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“Come and See”

January 16, 2017

“‘Come and See’” John 1:29-51 © 1.15.17 Ordinary 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In a rare unguarded moment, my mother once told me the story of how she came to faith. As a teen, she felt empty. My grandmother found such talk foolish, given practical matters like putting food on the table in a home crushed by poverty. Yet the restlessness persisted. Mama thought marriage would perhaps fill the void. A loving husband; a child. She did find happiness that way, but something was still not right. It was only when she placed faith in Jesus, she said, that the emptiness was filled.

Like my mother, the disciples of John who started following Jesus thought they had found what they were looking for in a particular relationship. But then they discovered that there was more. John later said his mission was for his role to decrease, while Jesus’ stature increased, and he fulfilled it by pointing his men to our Lord, who asked: “What are you looking for?”

Jesus’ question is addressed to us all. What are we looking for? What do we want? If we are empty, what will satisfy us? If we are confused, what will bring clarity? If we long for companionship, who will be our faithful friend? If we are broken, how can we find wholeness?

I suspect one thing we all want in this changing, bewildering, frightening world is the assurance of something that lasts, someone who will stay with us when we feel so terribly alone and unsure. “Jesus, where are you staying?” asked the two disciples of John the Baptist.

Typically for this gospel writer, that inquiry has a double meaning. It’s late in the day, so they want to know where Jesus lives so they can spend some time with him and have a place for the night. But on a deeper level, the writer means that they and every would-be follower of our Lord need to and want to abide with Jesus, to dwell where he dwells if they expect to find what they seek. As the renowned scholar Raymond Brown put it in his massive commentary on this gospel: “Man wishes to stay…with God; he is constantly seeking to escape temporality, change, and death, seeking to find something which is lasting (John, vol. 1: 79). The late singer Dan Fogelberg asked: “How can we make love stay?” And of course, the old hymn expresses our longing: “Abide with me:/fast falls the eventide./The darkness deepens; Lord, here with me abide” (Henry F. Lyte, 1847).

Connecticut’s current poet laureate Rennie McQuilkin has a piece, published in 1985, entitled “Sister Marie Angelica Plays Badminton.” It’s late afternoon, as in the gospel passage, following vespers. He sets the scene: “On all sides of the court/the sculpted yew in cubes and columns/might pass for black so deeply green it grows./And now it moves closer….” Marie Angelica does not miss a shot from her partner, Marie Modeste. In order to keep a long one in play, she “sways on her toes, arches her back, raises one arm and the other to keep her difficult balance…." As the shuttlecock descends, “a feathered cry/ that hovers in the heart of heaven, hovers—and plummets….,” the nun sights it in. “Marie Angelica keeps it in play, will not let it fall/despite the darkness gathering” (The Atlantic 11/85: 93).

McQuilkin has given us a metaphor of the difficult balancing act we too must perform to keep faith and constancy in the midst of a changing world, with “the darkness gathering.” The shuttlecock is a symbol for a way of life, one we have or one we wish we had. The determination of the nuns to keep the bird in play is their resolve also to live out this pilgrimage with steadfast commitment, despite the encroaching, ever more threatening, terrifying gloom of a world that is skeptical, violent, and unpredictable.

We all know that one day we’ll die. In the face of that reality, we want assurance that what we were, what we did will continue beyond the present, the now. We long for a legacy of good, a memory that will comfort our loved ones. And for ourselves, we seek everlasting peace with God. “Rabbi, where are you staying? Let me abide with you, if only for a time.”

His answer is supremely gracious. We know by his invitation that we’re special to him, that he’s willing to be one with us. He’s spoken the first word, calling us to ponder what we want. Now he invites us to “come and see” the place where he dwells truly with the Father. He invites us as divine Wisdom, who in Proverbs says: “…look, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you” (1:23). The wisdom God has made known in Christ is described by the ancient sage: “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily seen by those who love her, and she is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her…she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought” (Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-13, 16). When we cry out for knowledge—of God, of ourselves, of a world we no longer understand—in Christ God interprets us to ourselves and gives us himself. Our Lord invites us to learn of him and from him, and by dwelling with him, gain discernment and experience life abundant.

