The Rev. Donna Ross
* to see this Gospel passage, scroll down to the end of the sermon
With every sermon, there are different directions a preacher might choose to go. (The members of St. Benedict’s know this better than most congregations, because you regularly hear four preachers, each with his or her point of view.) But even with a single preacher, sermons can go in different directions – just like a congregation’s thoughts during the reading of the lessons. (What direction did your mind go when you heard this Gospel?)
And since John’s Gospel is the product of memories, the result of long years of reflection, it has an abundance of splendid themes woven together. So today my first question is: Which of John’s themes should I follow? Which direction should we go?
Thinking about Sin and Salvation: In this reading, John the Baptist says Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:34) So we might begin a sermon by asking these questions: What is sin? Why is there sin? Why is there evil in this world? How can we escape sin? Asking these questions would be fruitful, but the questions would lead us to “thinking about” Jesus – that is, theologizing – rather than meeting Jesus face to face. And it’s clear that John the writer, in this first chapter, wants us to meet Jesus.
Thinking about the Church: In this reading, Jesus meets his first disciples, and he changes Simon’s name to “Peter.” (1:42) So we might begin a sermon by asking these questions: Is John the writer saying that the Church, the organization of Jesus’ followers, is already being established at the beginning of the story? This direction, too, might be fruitful – but it would lead us to “thinking about” the Church, its structure and authority, rather than Jesus himself, the Person the Church says is at its center.
Thinking about the Spirit: In this reading, John the Baptist sees the Spirit descending upon Jesus, and he says Jesus is the One who will baptize with the Spirit. (1:32-33) So we might begin a sermon by asking these questions: What is the Spirit? How does the Spirit do its work? How does the Spirit come to us, to me? The hymns we’re singing this morning, with their emphasis on the Spirit, may help us ponder these questions about the Spirit. But I’m thinking that before we meet the Spirit, we need to meet Jesus himself.
Thinking about Jesus the person: In this reading, Jesus invites two men to spend the afternoon with him, to get to know him. So one way to begin this sermon is to decide: Let’s try to meet Jesus for ourselves – try to see him, try to get to know him. Shall we respond to Jesus’ invitation to these men as if it were inviting us – “Come and see”? I think that’s what John, the Gospel writer, wants us to do. John shows us how Jesus’ first disciples came to “see” Jesus – and I’m convinced John wants us to follow them. After all, here are Jesus’ first words in this gospel: “What are you looking for? …Come and see.” (1:38,39)
Learning to see
But seeing is more complicated than it sounds, because there are many levels of seeing – in life, of course, but especially in the original Greek of John’s Gospel.
In the Greek, there is a word for plain, simple seeing with our physical eyes.
There is another Greek word for looking with concentration, as we try to learn more about what we are seeing.
There is a third Greek word for seeing with comprehension, for perceiving the inside qualities of an object or person.
And in the Greek there is a word for seeing with insight, seeing the inner and spiritual reality of whatever – or whomever – is before us. This is seeing with spiritual insight, seeing with the heart. That means not looking at something (or someone) as an object, but finding a way to participate in it, to build a relationship with it, a way to touch its inner truth.
At which level do you want to “see” Jesus?
Do you want to see what the man was like – would you like a snapshot of the historical Jesus? (Actually, I would love this. But we have no photographs, no definitive history approved by modern scholarship – all we have is hazy memories contained in old, old scriptures.)
Do you want to see Jesus at a more detailed level – to remember what he said, to see where he walked and taught, to know what he did? (His first disciples got to see on this level, and some of them wrote down what he said and did. Those disciples have left us pictures of Jesus at the detailed level, but the problem is that Matthew saw him slightly differently from Mark, and Luke and John had their own versions of what he said and did. And I haven’t even mentioned the Gospel of Thomas, or Mary Magdalene and the other gospels! So how will we know what he really said, what he really meant?)
Do you want to see Jesus at an even deeper level – to really understand what his teaching meant, what his actions demonstrated, what he believed about life and love and God? (But we know how much his first disciples, even as they spent time with him, struggled to understand him and his message. So how do we go about it.)
Or do you want to see him with spiritual insight – not only to “see” him, but to “know” him? And here is a mystery: at its deepest point, “seeing” always becomes “knowing.” Deep seeing always moves beneath the surface, beneath the skin of an object or a person, into that place where we can make a connection, grow into relationship.
