They came and saw ... and remained
| John 1:28-43
||Sun, January 20, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|This is the story of how the church comes to be. After a poetic prologue, John the Baptist comes to centre stage, sees Jesus approaching from stage left, and delivers a startling monologue: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world ... I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel”. John is a preacher. He ‘declares’ and ‘exclaims’, but most of all he ‘testifies’. And it is astounding testimony that he gives from his Jordan River witness box: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and it remained on him”. Twice John tells the court: “I don’t know him”. Jesus comes into John’s life as an unknown stranger. John is not biased in favour of an old friend, he is not promoting ‘one of his own’ in his preaching. He has been waiting for one on whom he will see “the Spirit descend and remain”. Perhaps, like us, he has seen the Spirit descend on others before only to depart as quickly as it arrives. The Spirit inspires a person, a movement, a community and we rush to see and to experience the phenomena, only to have it quickly become insipid and uninspired. John sees something else in Jesus. He sees in Jesus one on whom the Spirit remains.
Well, of course, many preachers see this in Jesus. They see Jesus as profoundly ‘spiritual’, a ‘spirit-filled’ teacher and healer. But John the Baptist’s opening sermon is much bolder, much more provocative and daring than simply pointing to Jesus as ‘spirit-filled’. John holds nothing back. In Mark’s gospel narrative, we wait until the climactic scene for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. There, at the foot of the cross, a Roman centurion looks at the crucified Christ and says: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”. But in John’s staging of the drama the audience is told in the opening stanzas: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world ... this is the Son of God.” This is the audacious claim that all gospel lives are staked on. John states it boldly, right up front. Before Jesus speaks a word or heals a leper or rises again, John the preacher tells anyone who listen that he has seen and can truthfully testify that this is the one who takes away the sin of the world.
This is how the church comes to be. It begins with truthful testimony that “Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. Trust me, such truth-telling testimony - such honest preaching - is no simple thing. For one thing, there are strong forces in the church which urge the preacher to stay away from this odd sounding testimony. In a society with many different religious claims and with many good people who find Christians just plain rude there are powerful forces that hush any preacher who dares to be as bold as John the Baptist. Others in the church can’t really believe that Jesus takes away the sin of the world. They want to believe that he takes away the sin of the righteous ... or the sin of the saved ... or the sin of those who help themselves. So the preacher who musters up the courage to blurt out this gospel is confronted by a church that is held captive by powerful forces of disbelief. It wants a preacher who tones Jesus down. And this preacher is also confronted by these same powerful forces of disbelief in his own life. The truth is, even after being ordained to a life of proclaiming the gospel this preacher was still not convinced. Many of my sermons waffled around when they came down to the crunch. Oh, they were skilful enough, with plenty of interesting stories and asides, so that few in the pews seemed to notice. But I knew that I could not risk proclaiming the daring gospel that is the core of the church’s reason for being because I had still not really yet seen and so could not truthfully testify.
When did I begin to see? It was sometime after the little orphaned one arrived in our home from Korea. She so quickly became a fixture in our household of six ... just another member of the extended family. Her adoption faded from our mind’s eye and we saw simply another biological child of our own. It was then that the New Testament’s talk of adoption left me breathless. I began to see, as if for the first time, the truth of the awesome news embodied in Jesus: “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. This phrase is coded speech. It assumes that those who hear understand ... that they understand the saving power of lamb’s blood on the door posts of Egypt at the Passover in the memory of ancient Israel. But more, it assumes that those who hear John preach see the sacrificial blood with their own eyes every lambing season. There, when a lamb is delivered stillborn, its own blood is used to wash an orphaned lamb nearby so that this motherless child will be welcomed by a childless mother and suckled as her very own. The sacrificial blood of the lamb takes away the sin that fills a world with orphaned, forgotten and discarded lives ... perhaps like your own. Now those same rejected and discarded ones - now even you - are welcomed and beloved, beautiful and useful in the kingdom of God.
This is how the church comes to be. Preachers of all sorts - those who preach with their words and their lives, both in and out of pulpits - see with their own eyes that Jesus is the One on whom the Spirit remains, the One in whom God takes away the sin of the world. Then, like John, they testify ... in the face of resistance from those who would rather hear a more acceptable, more reasonable, even more believable message they dare to tell the truth that they have seen. The wonderfully surprising thing is that some who hear them preach believe their testimony: “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus”. John loses two disciples. In other words, John’s preaching is a success. This is the mark of faithful Christian preaching: that those who hear do not follow the preacher but take after Jesus and leave the preacher behind! The preacher points to the One who is worth following and risks a lifetime on that claim. The church comes into being as it turns from listening to its preachers to living its life following Jesus.
