What are you looking for? Where have we heard this kind of thing before? Maybe that’s not a fair question because, in a way, we have not heard it yet. But this question of Jesus to two of John’s disciples reminds me of the question the angels ask of the women at the empty tomb. And the answer in both instances is ‘Jesus’.
But John’s disciples could not have given that answer. They were not looking for Jesus. They were looking for the Messiah, the anointed one of God, who would save the people. But in looking for the Messiah, they found him in Jesus, the man pointed out to them by their friend and teacher, John the Baptist.
This week, we are following on from the story we read last week, but not from the same gospel. Last week we read from Matthew about Jesus’ baptism. This week, we move to John, who always has a different angle. Matthew tells us that he knew that Jesus was the Son of God before he came for baptism. Luke goes back further, saying that John recognised Jesus before either were born. But the Fourth Gospel tells a different story, that it was only as John saw the dove, the Holy Spirit, descend upon Jesus that he fully understood.
Do these differences matter? Probably not a lot. But the Fourth Gospel casts John very firmly as the last and possibly greatest of the prophets, those who had looked forward in faith to the coming of the Christ, who had laboured to prepare the people. Finally, John was able to say, “Here he is. Behold the Lamb of God.”
In many respects, Christmas is over for another year. We spoke last week of how all the paraphernalia was away, boxed up till next December. But the church, in its worship, is not in quite so much of a hurry. The central feature of Christmas, which is both truth and mystery, is still before us. We are still being directed by our Bible readings to contemplate the Incarnation. We’ve heard it announced by angels to shepherds; we’ve seen wise men offer their gifts and their worship; we’ve listened as it was confirmed by a voice from heaven announcing that Jesus is God’s son, with whom God is well pleased. Now here, the Baptist is telling his disciples, “Here is the one for whom the generations have waited. Here is the one for whom you are looking.”
While this passage from the Fourth Gospel looks back to and reflects upon the baptism of Jesus, it also looks forward to other stories of Jesus calling disciples. But, as so often with the Fourth Gospel, this is presented rather differently. There is no sense of Jesus deliberately picking people that we get from the other Gospels. Rather, it is John who gives a gentle nudge. He’s handing over. He’s done what he was to do. He has found the Messiah. And a new, different journey of discipleship begins for Andrew, possibly too for the other unnamed disciple of John’s, and certainly from Simon, Andrew’s brother, of whose relationship with John we know nothing.
But the fact is, these people, and later others, enter into a relationship with Jesus. It is a relationship of many things – travelling companions, helpers, friends, disciples. And that last one is such an important one within the life of faith that we need to pause and think a little more about what it means.
And to do that, I want to put before you two Bible verses which we’ve not read this morning but which I’m sure you’ll know very well. One is the Greatest Commandment and the other is the Great Commission.
Discipleship has many elements including sharing common life, and learning. These are things that traditionally the church has emphasised. Our life of discipleship focuses very heavily on learning about Jesus together in community. Over the coming weeks, we’ll read many stories of the disciples learning from Jesus and one of the occasions we’ll hear about is them asking what the greatest commandment is. Jesus told them that it is, ‘to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind and to love your neighbour as yourself.’
Love is the core of the greatest commandment. It is not difficult to see why. God is love. It is love which binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As the hymn we sometimes sing says, “Love is what God is for love is of God.” To accept the call to discipleship is to accept the call to love.
The Great Commission, though, says this: “Go into all the world, and make disciples of all nations.” It is interesting how both of these verses are called ‘great’, but Jesus himself only called the commandments to love ‘great’. And that maybe ought to make us wary. Because the church has not always been great at making disciples. Very often, it has given this confusing message – God loves you unconditionally but you’ve got to change; to do this, that and the next thing, to believe this, that and the other. You see how that’s confusing? How can love be unconditional if it demands change? It can’t be. Somehow, the extraordinary power of love has been downplayed, pushed aside by caveats which make the loving less demanding.
In this wee story, there are two little signs of how love was all important to Jesus’ practice of discipling. First is Jesus’ unconditional invitation to Andrew and the other disciple to come and spend the day with him. “Come and see where I’m staying. Come and be my friend.” And the next comes when Simon is introduced to Jesus by his brother. Straightaway, he gives them the nickname, ‘Rock’, basically saying to Simon, ‘I see you can be strong, you can be reliable; you’re all right.’ It is an affirmation of Simon given in love.
Many of you will be familiar with these words, and attributed to St Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish mystic.
Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
in compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
These are words about discipleship, about loving and serving, and they are also words about incarnation, about Christ’s disciples incarnating him on earth. They are words about being like Jesus, doing his work, living in his way, loving as he loves. But we should not try to take this too far, as we can be tempted to do. There are things about Jesus we cannot imitate. We can imitate his humanity, but his divinity is not ours to emulate. Yet there can be the temptation, and this probably afflicts clergy more than most, to feel that if the world needs to be saved, it is us who have to save it. No we don’t. Christ has saved it. That’s not what he calls us to discipleship to do. He calls us to love the world as he does, unconditionally.
There is a sense in this story of a passing of the baton, from John to Jesus. But perhaps we should not let ourselves move on from John altogether. Perhaps more consciously we should imitate him by trying to be people who point to Jesus.
But because Jesus is no longer walking by, we have no means to point to him except with our love, our love for him, but most especially, our love for one another and for the whole of humanity which is so deeply loved by God.