[This message was proclaimed at Gates Presbyterian Church on 1/19/20, from the text of John 1:29-42.]
This is the social media gospel. Gospel according to John is made for today. More than the other three, John’s gospel specializes in conversations. It is intensely personal. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to follow a timeline, a chronological flow from the happy days of parables, teachings, and crowds in Galilee, then one fateful trip to Jerusalem, John goes a different direction. We can’t make a timeline of Jesus’ ministry in John. One chapter he is in Galilee, the next one in Jerusalem. And back again. And again.
We noted two weeks ago that John condenses the whole Christmas story into one glorious statement: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” And then, there are conversations. With all kinds of people. People of low standing and high standing. Insiders and outsiders. There is a “pull up a rocking chair and let’s sit and chat awhile over a mug of coffee” style to John’s artful telling of the Good News.
Today’s passage gives us the first conversation in John in which Jesus takes part. And what is the first thing Jesus says? “What are you looking for?” Before long we will find out that Jesus loves to ask questions. He uses questions skillfully to get at deeper matters. Some will remember from studying the ancient Greek philosophers that Socrates used a method of questioning to get at deeper matters; it has come to be called the Socratic method. Jesus is the master of the method. His questions are never just fishing for random information, but moving people toward spiritual formation.
This conversation begins with John the Baptizer, a distinctive person if ever there was one. John has dealt with the “who am I?” question. He knows that his role is to point people to Jesus. Here he does it in an unusual way: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Nowhere else in the Bible is that phrase found, though the words are used freely in different forms. Only John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God.” The imagery is rich. In the Old Testament, lambs were often used in ritual sacrifices. The aim was to identify a pure, spotless lamb and offer it to God in worship. Worship is meant to be costly. John is seeing beyond the moment to what awaits Jesus later; sacrificial suffering.
Then John does what he has been sent to do: he points people to Jesus. “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’” Two of John’s followers begin following Jesus. John is pleased. “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” There is that Socratic question, that curveball the batter wasn’t expecting. Last Sunday I spent a good bit of time working with that essential question: Who am I? Now we look at a second question: ‘What are you looking for?’ Preachers love to play with this question. And we should, as Jesus does. Everyone should deal with this question: ‘What are you looking for?’ What are we looking for in life? In our schooling? In a relationship? In a job? What do we want etched on our tombstones? What are we looking for in life?
That leads to the two followers asking their own question: “Where are you staying? That doesn’t quite follow. I think they are really asking, “Can we talk with you more? Let’s go to a safe place.” Jesus accepts: “Come and see.” Jesus loves to enter conversations with us. We don’t get a verbatim of the whole conversation, but we know it leads to this. Andrew is so excited about what he is finding in Jesus, that he goes to his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah.” He brings Simon to Jesus, who gives him a new name and a whole new life. Jesus renames him Peter, and he becomes a disciple and evangelist. We have a string of evangelists in this passage: John the Baptist, then Andrew, and eventually Peter. All three will faithfully point people to Jesus. This is healthy evangelism.
Evangelism is in a rough spot today. Just my saying the word probably caused some discomfort. It is a messy, politically distorted time. In this time, we must be clear. The Good News of Jesus does not belong to any partisan political agenda. The Gospel is not beholden to the Republican or Democratic parties. No political party can ever be identified with the Kingdom of God. The Good News of Jesus does not need any political party or government to favor it or protect it. To reclaim our evangelical calling, I make some observations and invite you to join the conversation.
I was born and reared in evangelical Christianity, so I have a vested interest in getting a right understanding that will lead to faithful living. Here are five of my theses on what evangelism is and isn’t. I invite conversation about them.
- It is not disrespecting and dishonoring others because they are different, but learning to respect and honor the other person, no matter how different the other person is.
- It is nor pretending to listen to others until it is our turn to speak, but really listening to the stories and experiences of the other.
- It is not manipulating others to make a decision, but sharing the Good News we have found in Jesus.
- It is not saving souls while ignoring physical and emotional needs, but caring about persons—body, soul, and spirit.
- It is not using the Bible like a hammer to beat people down, but as an invitation to hear Good News and enter into conversation with Jesus.
In my youth, I was taught techniques for evangelism that were disrespectful of others, didn’t care about listening to others, sought to manipulate others into making decisions, cared only about getting souls saved, and used the Bible for those ends, rather than opening the Bible s God’s letter of love for us. I have had some serious re-learning to do.
Last summer I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, “Holy Envy.” It was as refreshing as a warm fire on a bitter winter day. Most of my life, studying other religions was about finding out what was wrong with them and proving that mine was right and superior. This book sought to find the best, not the worst, in other religions and see what Christians could learn from others. t invited me to move from a stance of judging the other to a posture of humble openness to the other. It didn’t weaken my Christian convictions, but enhanced my faith. I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, and the Savior, but that doesn’t mean that I have all truth and nothing to learn from others.
The Presbytery of Genesee Valley, in which I hold membership, has a simple mission statement: “Know Christ, Live Christ, Share Christ.” I want to know Christ, live Christ, and graciously share Christ. Like billions of people over the centuries, I have found in Jesus God’s salvation, Good News worth sharing. Jesus made clear that this Good News is to be shared with all nations. It is written in the fabric of the scriptures that Good News is for sharing. This quote has been attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” I like that. I want communicate the Good News I have found in Jesus in deed—and in word; and in that order more often than the other order.
All followers of Jesus have people who served as Andrews in our lives, people who pointed us to Jesus. Let’s Take a full minute and reflect on those people and give thanks for how they shaped our faith. I am here because others lovingly pointed me to Jesus. I expect you are too. Let’s keep the story alive. Let’s “Know Christ, Live Christ, Share Christ.”