The Difference One Question Makes 15 Jan . 2017 M’ley
Isaiah 49:1-7 1 Cor. 1:1-9 John 1:29-42
One apparently innocuous question can turn the world upside down. And if any of the Gospel writers was going to recognize that, it had to be John. His is not most people’s favourite gospel, though I have to admit that personally I have a very strong liking for it. The story he’s telling is more subtle, more philosophical than the other gospel writers, and his approach to it presents sufficient material for a life-time of reflection and exploration. One of his over-riding themes is glory, — which you might expect given that he is writing about God. But — he leads us inexorably to a point where God’s glory is revealed not in the heavens, but on that paramount symbol of shame and torture, the cross. Hmm.
Then of course there is his way of selecting just 7 of the miracles Jesus performed, and calling them “Signs.” Signs of what? Signs that are supposed to make us think; to wrestle with what they are saying beyond the obvious event of a healing, or miraculous provision of food and wine. I started doing mental battle with these themes of glory and the Signs 30 years ago. And then this week, looking at the Gospel appointed for today, I was brought back to another one of those old sources of struggle, almost forgotten about: the questions Jesus asks in this Gospel.
We heard that, before his ministry had truly started, Jesus was aware that two of John the Baptist’s disciples had moved away from John, and were trailing behind him, and we hear him speak for the first time. What profound statement does he make at this highly significant point in world history, what revelation of his true being? He asks, “What do you seek?” or, “What are you looking for?” A rather basic, disappointing opening gambit. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ questions are never simple, never straight-forward. These 2 disciples would remember this day for the rest of their lives. And readers of this Gospel would do well to take note of their response: “Rabbi, where do you dwell?” Remember that word: “dwell.” John employs it for a reason.
So it seems as if what we are being told here is the basic account of the enlisting of Jesus’ first two disciples, just as the other gospels tell us about the calling of the 12. Jesus’ answer to their question here is, “Come and see.” We expect to be able to read in more detail from hereon about what is involved in being a disciple.
A little while later, another man seeks Jesus out, coming to him by night so that he would not be seen by those who might tease, or worse, threaten him about it. Through two challenging questions, Jesus leads Nicodemus into exploring his belief and understanding in ways which he feels to be almost beyond his abilities to cope with, yet he is unable to disregard or reject them. It is fairly clear that he went home with churning thoughts and emotions which he continued to address for years to come. All because of those two questions Jesus asked.
So there are 3 early followers of Jesus, who explore their discipleship rather differently. But where the other gospels have a lot to say about what it means to be a disciple, to follow Jesus, we find that John makes very little reference to that at all. The one place where we hear about it is when Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, and says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” But that is almost the only use of that word, “follow” in the whole of this gospel.
What John does talk about in relation to discipleship, of being a follower of Jesus, is something radically different, but we’ll come back to that in a minute. Let’s go back to our Gospel reading, and look at the statement before Jesus asks his question. The two disciples of John the Baptist heard what he had to say about Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God!” – and they followed Jesus. The next words are: “Jesus turned, and saw them following him.” More accurately, he gazed at them.
When Jesus turns to look at a human being, it is with an all-encompassing intensity, that knows the very heart of the person. Many of the characters within the story of Jesus’ ministry experienced the gaze of Jesus, sometimes to their discomfort, sometimes as reassurance. It is a look that tells us we are known, known to the very core of our being, and that has been true from our earliest beginnings.
Where we may fall into the trap of thinking that we have searched for, and discovered God, we need to realize that he has been waiting for us to find him; that our desire for him, and our exploration, was initiated by his presence already in us. As St John of the Cross said, “First it must be known that, if the soul is seeking God, God is seeking it, much more.” Living Flame of Love. He knows what we are, and what we are capable of becoming, and he longs for us to experience the life he holds open to us.
And so Jesus’ first disciples were welcomed into his inner circle, and grew more and more into a community of love and fellowship with him. Then they reached the shattering experience of the Last Supper, where John, in the long last discourse of Jesus, shares with us finally the revelation about what it truly is to be a disciple of Jesus. Not one who absorbs facts and information. No, something much more astounding and almost unbelievable.
After Jesus has spoken about returning to his Father’s house to prepare dwelling places for his disciples, Philip makes what seems to us to be a perfectly reasonable request: “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” But Jesus’ response is both astonishing and reveals what lies at the heart of the Gospel. “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me? – Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” And then a little later: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And that word “abide”? It can also be translated, “dwell.” Remember, “Rabbi, where do you dwell?”
The answer could have been all those years before: I dwell in my Father’s love. But those potential disciples would not have been capable of absorbing that idea. They have travelled a long road of learning and experience with Jesus since then. Now they are told that not only does Jesus dwell in the Father and the Father in him, but that his disciples are also called to participate, to dwell in that Father’s love. Discipleship, being followers of Jesus, is not just, although that’s pretty good, being loving towards each other. It is being caught up in the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity. Absolutely indescribable, because it flows from God himself. Sometimes, the words have to stop because they are incapable of describing the experience.
But the word to hang on to is that word, “abide” or “dwell.” Saint John was obviously convinced of its significance because he uses it 63 times in his gospel and epistles. And that mutual indwelling brings about changes, so that people are recognized for what they truly are and their names are changed to reflect their full nature. The disciples who called Jesus “Rabbi” soon change it to “Messiah.” Simon becomes Peter, the Rock, and so on.
And that first question of Jesus, at the very beginning of his adult ministry, changes too. Where he asked at the beginning, “What do you seek?” near the very end of the Gospel it changes subtly but importantly. On the first Easter morning, as Mary Magdalene stands weeping in the garden, Jesus asks her, “Whom are you seeking?” The desire for information, and facts, at that beginning point of conversion and discipleship, becomes almost without us noticing it, a profound longing, a reaching out for a relationship with someone without whom we are utterly bereft. The joy of it all is that this is not a pipe dream, but a reality which is offered to us as we become aware of the open and welcoming arms of the Trinity. As Jesus said to those first disciples: “Come and see.”