A sermon preached on John 1:29 – 42 on January 19, 2014.
Whenever I read a passage of scripture with an eye for what I might preach about, or simply to hear what the passage has to say to me, the place that seems best to start with is the thing in the passage that most catches my attention and my imagination. I want to tell you where that place was this week in the passage.
To quickly summarize the passage: John the Baptist bears witness to Jesus, saying he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, which in turn, catches the interest of two of John’s own disciples who essentially start trailing Jesus, sort of like a spy. Jesus knows he’s being trailed, so he turns around and asks them directly, “What are you looking for?”
This is a question that can be taken on two levels: Either as a fairly straight forward question that can be answered by saying something like, “Oh, I’m looking for the bathroom,” or it can be taken, as question of enormous profundity, kind of THE question, which in turn becomes quite difficult to answer: “I’m looking for something my heart is longing for but have not yet found. I’m looking for the meaning of it all; I’m looking for a love that can make me feel at home in this world.”
In this instance, the question Jesus asks is intended on that immeasurably deeper level, but the two men are incapable of putting into words an answer to that question, so they respond instead with a more concrete response, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” It’s interesting, though that we are never actually told where Jesus was staying – as in room 402 at the Marriott hotel, or over at Freddie’s house. Apparently the location per se doesn’t really matter – what mattered was that they spent the day together.
At the end of their time, one of the two, Andrew apparently has become convinced enough that he has found in the deepest sense of the word what he’s looking in the company of Jesus that he goes and tells his brother Simon, “We have found the messiah.”
Now here is the question that captured my attention and imagination: Just how did they spend their time together? What was it that happened in the course of that day that led the two men to that place where they were convinced that they’d found what they were looking for?
We aren’t told, so we are forced to use our imagination. And when we first set out to do that, I think we’ve been trained to imagine that the day was spent with Jesus doing a lot of talking with them doing a lot of listening, that he used a lot of words to explain the mysteries of the universe to them; he gave them a crash course in Christian beliefs – everything a Christian must believe to be saved. But if that were the case, wouldn’t the Gospel writer have given us a quick synopsis of what he taught?
So the more I thought about it, it seemed unlikely that Jesus bombarded them with words that day. Because, there’s this inherent problem with words. They have a certain usefulness in communicating, but at a certain point they can obscure as much, if not more than they reveal.
Imagine for instance, a two-year-old child outdoors with the child’s father, and the child looks upwards and points, saying, “What’s that?” And the father responds, “Oh, that’s the ‘sky’.” What has just happened? This great always-changing infinite mystery above us has been reduced to this little three letter word. You can say the child is better equipped to communicate with other human beings, but has truth been revealed or obscured now that she has that word, that little box to lock up the great mystery that we call the sky?
John’s Gospel begins this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Out of this Word the cosmos was made, the Divine Word was that which gave structure and life to the world, and it was through the Word that every living being came into being.
It’s not an insignificant detail that it isn’t “in the beginning were God’s words” – rather God’s Word – because if more words was all we needed, there wouldn’t have been a need for Jesus, because there were already a ton of words attributed to God.
And then in the 14th verse John makes the startling claim upon which everything else that takes place in his Gospel is predicated: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” That in Jesus the divine Word through which all things were created and all life came into being somehow took on flesh and hung out with us.
So those two men were hanging out with the Divine Word that created the balance and harmony of the universe, and it wasn’t so much the words he spoke, but simply the way he was, a sense of his presence, of a love which they experienced in the depths of their soul.
So in my imagination, it doesn’t really matter what they did together: They were just chilling together: hey, it could have been the 1st century version of video games — the striking thing for the two men was the way Jesus was so present to the moment with them – this sense they had that he understood everything about them, and with that knowledge came a sense of being totally loved, and safe, and at home in a way they’d never really felt before.
In the beginning of our passage, John makes this enormous theological claim about Jesus when he says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” If we try to work out some kind of doctrine of Atonement that explains exactly how Jesus takes away sin, I think it distracts us and misleads us (maybe like the child is mislead when she is told the word “sky” to explain the infinite mystery above her).
But if we ask the question, what did it feel like for those two men to be in the presence of Jesus, what I think we can say is that in his presence it felt like the destructive power of sin disappeared.
When we hear the word Sin our first response is to think of particular sins, bad things you shouldn’t do. But the deeper meaning of Sin is that it is that power that separates us from God, from one another and from our truest self. Sin is the wall of separation us from feeling fully connected. When the power of sin is at work I feel disconnected from God, I feel separated from other people, perhaps by resentments or jealousy or fear or guilt or whatever, and I feel like I can’t be who I really am, that I’m a fraud, like I have to pretend to be something I’m not, or that there’s something keeping me from being the person in my heart of hearts I know I am intended to be.
