Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Turning the World Upside Down (John 1:43-51)

St John's Gospel begins with an account of three special days – the day on which Jesus was baptised, the day on which he first met Andrew and his brother Peter, and the day he decided to go to Galilee to begin his mission. These days come one after the other, without a break, and each new day is introduced with the formula 'The next day this happened.'
There is no period of doubt and temptation in St John's Gospel, no suggestion that Jesus wrestled with what he was called to do or tried to figure out what it all meant. He gets straight down to the business of making disciples. Maybe that's the kind of resolution which St John was looking for in the members of his church – muscular action rather than endless contemplation, certainty rather than doubt. Or maybe he just wants to make clear that Jesus always knew where he had come from and where he was going, even if we don't.
What kind of Christian do we think it's better to be – someone who's sure of what they believe, who acts quickly, resolutely and decisively, like the soldiers in the Desert Storm campaign who were told to go and kick ass? Or do we prefer to reflect, to chew things over, to consider other points of view, before we decide what's best? Is there a right and a wrong way to be a follower of Jesus, or does the difference between resolute action and careful consideration come down to a question of personality types? Some Christians will be Stormin' Normans like the Jesus of St John chapter 1. Others will want to think things through, like the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. But, of course, Jesus' forty days of reflection in the desert was not an excuse for doing nothing. It was only a pause, a chance to take stock. Christians who never do anything, even after reflection, cannot be on the right track.
Jesus is given a number of titles in this passage. He is called 'Rabbi' or 'Teacher', 'Son of God' and 'King of Israel' – big claims for someone who has barely got started on his mission. Again, right from the beginning, St John wants to emphasise that Jesus had got it altogether. He's a charismatic figure whose appeal is immediate and self-evident, even to strangers like Philip and Nathaniel. He's the kind of person who makes people change their plans and follow him. Just as, in the Synoptic Gospels, the fishermen – Andrew. Peter, James and John – laid aside their nets to becomes fishers of people, and the tax collector – Levi – left his collecting booth to become one of Jesus' followers, so Philip and Nathanael respond to his call. What about us? Do we expect Jesus to fit in with our plans and ambitions, or do we expect to be changed by Jesus – to fit our plans and ambitions into his plan, his mission?
Yet, although St John clearly defines Jesus here as someone very special, someone in day-to-day contact with God, whose wisdom and discernment mark him out as a true teacher, whose intimacy with God and deep spirituality identify him as God's Son, who is clearly the prophet and leader whose coming is predicted by Moses and the prophets, and the Son of Man whose coming is predicted in the Book of Daniel, at the same time he is also 'Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth'.
Nowhere else is Jesus ever called 'The son of Joseph'. St Luke says, 'He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph', and later on in St John's Gospel people ask the question, 'Is not this Jesus, the Son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' But St John chapter 1 is the only place in the Bible where Jesus is clearly and unambiguously described as Joseph's son.
What are we to make of this? Is it a denial of the story of the Virgin Birth? Is St John saying, as St Paul says in his letter to the Romans, that Jesus 'was descended from David according to the flesh'? Or is that phrase that we find in St Luke's account – 'as was thought' - implied even though it is omitted? The question, asked later about Jesus, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' is not answered directly, but Jesus goes on to speak about 'the Father who sent me' and he clearly doesn't mean Joseph of Nazareth!
Maybe St John is saying that Jesus can be the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of the Universe, without having to be born of a Virgin. Maybe he's not. He is certainly saying, however, that the extraordinary can come from the ordinary – that a person from a humble place like Nazareth can turn the world upside down.
Are we ready to play our part in this extraordinary story – to go out and make disciples, to change the way people think about themselves and their lives by introducing them to Jesus? Are we ready to turn the world upside down?

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