John 1: 29-42
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 16th January 2010
“[T]he besetting sin today is the sin of literalism.” These words were first published in Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry (1965), by the Owen Barfield (1898-1997). Barfield was an English solicitor, a non-academic philosopher, a devoted Christian, and close friend of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). Lewis penned The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for Owen’s daughter, Lucy; he wrote The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for Owen’s son, Geoffrey. Barfield’s Saving the Appearances was included in the top 100 spiritual works of the 20th-century. He had a profound impact upon both T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) and J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973).
Why is literalism a sin? Because it hardens the heart and hinders our imagination as it encounters the world. It prevents mystery. It narrows by making the multiple into one; multiple meanings, multiple definitions, interpretations are reduced into one, monolithic meaning. Literalism abhors the symbolic, the metaphoric, the “as-if” quality in words, in truth, in experience. Literalism revels in the concrete, the material, the one. Literalism, when taken to its extreme leads to fundamentalisms of all varieties – usually associated with texts, with words. We see this particularly in religion, in fights over how the Bible or the Koran may be interpreted, which then lead to fights over ethics and morality. We can see this in politics, where in our own nation literalism is making its way into how some view the Constitution and interpret it.
A contemporary of Barfield, who also warned about the dangers of literalism was Norman O. Brown (1913-2000). A scholar, a classicist, Brown wrote, “The thing to be abolished is literalism;…truth is always in poetic form; not literal but symbolic; hiding, or veiling; light in darkness…the alternative to literalism is mystery.” In our age, we often assume that if we have a literal meaning of something, then we know more about it, the truth of what something really is. If something is symbolic or metaphoric, then we suspect that we don’t have the whole truth, but only a portion of it. But, ironically, an obsession with the literal actually blocks what is known and destroys mystery, and thus hinders the possibility of discovering what can be known. Ironically, a lot of the truth contained in the Bible is missed because people read it literally. The symbolic allows us to go deep, to have a deeper meaning of something, to discover what is not obviously available on the surface. It’s striking that in this age of rising fundamentalisms and religious wars over the interpretation of texts, that we have a cultural fascination in film with stories full of symbols and metaphors, whether it’s a renewed interest in The Chronicles of Narnia, or the mythical battles in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or the daily dramas of Harry Potter and friends at Hogwarts.
Throughout John’s gospel (and unique to him) there’s often two story lines going on at the same time. There’s the literal storyline and there’s the symbolic storyline. There’s a continuous interplay between the literal and the symbolic. Simple phrases or words or questions have not one meaning, but two. There are multiple layers in John’s narrative. You can read the story one way and have it mean something. Or you can go deeper and have it mean something something more. It’s the something more in this exchange between Jesus and these two anonymous men that entices and pull them in to the strong orbit of Jesus’ movement in their lives.
For example, right after Jesus’ baptism, we have this amazing scene. John is standing with two of his disciples as they watch Jesus walk by, and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” They hear John say this and then they follow Jesus as he walks. Jesus turns to them (did he know he was being followed?) and says, “What are you looking for?” They answer, “Rabbi,” Teacher, “where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” And so they followed, arrived at the place Jesus was staying. They remain with him. Then John tells us what time it was was, about 4:00 p.m. It’s very odd. We come to know that one has a name, Andrew, who then introduces Simon Peter, his brother, to Jesus as the Messiah. This, we might say, is what literally, historically happened in space-time.
But there’s another layer here, the symbolic. The seemingly simple question, “What are you looking for?” now takes one enormous theological proportions. Jesus turns to them, these two who are quick to follow, and he wants to know what they’re looking for, what are you really looking for? What are you really seeking in following after me? You see, it’s not a simple question. Perhaps it’s the question, the first question posed by the Teacher to anyone who wants to be his student, to sit at Jesus feet and learn truth in his school of wisdom. What are you really looking for in following me? Jesus says. What are you searching for? What hidden drive, deep in the recesses of your psyche, is causing you to make such a radical departure, to leave one teacher (John the Baptist) and follow me? Jesus asks. There’s almost this sense that Jesus is a little suspicious of their motives, doubting their sincerity.
Or – or – just maybe the question is intentionally offered, graciously directed at them, as any good teacher would do, in order to help raise their consciousness, that they come to know for sure why they are doing what they are doing, why they are walking in his steps and not another.
What do they say? They’re searching for the place where the Teacher stays. On the literal level they want to stay with him. On the symbolic level they want to stay with Him, that is to dwell with him, to abide with him. We can take up space with Jesus, hang-out with him, as it were, share a roof and a meal for a while. But there’s also the possibility of sharing a life with him, of dwelling with him, of abiding in his presence, of him dwelling and abiding in us. The word stay here can also be translated remain or abide. It’s the same Greek word used later in John when Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. …..Those who abide [remain] in me and I in them bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. …As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide [remain] in my love” (John 15: 4-5, 9).
