Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A - January 16, 2011 (John 1:29-42)

There is a contrast in this story of the opening days of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in John’s gospel between things said about Jesus and things said to Jesus. That is, this account with John the Baptist and the first disciples contains both conversations concerning who Jesus is as well as conversations with the person of Jesus, himself. It’s a little like the difference between reading the quotes from other famous writers and publishers about a book that appear on the back of a book jacket and then opening the book and reading it, yourself. The quotes and reviews on the back are true and helpful.  Reading them helps you understand the importance of what is contained within, but reading the comments is not exactly the same as reading the book itself.

John the Baptist gives us the best examples of the former—the comments on the back of the book about Jesus. For one, John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. At another point, John says that Jesus is greater than he (John) is even though Jesus is appearing after him, because Jesus was actually before him. John also says that he saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and remaining on Jesus. And, lastly, John also claims that Jesus is the Son of God. A little later, Andrew, one of the new disciples, remarks to his brother that Jesus is the Messiah, which is enough to pique Simon’s interest into investigating Jesus, himself.

Many of these things that are said about Jesus are highly metaphorical; that is, they point to something else that helps us understand some aspect of Jesus and his ministry. For example, when John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God, we know he doesn’t mean that Jesus is actually a bleating farm creature whose fur is occasionally shorn and made into clothes. Rather, one thing that John might mean is that Jesus is like the unblemished lamb that ancient Israel once offered up during the Passover in order to be freed from slavery in Egypt. That remark, to be sure, had a resonance to it in Jesus’ Jewish culture that doesn’t necessarily exist in ours. Jesus will die to set us free. Likewise, when John the Baptist mentions that Jesus was before him we know he is making a statement about Jesus’ eternal nature—that the Son, long before he became incarnate as Jesus, actually existed alongside with the Father from the beginning of time.

Ecce Agnus Dei, Dieric the Elder, 1468
 All of the things that John the Baptist tell us—and his disciples, of course—about Jesus are certainly true, and they help his disciples make the transition to following Jesus. They help us in understanding who Jesus is sent by God to be. However, it is the disciples themselves who model the conversations with Jesus, himself. They are the ones who, you may say, open the book and begin reading. They follow after him and wind up in the place where he is staying. They hang out with him, staying until late in the day, talking and conversing with him, asking him questions. And, as we see with Andrew, they include others in the process as they go. All along, the disciples remain with him, reading this new, never-ending book called Jesus who has come to take away the sins of the world.

Both of these types of conversations are necessary and valid. Christian faith employs them both. We need to hear the testimonies that people make about how God is active in Christ just as we need to learn how to remain in conversation with Christ, ourselves. The danger is when religious devotion becomes too focused on the former and not enough on the latter—at least, that is the trend I can notice in my own life, so perhaps I should speak for myself. A lot of effort can be put into talking about Jesus without actually talking to him. It is often easier to point to him and make claims about his identity—whether we believe in him or not—than it is to pick up our lives and follow after him for a deeper conversation.

When it comes to being a disciple, there is no getting around the need for those conversations with Jesus, of learning, day by day, a little more about him. To be sure, that is what Jesus is after. Jesus is continually drawing us into that conversation, repeatedly inviting us into that relationship. When we forget this part of Christian faith, it helps to remember that the first words from Jesus’ lips in the entire gospel are in the form of a question: “What are you looking for?” The disciples of John the Baptist run up to Jesus and he turns to see them following along. Before they even address him he asks, “What are you looking for?” It’s a question that both invites us into deeper dialogue and causes us to reflect on our own intentions, for some of the things we’re seeking at the moment may not be offered by Christ the Messiah.

And if that response isn’t open-ended enough, then come the next words from his lips. Asked where he is staying, Jesus responds, simply, “Come and see.” This all suggests to me that what we’re invited into when it comes to faith in Jesus is not always so many answers but, rather, deeper questions. It conveys that we are summoned by someone who is really most interested to learn what we’re seeking, what makes us tick, what drives us onward, what might be missing. Such an introduction implies that we are called by a God who just might be more invested in a relationship with us than in our potential for spouting doctrine and dogma.

Not too long ago one of my close friends entered a prolonged period of doubt in his faith that he describes as intense and painful. I am not aware of the details of what brought his current crisis on, but in our conversations I hear him struggling honestly and openly about some of the basic tenets of Christian faith…both the claims about Jesus and some of the claims Jesus makes. While I am thankful he shares this with me, I am also aware of my own ineptitude at how to handle his questions. It is often a struggle to put into words what I have come to believe and why, especially up against his particular questions, which, in many cases, are questions I’ve never been inclined to ask. I asked him one time, in the midst of one of our conversations (and frustrated with how I was responding to him), what had he had found helpful in any conversations with other believers in easing his heart and possibly restoring his faith. One of the first things he responded with was, “When people simply ask questions, rather than just doling out answers. Openness to dialogue.” There, in the heart of a non-believer, I found one of the truest examples of a disciple: one who understood the nature of a God who, in Christ, doesn’t just stick to doling out answers, but rather enjoys the give-and-take of questions and, at the core, deeply wants to know what it actually is that we’re seeking.

What about you? Do you hear the things about Jesus and take them (or leave them) at face value, or do you pursue him Do you reflect on what others testify about Jesus, and do you then linger with him in conversation through worship and through prayer, and through the service to others in his name?

detail, The Crucifixion, Matthias Gruenewald, 1515
What are you looking for? The nature of Christian discipleship begins here with the testimony of John the Baptist and the curious conversations of Andrew, Simon Peter, and the unnamed third disciple. As it turns out, it is not a command to decide, but an invitation to come and see. We hear the promise of Jesus and are called out of our selves into a journey that is rooted in community, dialogue, sharing, and the hope of a new identity as people who are forgiven and set free.

That is one of my dreams for the church: that we can serve as John the Baptists as well as we serve as disciples. That we can be people who boldly point to Christ as the one who comes to take away the sins of the world as well as the community who helps the world engage Christ in face-to-face dialogue. It is my hope that, by the strength of the Spirit, we can reach out to include the world in Christ’s mission of love as well as standing up in the midst of the world to testify to him.

For if there is anything which the news events of the past week have reminded me it is that the self can be a very lonely, dangerous place. Regardless of how much our society tends to glorify the power and even the sanctity of the individual, humans are wired for community and honest, open dialogue. The blame game that ensued after the shooting in Tucson only proved that point even more. It is vital in our national and personal discussions after tragedies like this that we do not neglect to recognize that, truth be told, there is some of Jared Loughner in all of us, just as there is some of Gabrielle Giffords, too. None of us is immune to the decay of sin, and all of us are vulnerable. We all have the capacity to blow things apart and to fight for life. As Bono sings in one of my favorite U2 lines, “I’m not broke [sic], but you can see the cracks.”

And therefore, it is important that in our urge to point fingers and assign fault for any great sin that we do not ignore that finger of John the Baptist, which is ever focused on Jesus who comes and takes away the sin of the world, who comes to repair the cracks and make us whole. It is important that, in our desire to have our arguments and ask our questions that we not forget to spend time in conversation with this God who comes down and personally gets involved in the tragedy of human-being and miraculously rises to new life. In the invitation to a life of self-sacrifice and forgiveness, Jesus does take away the sins of the world.

That is what we discover when we come and see.

That is what we find out when we, in times of hope and times of despair, in times of faith and in times of doubt, open the book that is Jesus and begin to read.

(And, for now, this is one pastor who has spoken too much about Jesus, and feels it’s time to sit down.)

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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