The Second Sunday of Epiphany
15th January 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
The Gospel of John is unlike its synoptic counterparts, Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Those three gospels tend to see and witness to Jesus in similar, albeit distinct ways, which accounts for that word…synoptic…meaning “seeing together.”
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, a gospel written later than the other three, has a unique concern for the difference between “light and dark” as those categories relate to faith understanding, and repeatedly makes claims about believers’ need to follow Jesus in order to encounter the salvation promised and prophesied in scripture.
You may remember that the Gospel begins with its own creation hymn…part of which is written into the mosaics behind me…In the beginning was the Word…and the Gospel is full of contrasts that lead the hearer on a journey of decision-making.
Recall some of the famous scenes from John: Nicodemus, the powerful Pharasaic leader, comes to Jesus by night and engages in a conversation about being born from above while Jesus states that God’s love for the world accounts for the sending of his Son.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
And the verse that follows it John 3:17 which is written in Latin right over our altar on the arch that has Jesus crucified upon the tree of life in the Garden of Eden: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Where in the synoptic Gospels Jesus often talks about the kingdom of God, in John, he speaks more about his own nature and role in bringing this kingdom into being.
John’s Gospel has all the “I am” statements within it: I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the true vine.
And most churchgoers will be familiar with the famous encounter in the Gospel of John between Thomas and Jesus during Jesus’ farewell discourse before his arrest and crucifixion.
After dining at the Last Supper, Jesus says to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Episcopal funerals often contain this reading, and Christians far and wide have meditated upon and debated the meaning of that last “I am” statement, which can be read as an exclusive claim which discounts other religious paths.
It is understandable that the context in which the Gospel was written might account for much of the “either/or” binaries that arise…John was written when the followers of Jesus were moving away from the synagogues and Judaism of their origin, so clear distinctions are more important for a community trying to define itself.
And the scene we have from today’s Gospel reading, where John points his disciples toward Jesus and away from his preparatory efforts is a product of this context as well.
Like many movements that begin by defining themselves over and against another movement or community, the early Christian community during John’s composition was wrestling with its identity.
And as those of us who live in a pluralistic world know…a world in which the multiplicity of God’s creation, inspiration and “sheepfold” doesn’t always explicitly claim to be Christian…such sharp categorization can lead to violence, division, and away from the promises of God in Jesus Christ.
I forgive the Gospel of John for the way it has been employed by nearsighted Christian communities to punish and exclude, and at the same time, I must be aware of that history while remaining committed to not giving life to the sins of the past in our current age.
Because beyond those disputes and disagreements, there is a deeper life and power to the Gospel of John that all of us are being invited to experience.
This scene with John the Baptizer, which the Gospel takes great pains to say was “not the light,” is all about invitation.
I can see Andrew there, a spiritual seeker who had attached himself to this prophet in the wilderness, struggling with whether to stay with his mentor, or follow his mentor’s direction to gravitate toward the Lamb of God.
His decision must have been difficult…stay with what he knew was faithful, or set off to follow the unknown possibilities of a life alongside Jesus.
Imagine those first intrepid footsteps away from John and toward Jesus, and imagine Andrew and the other disciple’s face when Jesus turned to them and asked, “What are you looking for?””
How would you respond if you were in Andrew’s shoes, or sandals in this case?
I’m looking for the kingdom of God? And end to Roman occupation? Wholeness and healing? What would you say if Jesus turned to you and asked you point blank, “What are you looking for?”
The Gospel of John is a way that deeply faithful followers of Christ have attempted to answer this question for themselves and their communities.
Andrew responds not with an answer but with another question…one that initiates the journey that will change his life, and his brother Simon Peter’s life forever.
“Rabbi, where are you staying?”
And then Jesus makes the great ask of all of us who wish to grow and evolve through his grace and our own attention…”Come and see.”
Andrew’s question strikes at the core of the intent of the entire Gospel of John, which is why I took some extra time to flesh it out for us today, which is namely how do we human beings, going through our daily lives, get to where Jesus is.
Much more than simply following him to his encampment somewhere along the sea of Galilee, “where Jesus is staying” is in an evolutionary place that is beyond what we know as mere humanity, but at the same time, fully inclusive of that humanity.
Jesus is God and man, Eternal Word and son of Mary, and as such, he invites us all to come and see what such an existence is all about.
The Orthodox understand an aspect of Jesus’ Incarnation (God “descending” and becoming human), which we just celebrated during the Christmas season, as a means for us to similarly “ascend” as humans to where God is.
That process is called “theosis” and the Gospel of John is a fundamental piece of the theological underpinnings for such a journey.
Remember what Jesus said after the last supper? “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
I don’t know what you have come to church today to see, or what kind of journey has led you to this place and this time.
But if I could assure one thing, it would be that you leave here knowing that the Lamb of God has invited you to participate in a journey of transformation on an individual and communal level.
You have been invited, just like Andrew and the other disciples, to “come and see” where Jesus is staying.
That search…that incessant pilgrimage all the faithful take when moving beyond the black and white binary universe toward where “the complete” resides…is what Jesus invites us to today and always.
Andrew was invited to do so, Nicodemus was, Thomas was, and anyone with ears to hear the call of Jesus, the call of “deep to deep,” is invited to be on that journey of transformation.
What are you looking for out of this one beautiful life?
What are you waiting for to engage the mystery of “being born from above?”
We know the way.
All that remains is our decision to follow it, to engage it, and to let the way transform us into a new creation.
Come and see for yourself…and perhaps by doing so, others will learn to see for themselves through you.