As far as I’m concerned (that’s not very far, I realize), John remains the easiest of the four gospels to translate and the hardest to teach. Even with a decade of rust on my Koine Greek, I can still look at a passage from John, pick out the key words, and usually do something close to sight-reading, something that lies well beyond my grasp when I read Paul’s epistles, much less Luke’s gospel. Yet, when I try to teach John (usually to an adult Sunday school class), the way that the text uses words makes interpretation incredibly difficult in places, not least when the text brings the same key word into use for several different purposes in the same run of verses.
This week’s Gospel reading does just that, using the basic verbs “to find” and “to see” over and over in a short span, each time tweaking the connotation of the verb just a little bit and making the reader ponder what it means, when Jesus comes, to find and to be found, to see and to be seen. All four of the gospels use the contrast between sight and blindness to make points about the nature of the Kingdom (remember that Jesus performed all sorts of healings, and the written gospels could just as well have focused on the healings of internal organs rather than telling so many stories of the blind and lame), but John especially uses sight as a primary image for what Jesus is doing. Moreover, although John is not the only of the gospels to write about being lost and being found, certainly that pair of words is another duality that forms the imagination of the one reading John, although only “found” appears in this week’s reading.
The first movement in the passage features a series of “to find” verbs: without any concern for background, Jesus simply finds Philip. Why or even whether Jesus was looking for him remains unwritten; Philip is simply found. When Philip becomes the finder, the object of his finding is Nathanael, someone without much of a story beyond a possible common connection to Bethsaida. (Later writers, most notably Eusebius, would give these characters back stories, but the New Testament does not.) When Philip finds Nathanael, though, a little bit about their character comes through: although he does not speak of any signs or wonders or other arguments for his claim, Philip does tell Nathanael that “we have found,” and his identification of Jesus as the one about whom Moses writes says that, at the least, Philip and Nathanael are familiar enough with the Torah (whether through reading themselves or, more likely, through hearing the Torah read in Synagogue) that “the one Moses wrote about” means something to them. When Nathanael disparages Nazareth, he does not necessarily disclose a bigotry against small towns but perhaps an intensity of dedication to Moses: after all, there is no book more dedicated to Jerusalem, Palestine’s big city, than Deuteronomy.
I set up all of those “to find” verbs not to bore anyone with an academic exercise (though I might have done that) but to note that, in John, a wealth of theology can come across in the simple repetition of a verb. Assuming that John would have pointed out irony (as he does in other places), the triple finding here points to the complexity of Christ’s relationship with the faithful: while John asserts that Jesus found Philip (but does not dare to explain how or why), the agency for finding Nathanael is not directly Jesus’s but Philip’s, and even as Philip stands as one found, he can (without the narrator’s correction) assert that “we” have “found” the figure whom the greatest of prophets promised. John therefore opens up in its first chapter a complex of true statements about these relationships: Jesus finds the lost, the formerly-lost find friends to bring along, and those whom Jesus finds also find Jesus. None of the three negates another, and just as the prepositions in the prayer of Jesus in John 17 make teaching that chapter nearly impossible, sorting these findings out turns out to be quite difficult in the course of teaching.
When John’s narrative turns to seeing, the slight shifts continue to complicate. Philip’s injunction to “Come and see” starts the series with a fairly straightforward connotation: he invites Philip to perceive Jesus visually (for reasons the text does not yet disclose) as a response to Philip’s rhetorical question about Nazareth. Then Jesus complicates the notion of sight. Where Philip invites Nathanael to see in order to assuage doubt, Jesus both has foresight of Nathanael (under the fig tree) and waits until he sees Nathanael to speak to him. Again, perhaps I allegorize here, but the conjunction of mortal sight (the normal faculty to perceive by means of the eyes) and supernatural sight (the capacity to see what a mortal’s eyes cannot by nature see) immediately points to a reality there in Galilee which is both divine and human, and Nathanael rightly ascribes two Royal titles (one of which in John is also a proto-Trinitarian title) to the one who stands and looks and yet sees beyond his looking.
Yet when Jesus hears these things, rather than leaving the episode to end, he promises that sight, whether of the natural human sort or the supernatural sort, will not cease with this sort of moment: reaching back to Genesis, Jesus promises not that the Son of God will demonstrate more powers of sight but that those who are faithful to the rightful king will themselves see the sorts of things that Jacob, esteemed forefather of all Israel, saw. And even better, the sight that Jesus promises will exceed Jacob’s, for while Jacob saw angels, Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see not only angels but also the Son of Man promised in Daniel (another book that Nathanael no doubt heard read in the Synagogue).
In this early encounter with Jesus, therefore, the promises that John relays come in simple language, used in sophisticated ways, weaving theology not with the neologisms of systematic theology (important as those are) but through Biblical allusion, careful placement of subjects and verbs and objects, and repetition. And that’s why coming back to John, even for someone like me who’s taught the book over and over, always yields rewards to the careful reader.
May the God who found and called us, whom we find in Christ, lend us the sight of the prophets, even as God redeems us by seeing us as redeemed.