10 January 2015

John 1: 43-51: seeing great things in
answering the call to ordained ministry

The call of Philip and Nathanael … a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

In our Bible studies on Saturday mornings we have been looking at the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary not for the next day, but for the following Sunday.

Sunday week [18 January 2015] is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday are: I Samuel 3: 1-10, 11-20; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; Revelation 5: 1-10; John 1: 43-51.

John 1: 43-51

43 Τῇ ἐπαύριον ἠθέλησεν ἐξελθεῖν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν, καὶ εὑρίσκει Φίλιππον. καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀκολούθει μοι. 44 ἦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ Βηθσαϊδά, ἐκ τῆς πόλεως Ἀνδρέου καὶ Πέτρου. 45 εὑρίσκει Φίλιππος τὸν Ναθαναὴλ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ὃν ἔγραψεν Μωϋσῆς ἐν τῷ νόμῳ καὶ οἱ προφῆται εὑρήκαμεν, Ἰησοῦν υἱὸν τοῦ Ἰωσὴφ τὸν ἀπὸ Ναζαρέτ. 46 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ, Ἐκ Ναζαρὲτ δύναταί τι ἀγαθὸν εἶναι; λέγει αὐτῷ (ὁ) Φίλιππος, Ἔρχου καὶ ἴδε. 47 εἶδεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Ναθαναὴλ ἐρχόμενον πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ λέγει περὶ αὐτοῦ, Ἴδε ἀληθῶς Ἰσραηλίτης ἐν ᾧ δόλος οὐκ ἔστιν. 48 λέγει αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ, Πόθεν με γινώσκεις; ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Πρὸ τοῦ σε Φίλιππον φωνῆσαι ὄντα ὑπὸ τὴν συκῆν εἶδόν σε. 49 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ, Ῥαββί, σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, σὺ βασιλεὺς εἶ τοῦ Ἰσραήλ. 50 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Οτι εἶπόν σοι ὅτι εἶδόν σε ὑποκάτω τῆς συκῆς, πιστεύεις; μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ. 51 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

Translation (NRSV):

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 towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come 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 call of Philip and Nathanael … how do we keep fresh and alive our enthusiasm for the call from Christ?

Call and ministry:

I suppose these are very appropriate readings for the beginning of a new semester, and for what is going to be a very busy week for us here in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute: part-time MTh students are back this weekend, and all three years, including the deacon-interns are back on Monday morning.

It is a new semester, a new year, and time for taking stock once again of that call to ministry, and how we have been answering that call, responding to that first call to ordained ministry as the path along which we follow Christ.

Students are spending anywhere between three to six years training for ordained ministry. But as you know the call to ministry comes many, many years before that.

Despite choices and preferences, the full-times Year III students are sharing many anxieties at the moment. They have dissertations to complete, they are in the final phase of their placements as deacons in parishes, they must prepared to leave those parishes but they also must prepare to leave here, a place that for many of them has been like home for almost three years, they are leaving the old family homes they have lived in, they are facing a new job, moving to a new house and to a new town. Any one of these changes is stressful in itself.

Some of them may be stressed-out for the next few weeks. Some of them are going to be surprised by the offers they receive in the coming weeks, where they are called to serve Christ in his Church as curates for the three years to come.

God’s call comes to a variety of people, and in surprising ways.

The Gospel reading on Sunday week is the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael, and it comes immediately after the story of the call of Andrew and Peter.

Andrew and Peter are brothers but their names indicate the early differences and divisions in the Church. Andrew’s name is Greek ('Ανδρέας, Andreas), meaning “manly” or “valorous,” while Peter’s original name, Simon (שמעון‎, Shimon, meaning “hearing”) is so obviously Jewish.

And the same again with Philip and Nathanael: Philip is a strong Greek name – everyone in the region knew Philip of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great; while Nathanael’s name is a Hebrew compound meaning “the Gift of God.”

So, from the very beginning of the story of the call of the disciples, the diversity and divisions within the Church are represented, even in the names that show they are Jews and Greeks, the Hebrew-speakers and those who are culturally Hellenised.

In reacting to those false divisions in the early Church, the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28; see Colossians 3: 11).

This is an idea and an ideal that is explicit in the New Testament reading (Revelation 5: 1-10) for Sunday week, which tells us that the Church or the saints are “from every tribe and language and nation” and they have been made “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth” (see Revelation 5: 9-10).

The priests of the Church should reflect the diversity of skills and talents and personalities that God has given to the Church as gift and blessing. The call to ordained ministry that has come to a very diverse group of students in many ways reflects how the call came to the first disciples as a diverse group of people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, often – as with Philip and Nathanael – when they were least expecting it.

But they responded to that call faithfully. Andrew went and fetched Simon Peter. Philip found Nathanael (John 1: 45).

If these are challenging weeks here, then this Gospel reading also offers us some challenges:

How do we keep that call to follow Christ so fresh in their minds that it still inspires infectious enthusiasm the three to six years spent here?

Are we inspired with enough infectious enthusiasm to want to go back like Andrew to call Peter, to go back like Philip and Nathanael?

How do find and enjoy the courage not to be afraid of questions from others who may turn out to be like Nathanael?

How do we move beyond the tolerance of diversity to the respect for diversity and then on to the point of speaking up for diversity as a gift in the Church, so that truly, as the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”?

In a Bible study in any theological college, it might have been easier this morning to focus instead on the Old Testament reading and the story of the call of Samuel. But I figure if you have not hear this time-and-again already, you are going to hear sermons on this passage time-and-again at ordinations of deacons and priests in the coming years.

Or sermons, perhaps, on the opening words of the Psalm in these Lectionary readings: “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me” (Psalm 139: 1).

But then, if you do not know already that God has searched you out and knows you in intimate detail, you are now wondering what you are doing back here for this semester.

These are all appropriate readings for the beginning of a new semester, and particularly good reminders to us – as staff and as students – of why we are here, even in the midst of a busy return to the task and the call.

Nathanael must have thought there were great things ahead of him. Imagine if you were told by Christ himself: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Did that ever happen to Nathanael?

Quite honestly, we do not know, although the reading of the Book of Revelation holds out that promise for each and every one of us.

After this story in Saint John’s Gospel, Nathanael disappears completely from the Bible.

But whether others saw Nathanael as cynical or sceptical, as he presents himself in this story, Christ sees his potential and promise, and sees him as someone without guile. In Christ, Nathanael finds all things are made new, Christ transforms the poverty of his nature by the riches of his grace, and in the renewal of Nathanael’s life, God’s heavenly glory is made known.

This is a promise to you and me too, to each and every one of us in our ministry. The call to follow Christ holds out great promise.

But in responding to that call, and in being faithful to that call, we may find ourselves called to the most unexpected tasks and places, but called to the most mundane and ordinary places and tasks – all for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

We may see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – but without anyone knowing it.

We are not called to fame and glory.

And I say this – without guile or cynicism – that the call alone is enough fame and glory, for in that alone we shall see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending.”


Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

God of glory,
you nourish us with bread from heaven.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that through us the light of your glory
may shine in all the world.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time MTh students on 10 January 2015.

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