Philip’s Story, Part 1

This is another one of my “meditations” on the Gospel stories. I was intrigued about the calling of the disciples–you often hear sermons on Jesus walking by the sea and calling Peter et al. who mysteriously follow this “total stranger”, which totally ignores the story of their meeting him earlier! So, I tried putting the accounts together to make a cohesive whole. This is the first part of the result.


Stained Glass Window of Jesus' Baptism

Stained Glass Window of Jesus’ Baptism

The first time we met him was down in Jericho, but the story really begins three months earlier.

My brother and I had gone up to Jerusalem for one of the feasts, part of a band of pilgrims from Bethsaida and Capernaum in northern Galilee. It was there that we first heard about the new prophet who had appeared and who was causing quite a stir amongst the Judeans. No one seemed to know much about him but it seemed as if everyone was going to see him. Nathaniel of course, demanded that we go too.

“He’s out by Jericho, Philip, so it’s not much of a diversion: instead of taking the northern route out of Jerusalem we just go north-east. Once we seen him we can go home along the Jordan.”

I think my brother would have liked to be a rabbi. He was forever studying the law and the prophets and he spent every spare moment at home debating with the teachers and elders in the synagogue. A new teacher, a new chance to learn, was too much for him to pass up. I knew better than to try to dissuade him. So we said goodbye to our friends and relatives and set off for Jericho, which was an easy day’s trek.

The next morning we joined a steady stream of people heading for the river Jordan. The road crested a small hill and there in front of us was a bend of the river around which the slopes made a sort of natural amphitheatre. The place was crowded, everyone looking at a very dramatic figure standing on the shore.
“Well, he’s not an Essene,” my brother said, referring to one of the theories that had been spreading in Jerusalem about this man.
“You can tell that after one look?” I asked.
“Yes—look at his dress. It’s dark brown, probably camel-hair. An Essene would be in white. But I had my doubts already, I confess. He is baptising people, which the Essenes do too, but whereas they do it only to initiates as a final step in the entry into the community, he is baptising everyone and then letting them go.”
“So what is he doing it for them?”
“That, my brother, is what I want to find out. Come on, let’s get closer so we can hear what he’s saying.”

And so we sat and listened to him for the rest of the day. And the next day. And the one after. This man, John, had a simple message: God was about to act, to bring in his kingdom, and so everyone should get ready. His baptism was a sign of repentance, a turning from one’s old ways and a declaration that one was ready for the coming of God’s Anointed one. In that John stood out as a novelty. Many had come at different times over the last couple of generations claiming to be the Anointed one (only to be proven wrong) but John was adamant that he was not the Anointed one, but only his herald.

Most of the people who came to see him spent at most a day there, and then went home. So it was not very surprising that John noticed us and came to speak with us that third evening. It was right after a delegation of Pharisees from Jerusalem had been to see him to find out more about him. He had spent the afternoon explaining yet again that he was not the Anointed, just his herald; that he was nothing next to the one who was coming. Finally, in frustration, he had upbraided their unbelief in terms that had shocked (and delighted!) the crowds.

Nathaniel, as was his wont, launched right in with what, in retrospect, was the obvious question, even if the Pharisees had not thought to ask it. “If you are not the Anointed one, who is?”
“I don’t know,” John admitted. “He is coming, soon, and when he does I will know. God has promised me that much.”
“I wish we could wait here with you.”
“You have homes, families, work. It will not matter where you are, when the time comes you will know. Go, be faithful, keep the law, do justice, and pray.”

The next morning we started home. If you’re wondering, the answer is yes: we were both baptised and now considered ourselves disciples of John.

Three months later we were back, this time planning to spend a full week with John. It was fairly obvious that first afternoon that something had changed, but it was not at all obvious what. The message John preached was the same, if anything it was even more intense, but there was something else too.

We were not alone this trip. A small group had joined us, eager to see John for themselves. Nathaniel stayed with them but I made my way forward to John, I had to know what was going on. His first words shocked and excited me.

“He has come.”

When Nathaniel heard he was quite perturbed. The next morning he took off by himself to meditate on the law and to see if anything in the prophets helped make sense of what John had said. I took my friend Andrew and we went back to John.
“What was he like?” Andrew asked.
“He was… Well… Not exactly what I had come to expect.” John answered. “I expected a warrior, the Lion of Judah, come to bring judgement and vengeance. He had a power, no doubt of that, but was more like a lamb.”
“A lamb? That is crazy!”
“I thought so too at first. But then I realized: he is no ordinary, weak lamb. He’s the lamb of the morning sacrifice, bringing in the Day of the Lord.”
“A sacrificial lamb? But how …” Andrew stumbled to a stop. John was no longer listening. Instead he was gazing over the heads of the crowd up at someone who stood at the top of the rise. He lifted his arm, pointed, and said in a voice that only we two could hear, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

We tried to get to him, but the crowds were too thick. By the time we reached the top of the hill, he was gone again. Nor had we gotten a very good look at him because the sun had been behind him. We could not find him, and so we went back to John.
“That was him,” John had said. “He will be greater than me because he was before me.” He seemed more at peace now than he had the day before, as though this man’s reappearance had put things right.
“Yes, he is the one. I did see the spirit descend on him when I baptised him. It was a sign from God.”
“Will he be back?” We asked
“Yes, some day.”
“I don’t know.”

Nathaniel was upset when he heard about it that evening.
“You let him get away?!”
“The crowds were too thick.”
“But you didn’t even get his name, or where he comes from, where he is staying!”
“No. But John said he would be back.”
“But not when! It could be months again.” It was a tense evening.

The next day we spent walking among the crowds, looking, hoping. But nothing happened. John continued to preach, people were baptised, but no sign of the one person we wanted, needed, to see. Late in the afternoon the crowds began to go home. Even Nathaniel left, but then he hadn’t really expected him to return so soon. Finally only Andrew and I and a few others were left with John.

Then John caught my attention and nodded his head at a solitary figure by the river. “Look… The Lamb of God.”
I grabbed Andrew and we ran the short distance to the figure, who was walking away from us. Hearing us coming he turned and waited and then, as we stumbled to a stop, he asked, “What do you want?”
Remembering Nathaniel’s disappointment of the night before, I asked the first thing that came into my mind. “Teacher, where are you staying?”
“Come and see,” he replied and together we set off for Aenon, a small village nearby.

As we were going, Andrew caught sight of his brother Simon who had lingered behind having found some other fishermen he knew in the crowd. Excitedly, he told Simon that we had found the Anointed one and brought Simon back to where we were. “Teacher, this is my brother, Simon.”
As he said that something clicked in the teacher’s mind, as though we now recognized us. “Simon, son of Jonah.” He looked over Simon’s stocky, muscled fisherman’s frame. “You’ll be called Cephas (that’s Peter, or Rocky, to you who don’t speak Aramaic).”
Simon’s jaw dropped—well, actually, all of our jaws dropped—how did this teacher know Simon’s nickname? It was only later that we found out that he was, in fact, related to Simon and Andrew. None of us had much of a head for that sort of thing but the teacher never forgot anything, so it seemed.

Anyway, the three of us spent the evening with the teacher—his name was Jesus—in fact we talk so long we spent the night. When we asked where he had gone after his baptism, he told us he had spent forty days fasting in the wilderness on the other side of the Jordan, a time, as he put it, of preparation for his ministry.



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