Reflection for Sunday 17th January

Sunday 17th January 2021

Reflection 29   ‘Come and see!’

Nathaniel Under the Fig Tree – James Tissot 1836 – 1902
Lectionary Passage John 1 vv 43 – 51

In his opening Chapter, John records the meetings between Jesus and some of those who were to become His Disciples – Andrew and Simon, and in this passage Philip and Nathanael.

There are huge gaps in our knowledge and our understanding of the first Disciples of Jesus.  There is an immediate pitfall; when ‘disciples’ are mentioned we tend to limit them in our thinking to twelve – all of whom are men.  The evidence of the gospels is that from the early days there were far more than twelve and that some of the ones who could properly be called disciples were women.  In Luke Chapter 6 v 13 we read –  ‘he (Jesus) called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them….’  The clear indication is that out of a larger number he chose a representative group, with all the Jewish significance of the number twelve.  At the beginning of Luke 8 we find the names, with some detail, of a group of women who surely were as much true disciples of Jesus as any of the men. (That is for another Reflection!)  Then, and again it is Luke who records it for us, after the Resurrection there was the perceived need to replace Judas.  There was a gathering of 120 disciples.  By prayer and by drawing lots, they chose Matthias.  We never hear of him again.

Similarly, of the Twelve, there are several who are only names on the lists in Matthew, Mark and Luke – in both his Gospel and in Acts.  Matthew 10 vv 1 – 4; Mark  3 vv 13 – 19 ; Luke 6 vv 12 – 16 and Acts 1 vv 12 – 13.  What do we know about James son of Alphaeus, or Thaddaeus?  – nothing.

Our Lectionary passage throws up another mystery.  It centres on Nathanael.  Nathanael is mentioned in John’s Gospel – and only in John – at the very beginning – John 1 and at the very end in the account of the failed fishing trip and then the breakfast on the beach with the Risen Jesus – John 21 v 2.  Quite obviously he is a disciple, he is in close company with some of ‘the twelve’.  His name, however, is not included in the lists. We don’t know much about him, apart from the fact that he came from the village of Cana in Galilee.  There was obvious rivalry between the ‘twin’ villages of Cana and Nazareth and Nathanael can’t help his comment about what sort of person comes from Nazareth.  It can’t be coincidence that having told us about Nathanael from Cana in Chapter one, John immediately in Chapter two tells us about the wedding feast in Cana.

Importantly we see Nathanael through the eyes of Jesus.  Part of the domestic picture we have is that Galilean houses – perhaps quite small and tightly packed, didn’t have gardens as we understand them but had what we might call a yard.  Fig trees were important for their fruit and also for their shade.  People planted fig trees outside their homes.  They provided an extra space – a sort of verandah, a stoop, a conservatory, a place to sit and relax, to pause and think, to meditate and to pray.  Jesus catches sight of Nathaniel under his fig tree, and when Philip brings Nathanael to meet Jesus, he recognised him and sees something deep and commendable in him. ‘Here is a real Israelite, there is nothing false in him.’

I am left wondering about Nathanael and about discipleship.  In the lists of the Twelve, there is a Bartholomew.  He is another about whom we know nothing and for whom there is no other mention in the whole of the new Testament.  Traditionally the Church has added two and two and made the assumption that Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person.  It was the norm that people had two names.  It is an assumption that has been carried over the centuries.  There is no evidence for it.

We like neatness and order.  We need rational explanation.  Have we ‘over-tidied’ the Gospel at this point?  To have Nathanael as a disciple as close to events as to be one of the seven on the Lakeshore but not on the list of the Twelve is untidy and incongruous.

I want to leave Nathanael as we find him in John’s Gospel.  He is obviously a member of that larger group of disciples.  I don’t need to ‘herd’ him into the smaller group.  I want to value him for that separation, that distance from the others.  I want to honour him – as Jesus does, as a man of depth and faith whose identity and difference means an exploration of belief and commitment in a new way.   He honours Jesus – ‘you are the Son of God!’ but we seem to leave him in Galilee, which is where we meet him again on the lakeshore.

After more than fifty years of Ministry I am left wondering and worrying about the Church (especially in the midst of this present crisis) and its desire for orthodoxy and conformity.  I am left wondering and worrying about discipleship and my own discipleship.  Do we sufficiently honour difference and variety?  Do we embrace and welcome those who want to step outside the boundaries that we impose?  One of the most ‘different’ people I have ever met was a girl called Sally Trench.  We were on the same Community Development Course at Westhill College.  She was a devout Roman Catholic and came from a very affluent family.  While still in her teens, at night she would shin down the drainpipe outside her bedroom window and go a sit with homeless people in the East End of London. That was her discipleship. Personally, I have to ask – have I been radical enough or too conservative – too concerned with maintaining the status quo with the established structures of the Church?  What might a different, radical church look like and act like on the other side of the pandemic?

How do we accept and support discipleship that may be quite different from our own? Do we really need to try to squeeze one another into a single mould of discipleship – a mould that is of our own making?  Has what I have tried to explain about Nathanael given us a stimulus for the future?

Then, in this passage too, there is Philip.  Philip is another disciple who ’comes to life’ in John’s Gospel.  We find Philip in four passages in John and, way back last May, he was the focus of one of my reflections.  I deem this story in today’s lectionary to be the most important of those accounts.

In the previous part of John 1, we read about Jesus meeting Andrew, who immediately goes and finds his brother Simon and takes him to Jesus.  In our passage today we have the account of Jesus finding and calling Philip.  ‘Follow me’ Jesus says to Philip – and he does.  Philip’s immediate reaction is to go and find Nathanael.  And Philip knows Nathanael well enough to recognise that any sort of discussion about the merits of a man from Nazareth or about Old Testament prophesy is just not sufficient to satisfy the thinker who is his friend.  Philip simply says, ‘Come and see’.

To me this passage challenges us and begs the question- Are you and I so convinced on a deeply personal level about all that Jesus is and means to us that we, with enthusiasm and excitement, want to say to our friends and family ‘We have found the one, come and see’?

If Nathanael is the blueprint for a different kind of discipleship, then surely Philip- like Andrew, gives us a pattern and indeed an imperative for discipleship that will make a difference in today’s Church.

Bryan Coates                                                                                                                                     January 2021.

PS Sally Trench’s story is told in her book ‘Bury me in my boots.’