(There is a short dialogue sketch on this gospel, John 1:43-51, which you can find here.)
Do you find it hard to get started? In this Epiphany season we are talking about how Jesus got started, and others started with him. Clearly today we are talking about disciples. (John 1:43-51). Already Andrew and Simon (John 1:35-42), and presumably James and John (Mark 1:16-20) have been called. Andrew at least was a disciple of John the Baptist, and had to face leaving the old master, good though he was, for a new. The others seem to have been fishermen, and faced issues of leaving their jobs and families, at least for a time. It can be difficult to get started on discipleship.
Then Jesus calls Phillip, and there is a quick response as he goes and finds Nathanael, and speaks of Jesus in glowing terms. The rest of the reading is about Nathanael (who is probably the same person as Bartholomew – which is a “surname”, used by the other gospel writers).
Nathanael is not impressed by someone from Nazareth. It is not that it was a specially bad place, but [non-starter] – it never even gets a mention in the Old Testament! Prejudice if you like; it could stop him even starting. But Phillip is a quick learner, though. He doesn’t argue, just says “Come and see!”, – and Nathanael does.
John has been pointing out how Jesus knew people. Not in the “networking” sense, but in being able to weigh up their character and motives. As Nathanael comes, he comments, here is a man with no hidden agenda, no deceit! Nathanael is surprised; how is he known? Jesus says, “I saw you when you were under the fig tree before Philip called you”, and we don’t know why that is so important. Did Nathanael offer a prayer there, or was some question nagging his mind which Jesus has shown he knows about? At any rate, Jesus is right – Nathanael has no hesitation in changing his tune, and is loud in his acceptance of Jesus. (He has now gone beyond Phillip’s recommendation to his own evaluation).
That’s not all. Jesus doesn’t comment on the titles Nathanael has used, but continues the reference to Jacob – the sly, deceitful son of Isaac, who eventually became Israel, father of the nation (his story is told in Genesis, from chapter 25). Jacob had a vision, as he ran from the danger of death at home (Genesis 28:10-28). He saw a ladder to heaven, with angels going up and down. When he woke, he made a promise to God – the beginning of his change. Jesus says to Nathanael, do you believe because I told you that? You will see a way opened to heaven, not with a ladder, but with the Son of Man (the title he preferred to use for himself). Nathanael has started his discipleship with Jesus.
It is quite an opening. John tells us how Jesus ministry started, with ordinary people, but special happenings and promises. I think he is also telling us about how our discipleship, or the next stage of it, must start. We may have to leave behind some old things, even good ones, like the ministry of John the Baptist. You can’t do everything, and compared to the best, even the good is a distraction.
We may have to deal with prejudice. “I can’t learn anything from someone like that!”, “I don’t want my religion to be like this”, or “my life to be like that . .” To be a disciple is to learn, and learning often means change.
These new disciples are just starting. (next week we come to John 2:11, “and his disciples believed in him”). But for now, the importance of Jesus, and of following him, is what they need.