Second Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 15 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 49:1-7; Ps 40:1-12; 1 Cor 1:1-9; Jn 1:29-42

Today’s gospel is often talked about as one of the “call” stories, and in a way it is. But there’s an interesting difference between how the synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke — describe the process by which the disciples came to follow Jesus, and how John does it. In the first three gospels, Jesus actively walks around the lake and the town summoning people to follow him. In John, as you might notice, he generally does not. In this story, Jesus is apparently spending some considerable time, at least several days, with John’s followers around the Jordan, but seems to be drawing no special attention to himself. Rather, it is John who points him out, repeatedly, until a couple of people become curious enough to follow Jesus as he walks away from the river. When he sees them, he turns towards them, with the actually not particularly inviting words, “What are you looking for?”

These are the first words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel, so it’s worth thinking about them a bit. What are they looking for, Andrew and his companion, walking away from the river? Explanation? Prophecy? Comfort? They receive none of these. At this point, all they get is an uncomfortable question; a question directed, I think, not only at them. What, in fact, are we looking for? Why are we walking after this unknown person who has been called the Lamb of God?

Perhaps we come looking for explanations, for answers to our problems, for a leader who will make our decisions for us; and then find, like Andrew, that answers are not forthcoming, that Jesus tends to respond to a question with a question, or with some cryptic statement that pushes us further into confusion. Perhaps we come looking for comfort – and perhaps there is comfort to be found, but not always the kind we were expecting.

Often enough, we don’t clearly know what we’re looking for. We are aware of some sense of need, aware that something is lacking, or wrong, or incomplete; aware, perhaps, of a pain at the heart of the world which we can hardly begin to articulate. We may be looking for someone to fix this, to make the pain go away, or to make us into people who are not vulnerable to that pain. For this we look in vain; the man wandering by the Jordan will not give us that, but will plunge us into the very heart of the world’s suffering. Or perhaps we are hoping for something more subtle than that, perhaps for meaning, something or someone which will make the random events of the world and the body into a coherent story, give significance to the cascade of particles, the stubborn shifting shapes of matter. Perhaps we are hoping for a word we cannot put into words.

Probably, we are looking for a little bit of all of these things. But this is, at least according to this story, where we have to start; by examining ourselves, our longings and our hopes, by asking ourselves what we are looking for, what we hope to find; because honesty with ourselves about what we are seeking takes us some way towards finding. “The desire for God is the presence of God,” says one ancient theologian. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks, because in that question lies the path, not exactly to an answer, but to presence.

John’s gospel will circle back to this question, finally. At the apparent end of all things, as Mary Magdalene weeps in the garden, an unknown man approaches her – comes to her, this time, as he did not initially come to Andrew and the others – and asks her a question just slightly different. “Who are you looking for?” he says. It is a question about presence, about relationship, a question astonishingly answered by the love that cannot be killed. But right now, still near the Jordan, Andrew has no idea how to respond to this abrupt question, and – as all of us likely would – responds with what seems to be an awkward non-sequitur — “Where are you staying?”

But it isn’t really a non-sequitur at all. It is one of the many examples, in John’s gospel, of people saying far more than they understand. Because the word they use for “staying” — menein – is an absolutely crucial verb in John’s theology. In fact, although the translation obscures this, we’ve just heard it a moment ago — when John the Baptist says he saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain up Jesus, “remain” is this same verb, menein. And it will be used over and over again, as its significance gradually unfolds – especially in chapter 15 of John, when Jesus speaks at length about the vine and its branches as a metaphor for our relationship with God. In that passage, it’s translated as “abide”, but it’s the same word in Greek. We are bidden to abide in Christ and in his love, as Christ abides in God, as the Holy Spirit abides upon Christ. We are invited to become, in fact, a part of the dynamic interplay of love which is the Holy Trinity. We are bidden, somehow, to live in such a way that God becomes the very place in which we reside, our home, the space of our dwelling. And if we do this, we become in turn the place in which God lives, the home of the Word.

When Andrew and his companion ask where Jesus is staying, they may not mean anything much by it. But they are asking, whether they know it or not, to be introduced into this relationship, to begin to be brought into that life, that abiding, that indwelling. And Jesus says to them, simply, “Come and see.”

There is no other answer, really, which Jesus could have given them; for that abiding, that remaining within God, cannot be described in precise detail in a way which can be replicated. It is experiential knowledge, embodied knowledge, known only by living it. By this I don’t mean that it is primarily about what we often call “spiritual experience,” which is really mostly emotional response. I have sometimes seen on the subway a rather troubling poster from a group called Bus Stop Bible Studies, which describes in some detail the intense and overwhelming emotional experiences you are apparently supposed to have in your prayer life, and I can honestly say that not one of them has ever applied to me. Human feelings are important. But they are also unpredictable, volatile, and self-oriented, and how we feel about our relationship to God in any given moment often tells us very little. All the great mystics will say that it may be when we feel the most dry, exhausted, empty and lost that we are closest to the heart of God.

But neither is abiding in God about intellectual assent to a fixed statement of belief, having the right theological opinions, getting the right answers on some kind of imaginary divine pop quiz. The first letter of John, which also makes extensive and important use of this word menein, can, I think, help us here. For the writer of this letter – who is probably not the same person who wrote the gospel story, but part of the same community – abiding in God is, almost wholly, about what we do. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother and sister in need, and refuses help? … No one has seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God.”

It may be easy enough to love an idea of God. But what we have, what we are given as our way to love the reality of God, are the hard intractable facts of the world, and most of all the intractable facts of other people, people who will in no way conform to our ideas of how things should be. We are born into a society we did not create, with a history we did not choose; we are born into particular problematic bodies and brains, we have our desires and needs and callings. We are enmeshed in a network of relationships, social and personal. And our life in God exists in the living of it, in the face of all these unchosen facts of our particular lives. The moment by moment choice to be vulnerable to the other, to be undone by the presence of the other, to behave in love, in that love which turns to the one person before us, and acts. Which allows the presence of the other to become, in a sense, the place where we live, the place where our values are rooted. Who are you looking for? The God who comes as a stranger.

Come and see. Stay. Live in this place which is no place but love.