The Politics of Word of Mouth—John 1:35-51 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The contemporary exploitation of word of mouth in political and advertising campaigns on social media can encourage a degree of cynicism. At the outset of Jesus’ ministry in John 1:35-51 we see an account of the use of word of mouth that overcomes scepticism and rewards trust. This can provide us with a standard and ideal for our own involvement in political campaigning.

John 1:35-51
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 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).

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Contemporary political campaigning increasingly gives a central role to word of mouth. While the presidential campaigns of the twentieth century relied primarily upon the use of mass media such as radio and television, over the last decade there has been a dramatic development of the use of social media. Following ground-breaking uses of the Internet in publicizing and funding such as Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, each subsequent election has witnessed a greater emphasis upon its importance.

However, when word of mouth is often guided and leveraged by ‘big data’ and meticulously orchestrated social media strategies, we can become suspicious of the authenticity and spontaneity of the recommendations of our friends and acquaintances. As advertisers have come to appreciate the unparalleled access that social media gives to networks of trust and contexts of openness, they have sought to use such media to elicit our deepest emotions and mobilize our relational bonds for their ends. Ubiquitous ‘viral’ marketing can make us wary of the ways in which our bonds of love and trust and honest emotions can be cynically exploited or requisitioned by other agencies for their own ends. When something as intimate as a Thanksgiving mealtime conversation can be carefully scripted by political agencies, we may begin to wonder whether the ‘word of mouth’ of our friends and family are merely words that have been put into their mouths.

There are many comparisons that can be drawn between a political campaign and Jesus’ ministry prior to his death. During this period of time, Jesus was moving from place to place, preparing the ground and gathering ‘grassroots’ support across the land of Israel, in readiness for the kingdom of God that was breaking in through his mission. By the time that the early church was established, Jesus’ message of the kingdom was already widely disseminated throughout the nation. Disciples and adherents of the Jesus movement throughout the country would have been ready to support the new ‘administration’ of the church.

In John 1:35-51, we see the role that word of mouth played in the gathering of the first disciples. Personal invitation, summons, eyewitness testimony, and recommendation are the means by which new followers are recruited to the cause. John the Baptist’s mission of making straight the way for the Lord (v.23) leads him to throw his weight behind Jesus’ kingdom campaign, pointing two of his disciples towards Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ (v.35). One of these two disciples, Andrew, then proceeds to call his brother Simon. The next day, in a strikingly authoritative action, Jesus summons Philip to follow him (v.43): Philip then finds Nathanael and calls him to come and see Jesus (vv.44-46).

Although presented as a historical account, the narrative of the calling of the first disciples involves a number of paradigmatic features. While they could be read as prosaic descriptions of concrete actions, the references within these verses to following and seeking, the invitation to ‘come and see,’ to the place where Jesus dwelt, and the act of staying with him all involve terms or concepts that are deeply resonant within Johannine theology. Within this account we can see the spiritual pattern that holds for those who become disciples of Jesus: seeking and committing themselves to following him, coming to him and receiving new spiritual vision, and abiding with and in him.

The summons to come and see is an invitation to move beyond just taking someone else’s word for Jesus’ identity or to regard him from a distance, but to experience him intimately for oneself. Such an invitation is extended in the assurance that Jesus’ is the ‘real deal’ and that the witness of John the Baptist and others concerning him will stand the test of close and extensive personal examination. It is a challenge to move beyond reliance upon word of mouth alone and to enter into a deeper acquaintance with the person of whom one has heard testimony. In I John 1:1-4 witness is made concerning the Christ in order that persons might enter into fellowship with him and his people.

In John 1, we see that those disciples who respond to Jesus’ personal invitation proceed, seemingly unprompted, to extend that same invitation to others. Having himself been invited to come and see, Andrew later finds and calls his brother Simon. Philip, having been found and called by Jesus to follow him, finds Nathanael, encouraging him to suspend his scepticism long enough to encounter Jesus for himself.

Within these verses Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael all present startling and spontaneous declarations concerning Jesus: he is the Messiah (v.41), the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote (v.45), the Son of God and King of Israel (v.49). The scepticism of Nathanael swiftly evaporates when he meets Jesus. Nathanael—an ‘Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile’ (v.47)—is cast as the True Jacob. Just as Jacob saw the ladder between heaven and earth in the place of God’s dwelling in Bethel, so Jesus (perhaps most specifically through his cross) is presented as the ladder between heaven and earth that Nathanael will later witness.

Reading such an account of trustworthy and spontaneous word of mouth, of a proclaimed truth that punctures our scepticism, of a reality that does not merely withstand but rewards closer scrutiny, and of a personal encounter that excites us to pass on the news can seem too good to be true to many jaded and cynical ears, wearied of deceptive testimonies, overhyped disappointments, and unfulfilled promises. To such, the gospel writer would extend the same simple invitation received by the first disciples: come and see.

The role played by word of mouth in the spreading of Jesus’ kingdom message since the very first days of his ministry presents us with a vision of how things could be, of a political campaign that functions without guile. It sheds light on the false messiahs that we can establish through our political campaigns and upon the ways that we have clipped the coin of personal testimony through exaggerated, manipulative, or inauthentic witness. Just as belief in the unique messianic calling of Jesus can moderate our hopes concerning candidates for political office, so attention to the spontaneous response of testimony to a reality that proves itself trustworthy manifested in these verses can provide a standard against which we examine our own involvement in political campaigning and an ideal to which we can aspire. A politics where the invitation to come and see, when answered, never results in disillusionment.

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