So, hanging out with Jesus that day, it was as if those walls that had become almost second nature in their lives had suddenly disappeared. They felt like God was right there with them and that God loved them; they felt at peace with the whole human race, without resentment or hatred or fear or guilt, and they felt like they didn’t have to perform or pretend any more, that this guy knew them through and through anyway and he loved them in spite of seeing them just as they are, so they might as well be real.
And naturally, they want to share this experience. It needs to be shared. So Andrew goes and finds his brother. He doesn’t know how to put into words what he has experienced, indeed it is impossible to do so, so he falls back on the particular word that his tradition has handed down to him. It’s a word that is woefully inadequate because people all have their own notions of what this word means, and you could use the word with one thing in mind, and the person you speak to hears something altogether differently, which happens all the time with words, but this word is all Andrew has, and he needs to say something to try and convey the significance of what he has experienced, and so he says, “We have found the messiah.”
It does the trick, because it gets Andrew to go and visit Jesus for himself. In the passage that follows our passage today, Philip uses a similar line on Nathaniel, but it doesn’t work with Nathaniel because he starts arguing theology. So Philip resorts to the simple invitation that Jesus himself first used in our passage: “Come and see.” That’s all you can do. Come and experience for yourself this thing that is beyond words. No coercing. No hard sell.
There are two things Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel of John that are both quite well know and often quoted that I want to speak of briefly. The first is this: Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The one thing we must have if we are to be identified as followers of Jesus is that we have love for one another. It is not that we speak the right words with the right explanations for the nature of God; it is simply the presence of love. That’s pretty clear. If people come among us and don’t experience the presence of love (assuming of course, there isn’t some kind of blockage in them that keeps them from being able to experience love) then we aren’t a Christ community.
The second Jesus quote is this: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” What did Jesus mean by this? Did he mean that unless you talk about Jesus, unless you understand the doctrine of atonement that explains how Jesus died for your sins, you’re not going to heaven? This, of course, is how it is often interpreted, which makes yet another wall separating people – those who have the right words, and those who don’t.
Or did Jesus mean that the kind of life he was living; one that lived out of the unity and harmony with which God has knit together this universe; a life of love, and forgiveness, where all life is valued, and life is seen as a joyful gift to be shared. You can speak the so-called right words and live a life that isn’t in tune with the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. And you can also live a life that doesn’t ever utter the so-called right words – because perhaps you’re Jewish, or Moslem, or Hindu, or found Christians so unloving that you can’t imagine being a Christian – and yet manage to embody something of that quality of life that was in Jesus.
As I was getting at before, it wasn’t the words – the teachings – that Jesus spoke that day the two disciples of John hung out with him that mattered, it was what they experienced in his presence. An extraordinary love in the presence of which they felt as though all the walls that separate us from God, from one another, and from our truest self are removed.
Two weeks ago, if you were here you know I gave seven year old Maggie Letsch my first “Outstanding Evangelism Award.” I gave Maggie this award because she is personally responsible for bringing by my count 11 people into circle of Jesus’ love we have here in Parsippany UMC. She did this by, in some fashion, inviting three of her school friends to come to church, who in turn got their parents to take them, along with their siblings.
I’m not sure the exact words that Maggie used to extend this invitation. I’m pretty sure she didn’t say, “Come to our church because we teach the way of salvation,” or anything even vaguely resembling that. If I were to imagine what Maggie said, it would be, “We have fun at my church. Why don’t you come with me to my church?”
Seven year old children don’t have a big arsenal of words at their disposal, and you might see this as a disadvantage for being an outstanding evangelist, but actually, it may be an advantage, because, as I’ve been suggesting, sometimes words just get in the way. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus may have meant when he said that unless we turn and become like a little child, we will never enter the kingdom.
For a kid, “fun” is a pretty basic concept. An activity is good if its “fun”; not good if it isn’t fun. For a child, fun encompasses a lot of other things: feeling safe – safe enough to let go into the fun, it means feeling not alone – there are others ready to have fun with you; it implies feeling loved; it implies the presence of joy.
All an all, to say our church is fun is a pretty good way to extend the invitation used by Jesus, “Come and see.” No hard sell, no pressure, no manipulation. Just come and experience it for yourself. And in the case of Maggie and her friends and her friends’ families, they did, and they liked what they experienced here, and they kept coming.
So we don’t have Jesus here in flesh and blood for us to chill with; what we have instead is a Christ-Community, the body of Christ in which when we are led by the Spirit, the way and the truth and the life continues to be present. Come and see.