so relevant to the current psychological crisis. Once the temple is superseded, it’s only a matter of time before we turn each other into idols. Moreover, the admonition to love your neighbor as yourself is an admonition against idolatry. Love your neighbor not as an idol, not as a Christ, not as a model. If one’s neighbor begins to play the role in one’s life played by Christ in St. Paul’s life, or played by the Father in Jesus’ life, then the result will eventually be hatred. (Paul Neuchterlein)
If I have found the Messiah, it sets up a claim to knowledge and power. "I have recognised and understood," says Phillip. "And you have not, Nathanael, so you'd better follow me." Inevitably, even though Phillip invites Nathanael to "come and see," that seeing is bound up in Phillip's interpretation. If Nathanael continues only to see through Phillip, then it is Phillip he will follow or… imitate.
If we follow each other, "it’s only a matter of time before we turn each other into idols." We even say this: we idolise people! And in the end, we fall out with our idol. We are not content to remain as followers; we want to run the show. We want what they have, and to be like them. It lets us feel that we have control. It's a death avoidance technique. It saves our psyche. But who could we follow instead? (You see here that I do not think I make my own way in life; I always follow someone.)
The text book answer is to follow Jesus. James Alison's suggestion is that Jesus takes us outside what I would call the paradigm of redemptive violence, by modelling for us a life which is not based around competition. Alison says he could do this because he was not afraid of dying. He didn't have to prove himself so he could outlast death in some way.
The problem is, we don't get to choose him. He chooses us. It's the central message of the latter part of John 1, that Jesus does the choosing and calling. Our sense of choosing is either our conscious acknowledgment of being chosen, or it is a conceit, because we don't choose, we are called.
This could sound as if I am letting theories about desire over-ride common sense— of course we choose! Yet my unhappy experience has been to recognise that my choices were always heavily influenced, if not sometimes dictated to me. Not in the sense that I was making a conscious choice of a over b, given the circumstances, but influenced and dictated by forces I was quite unconscious about: past trauma, family conditioning, advertising. I did not even— going back to Nathanael— know myself.
And in my discipleship, my experience is that where I have chosen, where I have theologised and decided and acted on ideas, and upon what I think is important, the outcomes have been unhelpful and disappointing, or a particular project or direction has 'fizzled.' The more definite I have been, the more likely such outcomes have been.
But where I have reflected upon and picked through what has been happening to me, and upon the things which have crept up on me, as it were; where I suspect I may have looked rather more like the lost and slightly odd man under the fig tree, something has come alive. It has seemed more like something done to me rather than me choosing what I would do or be.
Unlike Phillip, I have come to a very 'hindsighted' vision of Jesus. One of my friends almost weeps with despair over the lack of some "experience of God" in their life. In these conversations I remember the same desperation in my own life, and I am astonished by two things: how much this person has been healed and changed and have God's fingerprints all over them even though they don't see it yet, and how much I have been healed of that desperation, and live in a place of assurance of the reality of God.
I have certainly lost something of my life, my sense of self, here. Because I no longer pretend to choose and decide with the assurance and conceit of our culture— I don't do and say a lot of the things that some of the other ministers do and say, I feel I'm perceived as a rather pathetic and lost person under the fig tree who doesn't even know what he is searching for. It hurts. Yet in not pretending to clearly see Jesus now, rather than to see God revealed in slow and tentative hindsight, I am more settled and confident than I have ever been.
How then do I live in response to a call to see that which is more given rather than discovered?
I live under the fig tree, seeking the one who has already seen me and who knows me.
The Fig Tree
The fig tree is the place where Israel lives in its fullness: they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:4) But it is also the place of judgement. (Jer 8:13, Hos 2:12 Joel 1:7,12) It's the place we live out our violence upon others, saying it is the work and the will of God. The fig tree is where we live.
What if I place the man I saw under the fig trees in Jacque Tissot's painting, which I found on Mark Davis' page?
Are the two women looking back at him laughing at him, or even embarrassed by his difference? Or is he the one who is allowing himself to be found, because he knows there is more, knows he is lost, and keeps looking for what is missing, even though he is not sure what it is?
I think my best living under the fig tree is to 'do my own theology.' That is, to tell in my own words what I have experienced and learned, always seeking to sift the words of others through my experience. Always being restrained in claiming, and proclaiming, the insights of another until they are well grounded in my own experience and able to be expressed in my own words. If I quote Girard, or some other scholar, as if I know his stuff is true, rather than with tentativeness, I slide towards idolisation, towards needing to win arguments because I don't really know, towards being knowledgeable rather than fruitful. I fall… into the myth of the authoritative minister instead of being the sacrificial servant who operates out of her or his experience of the Christ. And then, of course, I have to maintain it all, or I lose face, and who I am, and so the violence begins.
And all this means I can't control you. I can only say what I have seen. Anything more is a conceit.
There is a freedom in this. Slowly I am able to see that I am seen not as compulsive, lost, and unhealthy, but as someone who is being found, as someone who is liked, even… likeable!! Which is a great freedom.
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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
John 1:43-51 - Nathanael (2009)
John 1:43-53 - Come and See and Remain with Me (2012)
John 1:43-51 - If Y'all Would Come and See... (2012)
John 1:43-51 - I am afraid of dying (2015)
I was able to access portions of both books by Francis Moloney on Google Books.
Excerpts from John 1 and 2
1 In the beginning was the Word…
24 DAY ONE Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
29 DAY TWO The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
35 DAY THREE The next day again John 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 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*).
43 DAY FOUR- the major self-revelation of Jesus 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,[ both you are plural] you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
2:1 DAY SEVEN? On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there… 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.