PHILIP COULD HARDLY WAIT to tell somebody, and the first person he found was Nathaniel. Ever since Moses they'd been saying the Messiah was just around the corner, and now, by God, if he hadn't finally turned up. Who would have guessed where? Who would have guessed who?
"Jesus of Nazareth," Philip said. "The son of Joseph." But he could hear his words fall flat even as he was saying them. It wasn't as if he'd said it was the head rabbi or somebody.
"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathaniel said. Or Podunk maybe? Brooklyn?
Philip told him to come take a look for himself then, but Jesus got a look at Nathaniel first as he came puffing down the road toward him, nearsighted and earnest, with his yarmulke on crooked, his dog-eared Torah under his arm.
"Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile," Jesus said. Nathaniel was sweating like a horse. His thick specs were all fogged up. His jaw hung open. He said, "How do you know me?" His astonishment made him stammer.
"Before Philip called you," Jesus said, "when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."
It was all it took apparently. "Rabbi!" Nathaniel's long black overcoat was too tight across the shoulders and you could hear a seam split somewhere as he made an impossible bow. "You are the Son of God," he said. "You are the King of Israel."
"Because I said I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe?" Jesus said. There was more to it than parlor tricks. He said, "You shall see greater things than these." But all Nathaniel could see for the moment, not daring to look up, were his own two shoes, pigeon-toed in the dust."
You will see heaven opened," he heard Jesus say, "the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." When Nathaniel decided to risk a glance, the sun almost blinded him.
What Nathaniel did see finally was this. It was months later, years. One evening he and Peter and a few of the others took the boat out fishing. They didn't get a nibble between them but stuck it out all night. It was something to do anyway. It passed the time. Just at dawn, in that queer half-light, somebody showed up on the beach and cupped his mouth with his hands. "Any luck?" The answer was no in more ways than one, and they said it. Then give it another try, the man said. Reel in the nets and cast them off the starboard side this time. There was nothing to lose they hadn't lost already, so they did it, and the catch had to be seen to be believed, had to be felt, the heft of it almost swamping them as they pulled it aboard.
Peter saw who the man was first and heaved himself overboard like a side of beef. The water was chest-high as he plowed through it, tripping over his feet in the shallows so he ended up scrambling ashore on all fours. Jesus was standing there waiting for him by a little charcoal fire he had going. Nathaniel and the others came ashore, slowly, like men in a dream, not daring to speak for fear they'd wake up. Jesus got them to bring him some of their fish, and then they stood around at a little distance while he did the cooking. When it was done, he gave them the word. "Come and have breakfast," he said, and they all came over and sat down beside him in the sand.
Nathaniel's name doesn't appear in any of the lists of the twelve apostles, but there are many who claim he was also known as Bartholomew, and that name does appear there. It would be nice to think so. On the other hand, he probably considered it honor enough just to have been on hand that morning at the beach, especially considering the unfortunate remark he'd made long ago about Nazareth.
They sat there around the fire eating their fish with the sun coming up over the water behind them, and they were all so hushed and glad and peaceful that anybody passing by would never have guessed that, not long before, their host had been nailed up on a hill outside the city and left there to die without a friend to his name.
John 1:43-51; 21:1-14