Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him Whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1.45-46)
Out of Nowhere
How we Americans love yarns about people who rise to greatness from lowly beginnings! Indeed, when it comes to winning our hearts and respect, privilege can be a curse—a phenomenon sure to play out in sharp relief when GOP nominee apparent, Mitt Romney, goes head-to-head with Barack Obama. Deservedly or not, Romney epitomizes the rich kid whose cushy upbringing and lifestyle thwart his ability to identify with ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, President Obama is the postmodern Lincoln, the unlikely hero who surmounted impossible odds to clear our nation’s highest hurdle. And while this isn’t the year for a character referendum, for many, it will come down to a classic American dilemma: Go with a guy who had everything handed to him—or one who fought hard to get where he is? Should the candidates’ backgrounds become a decisive factor, Romney hasn’t a chance.
First-century residents of Palestine would predict differently. They couldn’t imagine a scenario ending in Romney’s defeat. Where they live, nobody comes out of nowhere and rises to greatness. Case in point: in Sunday’s Gospel (John 1.43-51), after Philip first encounters Jesus of Nazareth and tells Nathanael that he’s found the Messiah, Nathanael’s asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It’s a baffled, maybe even scornful, reaction—a polite way of saying, “That’s crazy talk!”
Nathanael can’t conceive any good coming from Nazareth because there’s nothing good about it. It’s an out-of-the-way town without distinction. Having found nothing more than a cluster of simple homes where ancient Nazareth stood, archaeologists estimate its population at less than 400. It’s a farming community comprised of a few close-knit families who—based on discovery of a large pit comparable to a fall-out shelter—seem mainly concerned with surviving unstable times. And it appears they aren’t overly optimistic, as we find no signs of public architecture built to last—no marketplace, synagogue, or other common space. Instead, they rely on nearby Sepphoris for their social, consumer, and religious needs. About an hour’s walk from Nazareth, the city is a booming metropolis steeped in Greco-Roman culture and reputed to be a hotbed of social activism. Nathanael’s low opinion of Nazareth probably reflects its insignificance as a rural outpost, as well as its close proximity to an urban center that welcomes diversity and harbors non-conformists. And he may be shocked that none of this raises red flags to Philip.
Apart from concerns specific to Nazareth, Nathanael’s dismissal would be the same if Jesus hailed from any nondescript village—even his and Philip’s hometown of Bethsaida, a fishing hamlet near Capernaum, another alleged cauldron of dissent. Nothing substantial comes out of these places, because no one of substance lives there. Hearing Jesus is a Nazarene tells Nathanael He’s gravely unsuited for Messianic office. His family obviously has no major wealth or connections. If He’s had any formal education, it can’t be very good. Other than joining holiday caravans to Jerusalem, it’s likely He’s traveled no farther than Sepphoris; so He’s got no experience or sophistication to speak of.
Then, add to Jesus’s personal deficits the toll of small-town life. Spots like Nazareth are notoriously insular, intolerant, and often in-bred. Living where everybody’s your uncle never turns out good. What are backwater villages known for? Rushing to judgment about issues they don’t understand and attacking anyone who bucks a system they hate, but don’t have the nerve to change. Naturally, Nathanael shrugs Philip off. In their world, nobody important—least of all, the Messiah—comes from out of nowhere, especially a great big nowhere like Nazareth. But Philip doesn’t take offense at his friend’s cynicism. He doesn’t defend his convictions or dispute Nathanael’s reasoning. All Philip says is, “Come and see.”
What we witness in Philip happens repeatedly in the Gospels. People meet Jesus and rush to tell friends and family, “Come and see!” Have we not felt the same impulse? A true encounter with Christ is unlike any other. In finding Jesus, we are found. When we follow His ways, lesser paths lose their appeal. We become aware of our place in the world and our fit in God’s plan. How can we not rush to tell those we love, “Come and see!” That’s when we find out how many Nathanaels we know. “What good can come from this?” they ask. Whether big-city skeptics or small-minded villagers, their assumptions about Jesus don’t jibe with the Savior we know. Lest their scorn twists us into knots, we avoid pointless bickering when we echo Philip’s gentle reply. Come and see.
With discipleship comes expectation we’ll spread the Word and make disciples—a dicey proposition if we’re enamored with competition and proving points. Christ’s offer of new life begs no defense and wins nothing from debate. We’re not called to recruit converts to our team; we’re privileged to invite others to discover what we’ve found. Nathanael agrees to check out Philip’s Messiah only to learn Jesus has already checked him out. As he approaches, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1.47) Nathanael’s stunned. Christ’s acknowledgement of Nathanael’s integrity turns him around. His doubts fall away, enabling him to discover that Jesus is God’s Son.
A marvelous epilogue turns up in Early Church chronicles. Nathanael (whom the other Gospels call Bartholomew) travels the farthest of any Apostle to extend Christ's offer of new life. In fact, he’s the only disciple known to cross Roman borders, when his calling ultimately lands him in India. Because of Philip’s modest reply, Nathanael achieves legendary status as Christianity’s first missionary to Asia—a feat he can’t possibly anticipate when he decides to go and see what Philip’s raving about. Inviting those who question our faith to meet Christ for themselves asks nothing of us. We don’t have to defend our belief. We don’t have to trump their reasons why following Jesus isn’t such a good idea. All we have to say is, “Come and see.” And if they take our offer to heart, they too will discover that following Jesus opens up amazing possibilities. You want to know what good can come from Nazareth? Ask Nathanael.
Gentle Savior, like Nathanael, we’re stunned that You saw worthiness in us—even when we doubted You were worth seeing. Stamp “come and see” in our hearts. Keep it in our mouths, so we may lead others to what we’ve found. Fix our eyes on far horizons and open our minds to amazing possibilities. Amen.
Christ’s offer of new life begs no defense and wins nothing from debate. We answer questions about our faith with a modest suggestion: Come and see.