15 January 2017

A Holy Question

John 1:29-42

Second Sunday after Epiphany


They’re tracking his every move, following him around.  They can’t keep their eyes off him.  Word is spreading about what happened yesterday at the Jordan River, about the baptism, the baptism of Jesus.  On the following day, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  As Jesus approached, John shared with the crowd—shares with the reader, shares with us—something about John’s relationship to him, about how he saw the Spirit descend like a dove, about the promise he received, that when he saw the Spirit of God descend and remain, that person would be the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  “And I myself,” he says, “have seen and have testified this is the Son of God” (Jn. 1:34).

John is doing a lot of talking here.  Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t say a thing?  He’s silent.

Then the next day we find John standing with two of his disciples.  (John the Baptist had his own school of disciples). The three of them watch as Jesus walks by and after he walks past, John exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35).  The two disciples hear John say this, and then they follow Jesus.

Notice, again, Jesus doesn’t respond to John’s exclamations.  He’s silent.  The disciples follow, but he doesn’t acknowledge their presence.  The disciples are behind him.

But, then, Jesus turned—turned around, turned down a lane or street?—we don’t know.  He probably knew he was being followed.  He turned—perhaps surprising or startling them—and said, “What are you looking for?”  They say, “Rabbi, Teacher, where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” So they went there together and remained with Jesus until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  (John, the Gospel writer, loves detail; everything is intentional. Why do we have the exact time?) Andrew went and told his brother, Simon, that he just met the Messiah.  So he brought Simon to Jesus and Jesus gave him a new name, Peter.  Rock.

John’s Gospel is sublime, mysterious, and profound.  The opening lines alone—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” (John 1:1)—leave one breathless.  The Gospel of John, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trades in sophisticated Greek philosophy and apocalyptic Jewish theology, masterfully woven into a narrative designed less to inform than to transform the reader, as it gives witness to Jesus as God’s Messiah.[1] If we take a cursory glance over some of the key words or phrases just in the first forty-two verses of the first chapter, we see that John introduces weighty theological concepts. We have: Word or, in Greek, Logos.  “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was God.”  We have references to life, light, living light, darkness, belief, children of God, the “Word became flesh,” a theology of incarnation; glory, “grace upon grace,” Christ, Son of God, Messiah, baptism, “Lamb of God,” sin, Spirit, baptism by the Holy Spirit, discipleship. Johns spends considerable time and space informing the reader about Jesus.

And, then—this almost took my breath away when I realized this—what’s absolutely amazing is that the first words uttered by Jesus in John’s Gospel are these: “What are you looking for?”  The opening verses of John begin and kind of stay in the rarefied heights of theological contemplation.  However, there’s something that’s almost jarring and disruptive about what Jesus says.  Throughout the text, there’s a lot of moving and seeing and exclaiming and walking and following.  The two disciples are following behind Jesus, but then Jesus turns, turns back on them, toward them, surprising them, and asks, “What are you looking for?

Jesus appears on the scene in John’s narrative asking a question!  And what a question it is.  What are you looking for? Two words in Greek: Ti zeteite. It might sound as though Jesus is simply asking, “What do you want?”  A literal rendering of the Greek reads, “What seek you?”  But imbedded in the question, more evident in Greek than English, is a deeper meaning, and it’s this: What do you seek in life?  Jesus turns and says to them: What do you seek in life?

I love the fact that Jesus begins his ministry in John’s Gospel with a question. A deep question.  An essential question. With that question Jesus, the object of their pursuit, throws their pursuit back upon them.  He flips it around.  The consummate teacher, who teaches not only to inform but also to transform his students, Jesus asks a question.  This question forces them to become more engaged, become more aware and conscious of who they are and what’s driving them.  A questions call for a response.  And a good question wakes us up, shakes us out of our complacency; it pierces our souls, strikes our hearts, and cracks open our lives.  A good question shatters our assumptions and breaks up sclerotic thinking.  A good question can transfigure reality and cast everything in a new light.  A good question can be holy. 

