Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - January 19, 2014 (John 1:29-42)

photo credit: EPO

On a steep hill, high above the city of Rio de Janeiro stands a gigantic statue of Jesus Christ. I’ve never seen it in person, but like most of you I’ve seen countless photos of it. It’s a famous world landmark. Officially it’s called “Christ the Redeemer,” and I find it really quite breathtaking: he stands tall and straight, looming above the city with his arms completely outstretched. This week, it was in the news that lightning struck the statue right on the tip of the right hand, causing a whole finger of the concrete and sandstone Jesus to fall off. Apparently It’s not the first time lightning has struck Christ the Redeemer. In fact, it’s happened so many times they’ve installed lightning rods around him, but this is the first time the damage has been this significant. No worries: they’re going to be able to re-attach his finger. What is cool, however, is that the lightning strike itself was caught on camera—right at the moment where the big bolt of white is zigging down from the sky to touch Jesus, almost like he’s drawing it to himself— as if to remind us, once again, of his power.

It’s a fascinating image and moment, and one that fits perfectly from these scenes of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he walks along the coastlines of Galilee and draws people toward him like he’s got some kind of electrical pull. We see him make his way through ordinary people’s lives, reminding people that God is powerful and on the move—he’s a roaming, roving Christ the Redeemer with that trademark wide embrace, reaching out and calling all people. 

John the Baptist bearing witness, Annebale Carracia
This same scene—that is, Jesus’ moving about and calling folks to follow him—occurs in every gospel, but in the gospel of John, it’s especially clear that Jesus’ ministry actually begins with John the Baptist. Jesus’ ministry and work on the stage of human history effectively starts when John, a popular but boisterous prophet who was a type of forerunner to Jesus loudly and points him out. Before Jesus has said or done anything in John’s gospel, John the Baptist has already started talking about him and telling those around him what Jesus is about.

That’s interesting, if you ask me: that before Jesus is noticed, even as he goes about in the towns and villages, someone else calls attention to him, someone else testifies to his presence and his identity. It’s what a prophet does, just as redeeming with outstretched arms is what a Savior does.

More importantly, notice that John the Baptist doesn’t mince words, doesn’t hem and haw when it comes to explaining who Jesus is and why he matters. Right off the bat John tells us four key things about him: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus somehow existed before John even though John seems to come first in timeline of history. Jesus brings the Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Son of God. Bam! Kind of like a lightning strike! He leaves no doubt about who this Jesus is. This introduction and explanation of Jesus takes place over the course of two or three days. First John the Baptist is questioned as to whether he might be the Messiah. Instead, at his first opportunity, John finds Jesus and points to him. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” he cries out, as if to urge his own disciples to leave and follow the Lord. Many old paintings depict John the Baptist with an elongated pointer finger because of how clearly he points and says, “Look!”

detail from "The Crucifixion" by Matthias Gruenewald (1512-1516)
Incidentally, the things John says happen to be some of the biggest issues of theology that the early church struggled to understand and communicate about Jesus. For example, it was critical very early on to explain that Jesus’ death somehow dealt with the world’s brokenness and estrangement from God, that his life of suffering and then his sacrificial death would save the world and set it free. His inseparable relationship with the very Spirit of God, which brought life to creation at the beginning of time and inspired the prophets, was another aspect of his identity that was important to point out. John also wants to make it clear that Jesus is not just another prophet, like himself. He is the very Son of God. As such, Jesus will be revealing parts of God’s nature that no one has ever before glimpsed. That’s a lot of information about Christ to cram in the first two days. For what it’s worth, John the Baptist’s claims about Jesus seem to get the job done. We are told John’s disciples leave him and begin following Jesus.

When the attention and action does finally shift from John to Jesus, however, things change rather abruptly. We go immediately from clear, definitive pronouncements to a very open and inquisitive approach to ministry. When John’s disciples begin following Jesus, he turns and asks them a fairly non-confrontational question, “What are you looking for?” or “What do you want?” When they say they want to know where he is staying, he invites them, drawing them in, “Come and see.” As it turns out, they not only take him up on the offer, but they stay throughout the whole day, even though it’s already late. Our translation says 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In the Greek it says, the tenth hour. The point is that they linger longer than one might expect. I imagine he spends time getting to know them, asking them questions, engaging them in dialogue. The impression they get is so favorable, so captivating, that they respond by bringing others to see him.

Jesus calls the first disciples
There is an important lesson for the church, for followers of Christ, in these first chapters where Christ is being made known and starting things off. On the one hand, we need to be like John the Baptist, clear and consistent about who Jesus is and why he matters. On the other hand, we need to be open and inviting and focused on relationship-building when we’re engaged in the ministries of Jesus. When it comes to talking and teaching about Christ, the Lamb of God, clarity and boldness is helpful for everyone. When we vacillate in our message or get wishy-washy in the task of pointing to him, the mission of his movement suffers. This is why I’m encouraged by some of what our new presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, has been saying. She wrote recently in The Lutheran, “If our life together consists primarily of being affirmed by God’s unconditional love and doing works of justice and charity without understanding that God has brought about the transformation of justified sinners through the costly grace of the crucified Christ, then we are not church.”[1]

However, when it comes to actually serving as Christ does and sharing that ministry with others, it is always better when we follow Jesus’ example and give things time, engage them in dialogue.  Find out what people are looking for, what they want, what their lives are in search of rather than quickly shoving down their throats what we think they need. Judgmentalism and abruptness will not serve us well. Like Jesus, we need to show patience. Demonstrate compassion and hospitality. Realize this might involve staying until the 10th hour with them, all the while providing an opening for the patience, compassion and hospitality he always shows us.

Slow as it may seem, Jesus shows us there is, in fact, electricity in this approach. Andrew and the other unnamed disciple are drawn in. Andrew then responds by going and getting his brother, Peter, who will go on to be a leader in the early church. It is still how the communion of Christ’s believers grows most effectively today, and how solid relationships of love and trust are built among God’s people. It’s why I tell people to visit a congregation at least four times before they decide you want to look elsewhere. This is why even things like short-term mission trips, as good as they are for getting us out of our comfort zones and providing service to communities that need it, can still be problematic. These kinds of interactions can come across as too abrupt and judgmental to those being served, unless great sensitivity is demonstrated.

I am thankful to say that, by and large, this kind of sensitivity and care is what we witnessed this past summer in the community we served in West Virginia. After the first couple of days of working in a day-camp like setting with the neighborhood kids, both our youth and I started to wonder what the point of the interaction was. Many of them wanted to be assigned other tasks of service, like building something or moving equipment. But, to give them credit, they stuck with it and got to form some relationships with them. Once some more meaningful dialogue started to occur between them and us—between the serving and the served—our youth began to witness some form of change in respect and interest level. The awkwardness of the first day’s “hellos” was replaced by outstretched arms giving hugs and wiping away tears when we left.

A church that can extend those arms of “Come and see” and a church that can, like John the Baptist, be clear about the person those arms are attached to, will be like a church who can stand atop a hill and let the storms of the world rage around us. We may lose a finger here or there, but God can re-attach it. Most importantly, though, we will be seen as a people who know the Redeemer of the world is in our midst, a people pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose arms are not just extended to call us to follow, but to suffer and die for us and take away the sin of the world. “Look!” the world will say, because it will be clear in our words and actions that God loves the world. It will be clear by the power of the Holy Spirit that this movement he has begun is still charged with that same merciful electricity.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Getting to What Really Matters,” the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, in The Lutheran, January 2014

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