In my parish in Ohio, there is a blind woman whose name is Barbara. Barbara worked at Oberlin College, and every morning – in sun, rain or snow – Barbara walked the six blocks from her house to her office, striding along with her cane. Barbara and her husband Bob often came to our home for dinner. Bob was an English professor, extremely intelligent, a little absent-minded. The two of them would walk the streets to our house, Barbara with her cane in one hand and her other hand on Bob’s arm. I can’t tell you the number of times that Bob, ambling along in his absent-minded way, would pass by our driveway – only to be brought up short by Barbara, who knew exactly where she was.
But it wasn’t just the physical landscape that Barbara was able to negotiate. She was the same way at church – in her prayers in worship, in meetings, in Bible studies, in discussions. Although she couldn’t “see” the outsides of people, she always “saw” their insides. Perhaps because she couldn’t see your skin, she had to listen carefully to know who you were and what you thought. Perhaps because as a blind child she had to learn to be courageous, she was always willing to share her own thoughts and ideas and impressions. And because Barbara was like this, groups of people would become enlivened by the conversations she shared.
Indeed, there were times when I would be in a group along with Barbara and I would begin to think that everyone there was blind. And by that I don’t mean that I saw the people as physically blind, but I began to see them as deeply insightful, just like Barbara. She had that effect on all of us. Barbara is a person who “sees” with spiritual insight – because she has the confidence, the courage, to be open: about herself, about what she thinks and believes, about what she sees in you.
Has there been someone in your life - a friend, a loved one, a teacher – whom you came to know when suddenly or slowly you saw deeply into their inner self, came to “know” them and form a bond with them?
Whenever we move from seeing the outside appearance to the inner core, that encounter brings us to the spiritual heart of a person – and it touches our own inner heart as well.
And so Jesus says to us, “Come and see.”
In the gospel passage Jesus is saying, “Come and see me.” Come and listen to me, come and talk with me, come and spend time with me, so you can know me intimately – so you and I can form a bond, a connection that will never die.
As John’s Gospel continues, the writer will tell us that this relationship with Jesus, this intimate knowing, this living connection, becomes possible because of the divine energy in Jesus – and because his Spirit’s energy lives on in those who have met him. This is the mysterious energy that Christians, down through the ages, have struggled to describe, to put into words. This mysterious energy cannot be fully understood by thinking, even at the deepest level; it is an energy that only comes out of an encounter with a living Spirit.
In “The Wisdom Jesus” Cynthia Bourgeault writes, The key ingredient I’ve been talking about is really recognition energy. It’s the capacity to ground-truth a spiritual experience in your own being. The gospels are built on it – and so was the early church – as the powerful liberation energy of the Christ event spills over and travels forward, moving from recognition to recognition.
Reading “The Wisdom Jesus,” I realized that in my friendship with Barbara there was arecognition energy that sparked between us. In a much deeper way, in my following of Jesus there has been a recognition energy that began long ago, but continues to reverberate in the depths of my inner being.
Cynthia Bourgeault also writes, In the gospels, all the people who encountered Jesus only by hearsay, by what somebody else believed about him, but what they’d been told, by what they hoped to get out of him: all those people left. They still leave today. The ones that remained – and still remain – are the ones who have met him in the moment, in the instantaneous, mutual recognition of hearts and in the ultimate energy that is always pouring forth from this encounter….
I have no other words this morning except to repeat what Jesus has already said: Come and see.
* John 1:29-39
John saw [simple seeing – in the Greek, blepo] Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Look,[look, see with perception – ide] here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know [know, understand, perceive - heidein] him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed [made known, revealed - phanerothe] to Israel." And John testified, "I saw [contemplated, observed a sign – theasthai] the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know [see with understanding - hedein] him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see [see the outward appearance - hideis] the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen [see with understanding - horan] and have testified that this is the Son of God." The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched [fix one’s gaze, look with insight - emblepein] Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look [look, see with perception – ide], here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw [observe, notice, contemplate – theasthai] them following, he said to them, "What are you looking [searching for – zetein] for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come andsee [see with understanding - heidein]." They came and saw [know, understand – heidein] where he was staying and they remained with him that day.