No one can harm the man who does himself no wrong.
— John Chrysostom
We are again in the beginning of Epiphany when the stories of Jesus calling disciples takes front and center of our lectionary cycle. This week we read John and next week we read Mark. As a result, Peter gets called twice in our preaching efforts. Yet, each narrative has its own style and character. Next week, Jesus is clearly the one calling and taking people out of their lives. He interrupts and the interruption is received favorably. But that is next week. How about this week and John’s story?
In the first chapter of John as in the entire Gospel of John the call narratives are slightly different. Here, someone, St. John the Baptist being the first, points out that Jesus is passing by and that Jesus is “the Lamb of God,” or “the Christ” followed by some invitation to “come and see.” The latter is not always spoken. John merely says to Andrew: “Behold the Lamb of God,” and identifies Jesus as being the Messiah that he, John, had longed to see. The person who hears this then turns to Jesus and Jesus receives and accepts that one. In John’s case he will say it twice. (Jn 1:29-34; 1:35-37)
Andrew does with Simon as John the Baptist had done for him. Jesus receives Simon by giving him a new name: Peter.
Philip, to whom we return soon, does this with Nathanael by using the words: “We found the one about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Jesus again receives the new disciple, who in Nathanael’s case is a skeptic just about as bad as Thomas will be in the end of the Gospel. He receives him with the promise that he will see heaven open and the angels descend on the son of man.
In the Nathanael interaction we also learn that Philip is the one who called Nathanael. Jesus says so outright: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In a way we already have an example with St. John who urges his disciples implicitly to go after Jesus. He calls, maybe sends, them after Jesus.
So we have here a few examples where people call others to Christ. In the case of these they spoke out of certainty: They knew they were bringing others to the Messiah. In each case there is an interaction by which Jesus, the Messiah, then receives them. Later in the Gospel we will find a place where a not so certain witness, the woman at the well, makes the call to her townsfolk in a more ambiguous way by saying: “Might this be the promised Messiah?” It will still work.
But, then there is Philip. In his case the story is simply that Jesus tells him: “Follow me.” There seems to be no other agent in this story and Philip is the first to whom Jesus says: “follow me,” outright. Philip is also the one who brings “the Greeks” to Jesus later on. Curiously enough, Jesus will not interact with them. The story ends unfinished. In a way, Philip gets to be the oddity in more than one way.
Unlike the other Gospel accounts of disciples John does not have a clear place where Jesus rejects a follower the story of the Greeks in chapter 12 notwithstanding. He drives some away with his message, notably the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6 but those who come to him seem to be changed by his presence. There are those who reject him immediately but it seems that John thinks they do so because at heart they are children of evil. (8:44) Some are asked to follow him as Philip is in this text. We learn later that those who follow Jesus will not walk in darkness (8:12), that Jesus’ own — his sheep — hear him and follow (10:27), that those who serve him must follow him (12:26) — ominously enough spoken in context of his death and resurrection, and at the end of the Gospel twice there is the imperative to Peter: “Follow me.” (21:19, 21:22) There is also the warning that the disciples cannot follow now, at the time of his arrest, but will in the future. (13:36)
There is also a chronology playing itself out. The word: ἐπαύριον (the next day) appears in three places. First, a new day has dawned and John the Baptist points out Jesus.(1:29) Second, a new day and John sends Andrew and another disciple after Jesus. Andrew gets Simon Peter. (1;35) Yet a third day comes (1:43) and Jesus is going to Galilee and calls Philip on the way. Philip then calls Nathanael.
Another day follows in 2:1. “On the third day,” Jesus and his disciples are in Galilee at a wedding. If we look at the days in sequence there is a definitive day, 1:29, when it is the time for John to reveal Jesus. He, John has now done his work. We might call it the last day of the old time. The next day, 1:35, the first day of the new time disciples follow Jesus. The same happens on the second day and on the third day he performs his first great sign at the wedding in Cana. That episode ends with the words: “. . . and his disciples put their faith in him.”
In a way this part of the 1st chapter of John is about the handover from the Baptist to Jesus. It is being concluded here though stories of John’s disciples being jealous about Jesus will follow in chapter 3 where John will reiterate that his time is done and it is proper and good that Jesus is increasing as he, John, is decreasing in importance.
From another angle it is a story of the work before the church. There is a handover from the old to the new and it is peaceful and willing. Church will work on the first day, and the second, bringing people to Jesus, who accepts them willingly but also reserves the right to call flocks of which we know nothing. (10:16) On the “third” day there will be a wedding feast and he will be the cause of rejoicing. The work of chapter 1:43-51 is eschatological in a way.
We are preaching this in Epiphany. The story of the Three Travelers from the East is still in our ears. “Come and see,” has a certain ring of hospitality to it that really reminds us of Christmas, especially if we made point to make Christmas a season for feeding the poor and tending to relationships with our neighbors. The Christmas season just lends itself to hospitality.
Heaven, at least its Messiah, seems to have hospitality as an ideal. The great stories of the Gospel of John, the woman at the well and Nicodemus, have Jesus patiently hosting frail humanity while the latter comes to epiphanies about God, the world, and Jesus himself. Maybe this is what we ought to celebrate this week: God’s merciful patience as those who draw near for whatever reason come to grips with life, death, and God. Only trust in that patience makes us able to say to others: “Come and see.”