John 1:43–51 (NRSV)
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 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.”
The past few weeks I have been really reflecting on what Incarnation means as I have been in prayer, study and even in my devotional times. What does it mean that God took on actual human flesh and lived among mankind? Why is it important to me today that Jesus lived among actual people? Is this even really that important? I might be the only one that can spend an entire day just thinking about one question like this, trying to see it from every possible perspective that I can imagine. The answers I come up with in many cases raise even more questions in my mind. I think that is part of the beauty of the spirituality of Friends we do not always have to have an answer to the question and can sit with a question or query for extended periods of time and be perfectly fine just enjoying the communion with God as we work through the questions. It is even more interesting when we sit with a question and then revisit the exact same question years later and recognizing how our perspective can change while we traverse the journey of time with Christ. What is the answer that I received this week you might ask. Why is the incarnation so important to me and all of us this week? Jesus had friends. Jesus built relationships with his disciples, with his siblings and parents, with Mary and Martha and scores of others. Jesus was a friend of humanity.
Jesus was a friend. He walked through life with others. Just imagine that for a moment. As we read through the accounts of his life, he actually walked on soil similar to that under our feet. He sat around a fire in the wilderness similar to the one we enjoy at Quaker Haven during our church retreat. It almost saddens me that he did not have the opportunity to eat s’mores because marshmallows were not yet invented, or graham crackers, or even the chocolate bar but I am positive they enjoyed conversation while they roasted something over the fire. Jesus had deep meaningful conversations, Jesus may have even had shallow entertaining conversations with those closest to him late into the evening. Jesus attended meetings of worship, he cried with friends as they suffered through illnesses or faced the pains of death. Jesus enjoyed the delightful screeches of children at play, and probably instigated a few of those screeches. Jesus lived among humankind, yet he is God.
I wrestle with this question yet I do not even, after nearly three decades of embracing it, fully grasp everything about it. I know in my mind and accept the mystery of the virgin birth, yet cannot fully wrap my mind around it because it is so fantastic. I know and accept that Jesus walked with friends but can I imagine him laughing with his friends and enjoying life in ways similar to me? I accept in my mind that Jesus was fully human and fully God yet it still remains just outside of my grasp.
Today’s passage we find one story of an interaction Jesus had with some men who became close friends. These stories, these testimonies from those first disciples have such power for us today even though they happened so long ago. Because wrapped up in each of these stories is a history of each individual. Their names point to the life and the focus of their family. The towns from which they lived speak of life within community. Their conversations and travels show us glimpses into their hearts. And through the story of their lives each one of us can find points of contact with our own. Our story, just like the story of each of these disciples, are powerful because each story is yet another glimpse of God living among us.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Can you picture this moment? Jesus wakes up one morning and after he stretches, maybe scratches his head and yawns, says to himself, “I think I will take a walk to Galilee today.” If we were to read just a paragraph before we would see that that previous day, John the Baptist saw Jesus walking around and told a couple of his followers, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” Those two followers ran over to talk with Jesus and Jesus asked them “What are you looking for?” Their response was that they wanted to know where Jesus was staying and he invited them to walk with him. We are told that one of those men John the Baptist spoke to was Andrew, and that Andrew quickly got his brother to come with them so potentially we have three people there that first day. They go with Jesus and they stay with him, and as Jesus stretches the next morning and makes his proclamation of going to Galilee, they are there with him.
They were all along the Jordon where John was preaching and baptizing, now they are beginning to take that walk to the sea. Somewhere along that journey they meet up with Philip, someone from the same town as Andrew and Simon who the night before was given a nickname by Jesus, Peter. Philip also begins to walk with them. I like Philip. The fact that Philip’s name is Philip speaks a great deal to us. Philip is a Jewish man with a Greek name. Names in ancient times reflect many things. They give us a glimpse into the family dynamic of the person’s parents because they are often named after things that are important to them. They will also have a prophetic message that those carrying the name often live into. Peter was given the prophetic name by Jesus and he became the rock Jesus saw him to be. Philip is a bit different, he carries a Greek name. For people like me, that raises questions. Why did they give their Jewish son the name Philip, a name that means fond of horses? We might think that this is just a fun name and maybe his mom was just really into horses, but Philp is also the name of Alexander the Great’s father, to name a Jewish son by this name you honor the Greek influence in the land. They named their son after the father of the conqueror, the conqueror whose influence eventually lead to the abomination that causes desolation which prompted the Maccabean revolt which lead Israel to seek an alliance with Rome. Why would a Jewish family do this? Maybe they were fond of horses. Maybe Philip was a younger son so they felt that giving him a Greek name would allow him a greater chance to build a place for himself in a highly Greek influenced part of the nation since he would not have an inheritance. Or maybe they just were not that religious. We do not know why they named him that but they did. But we do know that because of his name, he became the point of access to Jesus for the Gentile portions of the community. Those that were not Jewish came to Philip. So, in many ways, we have faith because of Philip.
Philip, who probably knew Andrew and Peter, saw, spoke with and began to follow Jesus. Just like that. What type of a man was Jesus that people just followed him like that? Even those who might have been from a darker segment of society? What type of a person was Jesus that he had no problem inviting a person to friendship who carried a name that represented cultural compromise?