Now the drama begins. John exits, stage right. Jesus moves to centre stage. He turns and sees John’s disciples following him and asks: “What are you looking for?”. These are the first words of Jesus in John’s dramatic gospel. Not “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”(Mark & Matthew). Not “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke). In this narrative, Jesus catches sight of two seekers and asks them: “What are you looking for?”. In this he is asking not only these two actors but everyone in the theatre: “What are you looking for?”. Of course, we have been well schooled in opening conversations with questions like: “How are you?”, “What do you do?” and “Have you heard the weather forecast?”. But imagine if, like Jesus, we began our conversations here - in this church - by asking: “What are you looking for?”
Then imagine that the answer Jesus hears is the question: “Where are you staying?” It seems such an odd answer: “Where are you staying, Jesus? Which hotel is it tonight?” Jesus doesn’t answer, he doesn’t tell them where he is staying. Instead he invites them over: “Come and see”. John has seen and has testified about what he has seen. Now it is their turn to see. They come and see and ”they remain with him that day”. This is how the church comes to be. Seekers come, wondering where Jesus is to be found. He is met through an invitation to “come and see” ... to come and stay ... to come and remain. Notice that the narrator of the drama makes a point of saying that this takes place at four o’clock in the afternoon. In other words, these two remain with Jesus for dinner and into the evening. The Anointed One provides the hospitality accorded to kinfolk. These seekers long for a Messiah who will stay and who will let them stay. They don’t seek answers or cures, they seek his company. They long to be with him. As do we. Notice, though, how often the church that we have known, has restricted the invitation. “Worship at 11:00 am ... Everyone welcome”. Oh, really? Welcome after noon ... after 1:00 ... welcome to dinner ... and into the evening? Everyone? Even - especially - the orphaned, forgotten and discarded ... the bedraggled, the inappropriate, the incorrect, the difficult, the problematic, the unforgiven. Everyone is welcome? Really?
Let’s be honest. The church’s practice of Christian hospitality has too often been but a sad reflection of the sacrificial love of the Lamb of God. Yet this radical welcoming table is the political strategy of Christ’s church. Listen for it in the testimony that Jan Tollefson brings home from the Dominican Republic this week. She sends me an email that reads: “By the way, something about the scripture for the sermon, on disciples asking where Jesus is staying and he asks them to come and see ... and the three missionaries from Haiti being invited to come to the D.R. to work with us ... and then the fact that they got on so well with the Dominicans ... and then all of us deciding to get together in March again to cooperate on another project ... something just clicked and made me write to you about the trip. There has been a lot of "come and see" happening ... and we've had a table with five people sitting down together, speaking in four languages: English, French, Spanish and Creole. It was a very happy time. They want me to come and see Haiti now. Yikes.” The Lamb of God is host at a table which makes ample room for those who bear the scars of the sin of the world. As the bread and the wine is shared the painful scars are healed. Around the Lord’s Table a people of steadfast love is formed through the patient recovery of ancient practices of care, now rediscovered as a joyful, hopeful, living witness to God’s kingdom come. Here, bringing all our pain and trouble, we discover that we are beloved children in the household of God. So we want to remain, we linger, not eager to leave ... have you noticed that lately?
Except there are others who need to see this new politics that is called the church with their own eyes. So Andrew runs to find Simon and to tell him: “We have found the Messiah”. Andrew isn’t responding to an appeal from Jesus to go on an evangelistic crusade. He isn’t worried about finding new members for a church. Andrew goes because he simply has to tell Simon to come and see. That’s what evangelism is. Evangelism is telling your co-worker or neighbour - without any sense of obligation or shame - that something very interesting is happening in Christ’s church, that Jesus is up to something and that they would do well to come and see. Brothers, sisters and neighbours of all sorts are brought along to see. Simon comes to see and, to his great surprise, discovers that he has been renamed Peter. Once here, we discover that Jesus knows who we are and is re-naming us ... giving us a new, beloved identity. One of this company who just last week experienced the sudden shock of being known and renamed by Jesus told me that he couldn’t sleep that night. “What kept you awake?” I asked. He said: “Well, I felt like I had been run over by a truck”. This is how the church comes to be. Jesus invites, calls, even summons all manner of orphans. Then the Messiah loves this flock into a new identity that changes everything. I wonder what name he is giving you ... what surprising new identity he intends for you? For that matter, I wonder how the Lamb who hosts us at this Table is transforming the identity of this Congregation, giving it - giving us - a new ‘Christian name’, so to speak? That he is renaming us, reshaping his church, reforming minds and hearts and lives from here to Haiti to Galilee I have no doubt. I myself have seen it and testify that it is so.