Last week, we met toddler Jesus alongside the magi.
Today, the lectionary takes us over to the gospel of John and forward about 28 years, to the point when Jesus is just beginning his public ministry. We’ve already met John the Baptist, who called Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan River, and at that moment, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice of God was heard saying “this is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
That’s where we pick up the story.
Scripture: John 1:35-51
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When 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?’ He 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. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He 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).
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 towards 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.’
Particularly in the gospel of John, there’s something about Jesus. Those who know who he is can’t stop talking about him, and those who don’t are either curious or defensive, drawn toward or away depending on whether they perceive him as a leader or a threat. Someone who elicits that sort of immediate, perhaps visceral reaction, is bound to cause a bit of a ruckus. We encounter very few, if any, people in the gospels who encounter Jesus and say “meh.”
In just these 16 verses, Jesus of Nazareth is given seven different names or titles:
- Lamb of God
- The one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote
- Son of God
- King of Israel
- Son of Man.
We know this is important because John takes the time to translate the Hebrew/Aramaic words for ‘rabbi’ and ‘Messiah’ into Greek—ensuring that their meaning, not just the words themselves, would be understood. The gospel writer is driving this question home: who is Jesus, and why is he here?
At the same time, however, John is introducing a new question: who is following him, and why?
Only one of those names/titles is spoken by Jesus himself: ‘Son of Man,’ which is how he refers to himself throughout the gospels. The rest are offered by the rest of this revolving cast of characters: John, Andrew, the other unnamed disciple, then Phillip and Nathanael.
None of these people encounter Jesus in the same way—some decide on their own to follow him, others are called away from their ‘normal’ lives to follow, and a couple need to be convinced.
Andrew, the Seeker, is already seeking God in a different way alongside John the Baptist, and he leaves to follow Jesus, whom he believes to be the Messiah—the long-awaited shepherd king who would restore Israel.
Simon, the Rock, seems willing to take Andrew’s word for it and comes to follow, too.
Phillip, whom I would love to call the Accidental Disciple, even if I’m not sure it’s true, is just going about his business when Jesus finds him and calls him to follow—and then, he goes to convince his friend Nathanael to come along, too.
Nathanael is the Skeptic, who needs some prodding, some cajoling, to come and meet Jesus—but once he does, he’s all in.
Where do you find yourself in this story?
Are you John the Baptist, trying desperately and loudly to point others to Jesus?
Are you Andrew, curious enough to follow and bold enough to tell someone else?
Are you Simon, willing to trust someone else’s understanding of Jesus until you come into your own?
Are you Phillip, surprised by Jesus, but willing to follow anyway?
Or, are you Nathanael, who needs some convincing, but might be willing to trust once you’ve seen?
On the other hand, are you maybe feeling more like that unnamed disciple who follows Jesus, but doesn’t seem to say a word about it to anyone else?
It’s easy to skim through this chunk of the gospels—it seems like we’re just accumulating disciples and establishing early that folks thought Jesus was the Messiah. There are much more exciting things in the next few chapters.
But every biblical story, every line, has a purpose: not only does this passage give us a glimpse of what and who these new disciples believe Jesus to be, but we start to get an idea of why they follow Jesus—and what they do with what they now know.
These disciples, living in first-century Roman-occupied Israel, were desperately waiting for a savior. A king. Someone anointed by God to rescue them. So it makes sense, then, that someone like Simon Peter would respond immediately to someone saying “we’ve found the Messiah!” Everyone wanted to be part of that new kingdom—or, at least, they thought they did.
But what about us?
We no longer live in a world watching and waiting on a savior. We no longer think we need one. If you walk into work tomorrow and tell your coworkers that you’ve seen the Messiah, they’re more likely to talk to you about psychiatric counseling than follow you to meet him. I’m a pastor, and I still couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t.
First of all, because it wouldn’t work.
Because that’s not the question folks are asking anymore—questions of sin and rescue and redemption are, at least in the US, taking a backseat to questions like “how do I find meaning in a chaotic world? How do I make meaning out of my life?” And less often, “how do I seek justice from where I am, and do right for my family, my friends, my neighbors and myself?”
And that’s okay. Because the good news is those questions, the ones we are asking—they’re in here, too. Jesus is not silent on questions of meaning and hope and justice and right relationships with friends, family, and neighbors.
Though every gospel story has a point and a purpose, there’s rarely a perfect 1:1 correlation to our own lives. What Jesus asks of us is not to recreate 1st century Israelite culture—but to be faithful disciples here, with these people and these questions. He even tells Nathanael: “you will see much greater things than this!”
But to be disciples in the 21st-century United States takes significantly more work: more discernment, more study, more prayer, more curiosity, more willingness to learn and question and fail well. I think that’s mostly what the original disciples did—they failed well in the presence of Jesus.
But they also did it together.
Jesus called them as individuals, but they were more than that—they walked, ate, taught, listened, learned, hoped and despaired together.
In the same way, we need one another. Because most people, Christians included, do hear or read or even remember these gospel stories and think “that’s nice. I’m going to go about the rest of my life now.”
What we hear from the gospels is no longer news—and if it is, it’s usually not received as good news.
This doesn’t mean we stop preaching it. This doesn’t mean we stop asking good questions. In fact, it means exactly the opposite: we have to be willing to step further up and further in, to partner with the Holy Spirit in new and creative ways to tell the story of Jesus in a way that makes sense.
Let me give you an example:
When I was in college, I spent two summers working at a campground in Connecticut—an RV park. I was there with a ministry organization called ‘SummerShine Resort Ministry’, and we were half maintenance staff, part activity staff, and very part-time evangelists.
Because SummerShine was based in the Carolinas, most of their employees came from the south–which is how I picked up my “y’all.” (Y’all try explaining to your mother why you’ve come back from Connecticut with a southern accent! But living with four roommates, all from the south, will do that.)
This will be important in a minute. On the fourth of July weekend, one of our activities was a skydiving team, who was going to land in the middle of the park in a big green space. We had a roped off area for everyone to watch, and there were probably 50-60 people, including some wide-eyed kids, gathered to see. The plane started to circle overhead, and we were communicating with their ground team and then relaying what was happening to the crowd with a megaphone. There was a slight delay while they double-checked landing zones and winds and parachutes, so folks were starting to get antsy. Meanwhile, one of my coworkers is walking around with the megaphone telling everyone exactly what we know.
Finally, we get word from the ground team that they’re ready to jump, so look towards the sky.
My coworker then picks up the megaphone and says “alright y’all, they’re fixin’ to jump!”
And absolute panic ripples through the crowd.
We can hear whispering:
“what are they fixing?!”
“What’s gone wrong?”
“Oh my goodness are they okay?!”
A single word that made perfect sense to my coworkers caused a panic for the crowd, who heard that sentence entirely differently than it was intended.
We managed to get them calmed down enough that we could re-word our statement, and 5 minutes later we had two skydivers on the ground, and all was well.
But every time there’s a miscommunication, or a false assumption, or a bad translation, I come back to that moment. Even if we have the best of intentions and the best of news, if we’re not careful with our language and paying attention to our how we’re using it, then our message may be received in a way that we didn’t intend.
Jesus is absolutely still calling: “follow me!”
The Holy Spirit, guiding us in the way, is always doing a new thing.
We, the disciples of the crucified and risen Christ, are the ones with the megaphone, witnessing and relaying what we see and hear—so that all may come and see what great and wondrous things Jesus is up to in our midst.