“Come and see,” Jesus says. Sure, I’ll show you where I live. But with the eyes of faith, I’ll show you where I live. In Greek, there are two words for life. Bios and zoe. Bios refers to natural, physical life, that which allows us to function. And then there’s zoe, fulfilling life, overflowing life, creative life, dynamic life. Sure, I can show you where I stay, where I eat and sleep, Jesus says to us, “Come and see.” If that’s all you want to see, here it is. “Come and see,” is also the invitation to discover something else, to discover where Jesus stays, where he remains, where his presence dwells and fills life and gives life. If you want this, if you want life, if true life is what you’re searching for, then, “Come and see.” That’s possible too; it all depends what you’re looking for.
The two respond to Jesus’ invitation and find something more than they expected to see. They remained with him and “saw” who he was – the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the Christ. They went from one level of knowing to another, from one perspective of reality to another, from the surface to the depths, and what they saw in the depths changed their lives. John tells us it was about four o’clock in the afternoon. John is a stickler for detail; nothing is wasted in his gospel. Why 4 p.m.? Does this, too, have two levels of meaning? Maybe a particular hour of the day becomes a particular hour in a day unlike any other day; chronos, ordinary time becomes kairos, extraordinary time; chronos becomes kairos – a moment, an hour which marks the exact moment when these two become disciples, when they discovered their vocation.
What are you looking for? This is where it all starts, isn’t it? It’s such an open-ended question. In the gospels, particularly in John, Jesus anticipates questions and thoughts and feelings in the observer and responds first. Very often Jesus will ask questions or even answer questions indirectly in order to allow those whom he encountered to discover the truth about him for themselves. Jesus doesn’t want passive faith, but active faith in which we are personally engaged. Throughout scripture Jesus has extraordinary respect for us as other. Notice, he doesn’t respond to these religious seekers by saying, “Here’s what your looking for. Here’s what you ought to believe about me. Here’s the truth. Here’s what I mean. Here, this is the only way to interpret me or scripture.” Instead, he says, graciously, out of respect, with deep love and compassion, “What are you looking for?” He creates enormous space just in the asking of that question. Then he moves back and allows us to step into that space with an answer, he leaves it up to us to respond.
This question is directed to religious seekers. They’re followers of John for a while and then they leave him to follow Jesus. This question is designed, I think, to open up us to our own desires and our motivations What are we looking for in walking after Jesus? Sometimes religion can be a very selfish thing. For some it’s a form of addiction, going from one faith to another, one belief to another, one church to another. For some, religion is a kind of drug used to dull the pain of existence, or to make us happy, or provide comfort, or ease anxiety we might have about death and what the afterlife will look like. Some people go to church or follow out of fear, to play it safe, to hedge their bets, as a kind of insurance policy against the unknown. Utilitarian faith can be expressed in a variety of ways, both within and without the church, when we turn to religion or faith to serve our own ego needs, to meet our own personal agendas, for what we get out of it. I guess there’s really nothing inherently wrong with utilitarian faith, but it seems to me that these are expressions of a kind of surface faith or religion, not the life that Jesus came to offer people. It’s something, but Jesus comes with something more; not the kind of faith that is simply satisfied to see where Jesus lives, but the kind that is discovered when we stay with him and discover who he is.
So, come and see. What are you looking for?
“For in him was life [zoe],” John tells us earlier in his gospel, “and the life [zoe] was the light of all people” (John 1:4). That afternoon when they stayed with him, I believe they saw a person through whom life poured, an encounter with life itself who called them to life, and propelled them out into the world with conviction and with a new vitality, inviting others to “come and see.”
Calling people to life. Increasingly, these days, this is how I’m viewing the heart of Jesus’ ministry, it’s what God desires for all God’s children, it’s why God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn it, that it might be saved, that it might live abundantly (John 10:10). It’s how I hear Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s echoed in the early church father, Irenaeus (2nd century – c. 202), when he said, “The glory of God is revealed in a person fully alive.” It’s behind, I think, Howard Thurman’s (1900-1981) marvelous statement about vocation and the purpose of our lives: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
For the sad truth is that there’s so much in our lives that does not satisfy, so much that deadens, so much in our culture that is not calling people to life, so much which is not participating in creative, fulfilling, meaningful living. We see this in the escalation of violence at all levels of our society – individual, communal, and national levels – violence brought on because of a deep frustration within people, a hunger in people for something more. The shooting in Tucson, AZ, and the ensuing debate over why anyone needs to own a gun in a civilized society, is only part of this larger problem of violence –violence always destroys. For to destroy life is to be fundamentally at odds with God.
The Lord of Life says to us, “What are you looking for?” And in his grace, the response to us will always be, “Come and see.” If we follow, then who knows what we’ll discover spending an afternoon with him. Just don’t take this literally – it could take more than an afternoon. It probably will. It could take a lifetime. But what matters most is that we remain with him, that we stay with him and discover what it means to live.
 See Hillman, 149ff. “Literalism prevents mystery by narrowing the multiple ambiguity of meanings into one definition. Literalism is the natural concomitant of monotheistic consciousness – whether in theology or science – which demands singleness of meaning. Precisely this monotheism of meaning prevents mystery…. Seeing through our literalisms is a process of resacralization…,” 149-150.
 Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, 3 vols. (New York: Seabury, 1982) 1:309, cited in Gail R. O’Day, John in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 531.
 O’Day, 530-531.
 Cf. a related quote from Thurman, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”