Before the action of John’s Gospel begins, the Evangelist declares the priority of “the Word” – the Word – in the familiar prelude: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[i] As this poetry turns to prose, the Gospel declares “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”[ii] This claim transitions “the Word” from airy ideal to earthen reality, and like Forrest Gump’s feather drifting from the high skies down to a man sitting on a park bench, the Gospel then descends gently from grand commentary to the stubbles of the Jordan’s shore, where we meet John testifying to Levites from Jerusalem.
The Levites question the Baptist, asking him, “Who are you?”[iii] With more stage-setting underway, John explains, “I am not the Messiah…I baptize [only] with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”[iv]
Then, without any warning, the Gospel reads, “The next day”…the only transitional phrase we receive…so, the next day John stands with two of his disciples, and seeing Jesus “coming toward him,” he declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”[v] Upon hearing this declaration, the two disciples standing with John follow Jesus, and, without any announced exit, the narrative leaves John on the side of the road, no further explanation having been offered for either the immediate action of the two disciples or the absenting of the Gospel’s title character.
When Jesus notices the trailing strangers, he asks, “What are you looking for?”[vi]
They offer a question as an explanation: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”[vii]
To which Jesus replies, “Come and see.”[viii]
The first chapter continues: “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).”[ix]
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip…” and so continues this morning’s lesson.[x]
On first look, these several difficult-to-follow and clunky transitions would have expelled from most creative writing courses the authoring community of John’s Gospel: we start so ethereal…and then, without warning, we get highly corporeal…and then we meet this guy whose name is on the Gospel…but he quickly disappears…and “the next day” these two dudes follow a stranger to his house…where he calls one of them by a new name…and then there’s the same ridiculous phrase again – “the next day” – and all of a sudden there’s Philip and Nazareth and Nathanael…and here we are.
“D-” the instructor scores, noting: “Needs serious improvement.”
Affording the Gospel a measure of grace our English teacher likely would not have offered us, I invite you to consider the strange and difficult-to-articulate alchemy by which a friendship comes into being…consider that strange alchemy by which a friendship comes into being. That is, the days of our earliest childhood when a classmate could inquire, “Do you want to be my friend?” and we might or might not consent? Well, those days pass quickly. Thereafter, when recalling the origin of a friendship we may be able to identify the day or the circumstances by which we first met someone – “he was my roommate freshman year,” or, “she lived in the apartment next to my husband and me when we first married” – but identifying the very moment when an acquaintance became a friendship proves much more elusive. At some point, those mornings working out together at the gym…or those afternoons listening to music…or those evenings sharing a glass of wine, gave way to something unexpected and warm and enduring.
My most abiding friendship came into being through a mix of chance, proximity, and curiosity: suffering in the zitty throes of Seventh Grade, we played on the same basketball team…he lived through the woods from me…he suggested I come over sometime….I rode my bike to his house…his mother ushered me to the bottom of their stairs…she shouted at him that he had company…he opened the door at the top of the stairwell, releasing a rush of Def Leppard at high volume…he invited me up…and, before I knew it, we were playing Homerun Derby in his backyard the day of my wedding.
The several transitions of that friendship story are clunky and difficult-to-follow, but, I will tell you, they are also true…and about as close as I could come to explaining the how and when of it all.
What about for yall?…[asking the congregation for their stories]
As we have heard and as you might name, friendships do not come into being by a linear path. Friendships are at least as much discovered as pursued, and recounting their origins proves an unwieldy and inefficient undertaking.
With more generous ears, then, let us hear again this morning’s Gospel as a friendship story: Nathanael knew a guy from Bethsaida – Philip – and they used to drink beer on the tailgate of this truck these two brothers, Andrew and Peter, would park on the beach. Eventually, they introduced Nathanael to this other guy from Nazareth [and you know what the White House would call a place like that] and it turns out the Nazarene had seen Nathanael before when he was reading the bible under a tree (because Nathanael was always like that, wondering about big things), and, anyway, Nathanael and Jesus became good friends.
See, though we can tell of those Sunday mornings of our parents taking us to church…or the summers we spent at the Episcopal camp…or the weekends we devoted to spiritual retreat… though we can catalogue any and all of these as the ecclesial equivalents to those sweet kindergarten queries – “Will you be my friend?” – when someone intended to introduce us to the Holy, like that childhood season, these moments pass as soon as they arrive. Thereby, while we may be able to identify some moment when we had a powerful faith experience – and I suspect we could go around the room and, as we did with friendship stories, we could share stories of when we “met God” – identifying the moment when that acquaintance with the Divine became a friendship…when our relationship with God became consequential…proves similarly elusive.
Therefore, I take heart in the unevenness of John’s first chapter and this clunky story of Nathanael. As this young man has handed over the tale of his friendship with Jesus, he recalls no grand intentions or miraculous plan, only this guy, who meets the friend of a friend, who realizes they’d almost met before (but not quite) and who discover something unexpected and warm and enduring between them – a friendship of consequence – not only for themselves but for the benefit of the whole cosmos.
I take heart that our own spiritual journey can begin this modestly – showing up on Sundays, hearing these old stories, saying prayers, singing songs – and, not by force or grand plan but by Grace and goodness, discover a Hope that is beyond our circumstance and friendships of consequence…for ourselves for the whole world.
That it would be so, I pray in the name of God,