Philip obviously eagerly accepted the call and was at least somewhat religious because he knew he teachings of Moses and the prophets and he readily accepted that Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth was the very person those ancient leaders of faith spoke. He embraced this idea to such a degree he quickly went out to find one of his friends to bring him to meet Jesus.
Which leads us to Nathanael. Of all the disciples of Jesus Nathanael is the one that is shrouded in the most mystery. In the other gospel accounts the name Nathanael is not mentioned but instead Bartholomew. This has led some to wonder if maybe Nathanael and Bartholomew are two separate people or if maybe his actual name was Nathanael son of Tholami. Why do they debate these things, because Nathanael might actually be someone of importance within the larger Jewish community? The name Talami goes all the way back to Israel entering into the Promised Land. Talami or Tolami is the name of one of the sons defeated by Caleb in the conquest. We might say why would a name of a defeated family be important, but it shows that this defeated family became part of Israel and if Nathanael was from this linage this family was so integrated into the Jewish community that Jesus said he was a true Israelite. This statement also connects to the name Nathanael. Remember that in the first century names meant something to the parents and to the community. The name Nathanael is the name of one of the priests serving with Ezra. Recently we discussed aspects of Ezra in our Sunday morning bible study. Nathanael was one of the priests that were required to dismiss his foreign wife so that Israel could become a purified nation, without the influences from the lands that held them in captivity. This is one of the reasons the people of Samaria were the enemies of the Jewish people, they were seen as a mixed race, they intermarried with the conquers and were not fully descendants of Israel.
We have two images within this one person. We have the integration of outsiders into Israel, testifying to God’s grace, and we have the exclusion of outside influences. This one man is a walking testimony to the weirdness of faith. Jesus calls him, “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” And yet, Nathanael is a friend of Philip, the Jewish man with a Greek name. This mysterious man gets even more interesting as his conversation with Jesus progresses. Jesus calls him a true Israelite, he says there is no deceit in him, meaning this man is probably the most honest and authentic man of faith within the group of disciples. Nathanael is the first of the disciples to hesitate, to question Jesus. He is the first to be skeptical of who Jesus actually was. And Jesus loves it.
We often think that questioning our faith is sinful, but it is can be healthy. Often, we can simply accept what is presented to us without examination and when trials come we cannot provide an answer for why we believe. Philip comes to Nathanael and says we have found the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth, and Nathanael says can anything good come out of Nazareth? I love that question. I love it because it is so very human. It shows that there is prejudice present even within the disciples. I am not saying that prejudice is a good thing because it is a sin, but it proves that even the disciples had to deal with the very same things we deal with today. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? This question causes us to join Nathanael in his journey. Galilee was filled with revolutionary ideologies. Many of the initial revolts against Roman rule began in Galilee because they were often seen at the backwards uncivilized segment of Judea. The people of Galilee had to deal with the influx of Gentiles to a greater degree than those in Jerusalem because the Greeks set up their cities around the Sea. But once you got away from the cultural centers on the beaches of Galilee the towns were rural and small. The people living there were poor and often had to venture into the Gentile communities to work, and this interaction with Gentiles caused the people in the south to see them as being less righteous. As a result, they became very nationalistic and overcompensated through bold speech and action. Just a short distance from Nazareth Josephus fortified a city and began the Jewish war with Rome which eventually ended with the destruction of Jerusalem.
When Nathanael questions Philip about the goodness of the people in Nazareth it is a genuine portrait of what the larger Jewish community felt. People of Nazareth were trouble makers boldly proclaiming their patriotism while living dependent on the very people they sought to expel. And among these people are the ultra-religious as well as the ferocious fighters. Nathanael would be one of the ultra-religious. Jesus says I saw you under the fig tree, when Nathanael asks when he had got to know him. We may not initially understand the importance of this statement but there is great spiritual significance to it. Some of the teaching of that day was that the proper place to meditate of scriptures was while siting under a fig tree. So, there is some indication that Nathanael was a righteous man, he spent time in meditation while he studied under the fig tree. And Jesus met with him in spirit while Nathanael prayed. Of all the disciples Nathanael was the first we see as taking a personal focus on spiritual devotion. A couple of the others were followers of John the Baptist but it is Nathanael we see engaging in a disciplined life. And it is he who represents authentic Israel.
This story, these interactions between Jesus and the first disciples are wonderful because they represent so much of life in general. We have common people from common families. We have earnest seekers and skeptics. We have those whose name represents integration with the world and we have names that point to integration into the kingdom of God. We have cultural diversity and cultural purity. All of this and God Incarnate is right there in the middle of it all. It speaks of the abundance of God’s grace within the each of our stories. It speaks to us of the will of God and our spiritual vocation in the world today. Jesus invited each of them to follow Him. He invited each type of person to live their life with him. It also speaks to our current condition as we follow today. Do we interact with diverse people like Jesus did or are we bound by our own prejudices? Do we live our lives authentically before God and our neighbors or are we hiding behind a façade? Do we live as incarnate witnesses to life with God in our community and beyond?
As we enter a time of open worship and communion with God in the manner of Friends let us consider the life of Jesus and the interactions he had with his followers. Let us consider what the incarnate life means to us and let us embrace God with us today and until the end of ages.