Jesus calls us as divine Wisdom. He speaks, too, as the Lamb of God, the One who suffers for and from the transgressions of humanity, whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of sin. To abide with him is to dwell with those who are in pain, whose brokenness he died to heal. To stay with our Lord is to make common cause with the poor and downtrodden, who long for meaning and bread. It’s to stand for truth and freedom, though their “portion be the scaffold” as the 1845 James Russell Lowell hymn put it. Staying with Christ is paradoxically to be with those who are rootless, who have nowhere to lay their heads, who hunger and thirst, who are mocked and beaten down by life.

“Come and see,” he says. “Follow me, and you’ll find who I am for you and all humankind.” For John the gospel writer, to see is to have faith, to discern with the eyes of the heart, to perceive in the depths of our being who Jesus is. This is a deeply personal invitation. There is no faith for John without personal involvement and investment, without the engagement of the senses, without sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his words. The testimony of others may lead us to ask questions, as it did the followers of John the Baptist, but it’s we who must step out in the adventure of faith and follow Jesus to where he lives.

That journey may quite often lead us to places of the heart that are unexplored or even frightening, encounters with the Holy that send us reeling, grasping for something to steady us. We end up with questions we can barely put into words.

Mark Summer, the founding cellist of the jazz-playing Turtle Island Quartet, once said he prefers music that takes him into the realm of mystery. Most people like music to soothe or comfort, he observed, but he wants his work to do something different. What that musician does with his art the gospel writer accomplishes with his story of Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and others. Disciples of the sort John envisions have a very high tolerance for ambiguity and mystery. No, not just tolerance. Love for them. Disciples in the mold of this gospel have the sense that their home is the journey—the going and seeing, the traveling and exploring—more than the safe harbor, the settled certainty, the secure house.

I’m reminded of the story of a Muslim holy man told me by a Catholic priest friend. Nasruddin was found by a neighbor on his knees, looking for his lost key. The friend joined in the search, but finally after fruitless effort, asked where the key went missing. “At home,” Mullah Nasruddin answered. “Then why are you looking for it here?” The learned scholar replied: “Because there is more light here.”

Some places we search may be more accessible than others. They may be less frightening venues with brighter lights, that is, clearer answers. We may escape doubt and ambiguity. But no more than the Muslim holy man will we find what we seek if we avoid the dark, if we shun engagement with the deep, puzzling questions that haunt us. The answer for our restless yearning is at home, the journey we are taking with Jesus, who along the way abides with us.

For the gospel writer, as we travel the road, we invite others to join us, to come and see for themselves. The cycle of faith is not complete without the sharing of our discoveries. Andrew went and found his brother. He told Cephas, whom Jesus nicknamed “Peter,” “the Rock”: “We have found the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ.” But he didn’t just tell Peter, he brought him to Jesus. The outcome of a personal quest to be a disciple, to abide with Jesus, is to tell and share. It’s to be a witness.

That’s a good word, as is “evangelist,” despite its being sullied by pushy, obnoxious people who rudely want to inquire about our personal salvation. Our Book of Order says that the Church is to be a community of faith, hope, love, and witness. “In Christ’s name…the Church is sent out to bear witness to the good news of reconciliation with God, with others, and with all creation” (F-1.0205). “The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord” (F-1.0301). Eugene Peterson echoes the Book of Order when he says: “The witness does not call attention to itself; what it points to is more important. Being takes precedence over using, explaining, possessing” (“Annie Dillard…” Theology Today July 1986: 186).

Being a witness is simply to testify to what you or I have seen. Then we invite others to come and see for themselves, to decide for themselves. This way of being a witness respects our neighbor as a moral agent, someone with the capacity to decide, to choose, who can reason and feel and judge what is true and meaningful. And we are not threatened if someone says “I don’t see what you see.” We give voice in our sharing to our deep experience of joy in having found and having been found, and we hope that through us, the Spirit connects with the longing in someone else. Peter was expecting the Messiah, looking for One who was to come. Andrew offered his brother the fulfillment of his need, his dream. Like him, we testify winsomely and humbly to the gift we have been given by God.

John the gospel writer has led us on a journey this morning, a holy quest from longing to learning to dwelling to telling. He’s shown us people who sought and found and shared, and he’s invited us to join their company. Implicit in all that has been said is the word of our Lord to us, stated so well by the classic hymn: “O Jesus, thou hast promised to all who follow thee that where thou art in glory, there shall thy servant be.” And there is, too, the call to respond to his gracious invitation, again with the poet: “And, Jesus, I have promised, to serve thee to the end; O give me grace to follow, my Master and my Friend.”

May that be our assurance and our prayer today and all our days.

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