This is significant.  Jesus doesn’t arrive on the scene here teaching theological propositions for us to believe or to think our way into believing.  He doesn’t offer pious or religious platitudes for us to adopt and practice.  Jesus engages these would-be disciples, these curious souls, with a question. What do you seek in life?  Within Judaism we find a long, venerated tradition of asking questions.  Unfortunately, some of this is missing in the Christian tradition.  In Judaism, one questions a text, questions the characters in a text, even questions God. Truth emerges out from the questioning and wrestling after truth.  Questions can be holy.

I love that we see the Messiah as a questioning spirit—and, as the Christian tradition has affirmed, if when looking at Jesus we see what God is like, then God, too, must be a questioning Spirit, who teaches through questions, who speaks to our own sense of curiosity, who helps us discover what it is we’re really searching after.  Jesus welcomes our curiosity and responds to our pursuit of him. 

Questions seem to be an essential dimension of a healthy, vital faith experience.  So, why do we forget this?  Maybe it has something to do with the fact we have outgrown the curiosity and wonderment we had as children.

That’s what Robert Coles discovered.  Coles is a psychiatrist and former professor at Harvard University.  In his classic work The Spiritual Life of Children, Coles explored the “questioning spirit” of children.  As we know, children love to ask a lot of questions!  Right?  This questioning spirit is essential in the life of faith, but it’s often overlooked (as we see in the rise of religious fundamentalism, where people are taught that it’s in appropriate to ask too many questions).  In an interview with Krista Tippet, host of the public radio program On Being, Coles said this loss is a “great tragedy….  Because,” he says, “after all, if you stop and think about Judaism, the great figures of Judaism are those prophets of Israel, Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos.  They were prophetic figures who asked the deepest kinds of questions and were willing to stand outside the gates of power and privilege in order to keep asking those questions. And then came Jesus of Nazareth, who was a teacher.  You might call him a migrant teacher, who walked about ancient Israel…seeking and asking and wondering and reaching out to people and daring to ask questions that others had been taught not to ask or even forbidden to ask.  This inquiring Jesus, this soulful Jesus, searching for comrades—let’s call them,…buddies.  They were his buddies, and they were willing to link arms with him in this kind of spiritual quest that he found himself impelled toward or driven toward.”

Coles goes on to say that, “Now, both in Judaism and Christianity, of course, there are rule setters, and at times they can be all to insistent, some would say even a bit tyrannical.  But the spirit of religion…is what children connect with—the questions, the inquiry, the enormous curiosity about this universe, and the hope that somehow the answers will come about.”[2]

What do you seek in life?  This is Jesus’ question to you and me.  It’s a question designed to wake us up, to move us out of complacency, to pierce our souls, to strike our hearts, break open our lives. What if you allowed this question to work on you, allowed it to penetrate your heart?  What if Jesus’ intent is to break our hearts wide open? What if this is the only way for us to pour out our hearts in love for the sake of the world?  What if you allowed this question to break you open? What then? 

Jesus asks this of us not once, but again and again.  If you can’t quite imagine Jesus asking you that question, ask yourself:  What am I seeking in life?   Where’s my heart?  Where my passion? What am I looking for?

For the two disciples, Jesus’ question called forth this response, “Where are you staying?”  The two were clear about what they were looking for in life—namely, him—so, Jesus said, “Come and see.”  He didn’t have a theological debate with them.  He said, “Come and see.”  They spent time together.  They spent afternoon together, “until about four o’clock in the afternoon” (John 1:39).  When was the last time you spent an afternoon with the Lord?  And after they spent time with Jesus, dwelling in his presence, encountering him in and through a relationship, then they discovered who he really was—all because of one question.

What do you seek in life?  How we answer this question will direct our steps and inform our lives as his disciples. 

Long ago, Saint Augustine (354-430) prayed,
Give me the strength to seek you,
 oh, you who allowed me to find you,
and who gave me the hope of finding you more and more.”[3]

May this, too, be our prayer.
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[1] See Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 2.
[2]Cited in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 165-168.  See also Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990).
[3] Augustine, The Trinity (XV, 28, 51)
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