2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Isa. 49:1-7; Ps. 40:1-12; 1 Cor 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
January 15, 2023
Blessed are you, God of growth and discovery; yours is the inspiration that has altered and changed our lives; yours is the power that has brought us to new dangers and opportunities. Set us, your new creation, to walk through this new world, watching and learning, loving and trusting, until your kingdom comes. Amen.[i]
Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to this rainy second Sunday after the Epiphany, a season steeping us in water and the light of divine revelation. We entered this time in the Church Year a little over a week ago in the Magi’s visit, dwelling last Sunday with the story of Jesus’ baptism as the gospel of Matthew tells it. In that story Jesus immerses in the waters of our humanity and creation’s wondrous complexity, sanctifying it all and rising to see the Spirit descending upon him like a dove and to hear the divine voice proclaiming him God’s beloved Son. Hearing this story and renewing our baptismal covenant last week, we were invited to see with fresh eyes our connection to God and to one another, our relational vocation not only among fellow humans but also within creation as a whole. Last week I reflected upon that vocation drawing upon language from Maximus the Confessor who wrote of human beings as having been created to be “bonds” of the created whole. Jesus’ life and ministry, his death, resurrection and ascension, launched from his baptism, renewed that bonding vocation. Whereas last week our readings were anchored by the Gospel of Matthew (as they generally will be this year) this week our Epiphany journey continues through the Gospel of John. Today’s passage from John connects the processes of calling and seeing—perception – inviting us to discover how deeply relational these processes are.
John’s gospel picks up the story of Jesus’ baptism from some distinct angles. This gospel never shares the moment of Jesus’ baptism directly. We hear about it through John the Baptist’s process of discovery. Just prior to our passage, John was being quizzed by the Pharisees as to who exactly he was and what he was doing. Was he the Messiah? No. Was he Elijah returned? No. Who was he? John’s reply of being the voice of one crying out in the wilderness didn’t necessarily help (John 1:19-23). They could not see who John was. John, in turn described himself as someone called to see and proclaim one greater than himself. “I baptize with water,” John declares. “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (1:26-27). Just when we might have read John’s remarks as coy, we learn that initially John wasn’t sure who this illustrious person would be either. As our reading begins: “The next day” – after this strange exchange about who John was – “[John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:29-31). Unlike other gospel accounts in which John and Jesus are understood to have known each other before—indeed, to be family to one another – this gospel portrays John as coming to recognize Jesus through the process of baptizing him. We hear of what John did not know as he says a second time, “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (1:33). So when John had declared, “among you stands one whom you do not know,” he was also describing his own situation up to that point. Only in the moment of baptizing, as he sees the Spirit descend and alight upon Jesus like a dove, does he know, this is the one. This is the one I have been called to proclaim. From that point on, John becomes a kind of neon chaser light pointing to this person: behold the lamb of God.
There is a thread of relational discovery through all of this. John has been primed by God to be ready to recognize one whom he could not yet see. In that priming he is also called to show others what they could not yet see—to in a way model the process of coming to see something, someone, and to show that someone to others. John is referred to in Christian tradition as the Baptist, and sometimes as the Forerunner, for obvious reasons, but a key part of John’s vocation is also to illumine the Christ, to be that neon sign, a vehicle of God’s revelatory purposes as always also deeply relational.
As the passage turns from John’s recognition and proclamation to Jesus himself, that relational combination of seeing and calling continues. Two of John’s disciples have been told excitedly, “Look! Here is the lamb of God!” (Quite the way to be identified as you walk down the road) (1:36). With that identification, they begin to follow Jesus. Noting their presence, Jesus turns around and utters his first words in John’s gospel: “what are you looking for?” (Or “what do you seek?” as the verb ζητέω can also be translated) (1:38). When they answer “Rabbi, where are you staying?” we might think of these disciples as already displaying their famous ineptitude or at least awkwardness (1:38). What kind of response is this? You follow an enigmatic person down the road and when he asks, essentially, “can I help you?” you ask him to show you where he’s staying? Without losing its awkwardness, the question also suggests how keenly they had been listening to John. Because John had shared in very specific terms how he had been told to identify the Christ: as the one on whom the Spirit descended and remained. The verb translated as “remained,” μένω, is the very word these two disciples use to inquire of Jesus. Where are you remaining? Or, as the verb is also sometimes translated, abiding or dwelling. This word shows up all over John’s gospel. It is a staple of the relational mystery of God. Jesus’ response, “come and see,” draws them into that mystery from the very start. Come, connect, be with me. See, perceive what you have not been able to perceive before. Open your eyes, your heart, to the connection you have now and will have in ways you had never before imagined. As the passage continues, Andrew, one of these two disciples, draws his brother Simon into this growing web. And Jesus, looking at Simon, invites him to perceive himself anew: “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter),” translated elsewhere for us as rock (1:42). Now this growing band had begun a process of discovery. They had been called to see and proclaim Jesus as the anointed one, the Christ. In response to that call, they had begun to be woven together into profound newness of life.
I thought of this pattern of perception and calling, this process of deep discovery and re-weaving, when I recently came across a video of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King preaching at Grace Cathedral.[ii] I had forgotten that he had preached at this seat of our diocese, as it is not among his more famous appearances. But on March 28, 1965, just three days after the Selma march had concluded, he flew across the country and stepped into the pulpit of Grace Cathedral, having been invited by Bishop James Pike and Dean Julian Bartlett. I was struck by how Dr. King’s sermon emphasized the interconnection of all humanity and the role of perception in embracing that connection. “All I am saying is simply this,” he said, “that all life is interrelated. And we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” From this wide-angled, cosmic view he shifts to the individual: “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be— this is the interrelated structure of reality.” Hearing this, I was immediately reminded of that web of connection and vocation to bonding that Maximus the Confessor described, as I shared last week. Yet this connection, which calls us to see one another, must also recognize the limits of our sight, Dr. King continued. “You can never see the me that makes me, me, and I can never see the you that makes you, you…” It is crucial for us to respect the limits of what we can see and know of one another, and indeed to acknowledge the limits of our understanding, our perception of the God who made us all. This limitation is true even as we come understand our created order and the cosmos beyond at greater depth, as our scientific knowledge advances, he said, evoking recent learnings of “interstellar space” (language that cannot but remind me of Prayer C in the 1979 BCP). “None of our vast new knowledge can diminish God one iota,” Dr. King proclaimed, “and so I say this morning, discover [God]. Without [God] all our efforts turn to ashes, and our sunrises into darkest night… but with God we are able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.” Discover God. Discover one another, we might extend this call. Discover creation. “Blessed are you, God of growth and discovery, intones the prayer with which I began from the New Zealand Prayer Book. “Yours is the inspiration that has altered and changed our lives; yours is the power that has brought us to new dangers and opportunities.” As we honor Dr. King’s birthday today and officially tomorrow, his hopeful word calls us deeper into the vocation he embodied so inspiringly. In this time as the call to justice very much continues, the call to respect the dignity, the deep mattering, of Black lives, Brown lives, the lives of all who are marginalized, and the integrity of this very earth, Dr. King proclaims our deeply relational gospel vocation: discover God, discover one another, honor one another, be repairers of the breach, reclaim our call to be bonds of all creation. Dwell with one another. As the New Zealand Prayer Book prayer concludes, “Set us, your new creation, to walk through this new world, watching and learning, loving and trusting, until your kingdom comes.” Amen.