The Holy Spark of Recognition: A sermon for First Parish of Newbury

Text:  John 1:29-42

 29The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ’He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; 36and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

To you, the church of God which is here at Newbury, called to be holy together with all those who in every place call on the name of their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Have you ever gone someplace to meet a stranger?  How did that work for you? A few years ago I made an appointment to meet up with a man I hadn’t seen since we were both ten years old. Our parents were good friends. We agreed to meet in a certain subway station in a city – “Rob, I’ll see you near the ticket booth,” I said.

I wrote his name on a piece of cardboard. I stood there in the station holding it up. It was a bit awkward; people were looking at me like I was, maybe, a limo driver sent to collect a wealthy man, but in the subway? And with no limo-driver’s hat?

At any rate, the sign proved useless.  My old friend recognized me as soon as he saw me, and I recognized him. Something clicked, and then it was hugs and “Hi!” It was one of those little miracles of human relationships. At least neither of us said, “you haven’t changed a bit!” That would have been a lie. We’re both, umm, big guys, and he’s bald now.

Look at this Gospel reading. It’s all about people recognizing each other. It’s all about these miracles of human relationships.

John the Baptist gathered a crowd. It must have been like a city subway station. All kinds of people with all kinds of plans were standing around anxiously, jostling each other for position, waiting for some kind of divine train to come and carry them off to someplace better, someplace they wanted to go. I suppose some of them thought John himself would drive the train to glory.

If it was like any subway station I’ve seen, there were some pigeons (doves) flapping around too. In the middle of this confused crowd, John recognized Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John, being a man full of holy understanding, was able to explain how that miracle of recognition happened for him. “I didn’t know him when he came to me to be baptized, but the Spirit came on him like a dove from above, and the Divine voice told me who he was.” OK. John’s process of recognition is spelled out for us.

There’s more recognition. The two disciples recognized Jesus as a teacher, a source of wisdom: “Rabbi!”

Jesus recognized Andrew’s brother Simon, and knew immediately to name him Peter – the rock. The miracle of recognition here was this: Jesus knew this man Simon by sight: he knew this was the rock upon which his ministry would be built. Somehow, as soon as these two caught sight of each other they knew they were to work together.  Simon Peter was by no means a perfect man, not even close. With Gospel hindsight we know he would later deny Jesus three times overnight. Still, somehow Jesus recognized in that moment he was the right person for the job.

In other Gospel accounts we hear Jesus saying to those fishermen, “come and follow me and I will teach you to fish for people.”  Amazingly, they did it: they walked away from their nets and followed him. Why? Mark, Luke, and Matthew leave it as a mystery. In those Gospels we’re left to guess why they followed Jesus. They leave you and me wondering what WE would do.

What if a stranger came up to you while you were at work and said, “come and follow me.”  Would you follow? If somebody you love came to you asking for advice, saying “should I follow this person?” how would you answer?

Those are hard question for us to ask ourselves, because we’d say, “no, be careful of strangers asking you to go with them.” We suspect … we ourselves would not lay down our tools, walk off our jobs, and follow.  And we suspect  …  our refusal to follow would somehow prove that we’re not worthy of God’s love. We suspect …  our refusal would prove you and I are even more imperfect people than Peter. Ouch. How far away from us is the realm of God?

Coming back here to John’s Gospel we get a hint of why the disciples followed: something clicked. Maybe for Simon it wasn’t as blatant as a dove descending from heaven, but in the moment of meeting he caught a spark of God’s grace. He recognized Jesus, and Jesus recognized him.

That’s the spark of grace we know. It’s like the spark that touched me and Rob when we saw each other in that subway station. In our lives it’s important for us to be able to recognize and accept little sparks of God’s grace. John the gospel-writer gives us hints about what those little sparks might look like. In our confusing world his hints come in handy.

Later in John’s narrative,  Jesus will say

  1. I am the bread of life,
  2. I am the light of the world,
  3. I am the good shepherd,
  4. I am resurrection and I am life,
  5. I am the way, the truth, and the life,
  6. I am the one true vine and you are the branches.

These wonderful statements offer us nourishment, clarity, comfort, life, and strong relationships. They offer us what our ancestors called “salvation:” the promise of life in community with each other and with God.  And all these statements spring from the spark of grace in recognition.

But look, the spark’s not magic. We need to be ready for it: if we’re not paying attention we may not notice it. And when it touches us we need to be able to respond.

This Gospel reading prepares us for the spark. Let’s take a careful look at a couple of Gospel verses: maybe they’ll help us be ready for that spark when it comes.

37The two disciples heard [John] say [Behold, the Lamb of God], and they followed Jesus. 38Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.”

Here, in these verses, we can learn a lot about the spark and how it might work for us. Please indulge me, but I must put on my Bible scholar’s academic hood here. I fear our English translation is a little weak, and doesn’t do justice to this Gospel conversation.

they followed Jesus.  ηκολουθησαν This is disciple’s kind of following. And please notice, they did it together: this was a shared kind of following, plural, not just a solitary thing. It’s all about community – “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.”

38Jesus turned, and saw them following

“turned”  στραφεις  This means “turned himself around”, with his whole body, not just “turned his head over his shoulder.”

“saw”  θεασαμενος  is an intense word. The Biblical Greek dictionary defines it as “look intently, take in a sight with the eyes, with the implication that the looker is especially impressed.”

So, let’s read “Jesus turned and saw them following” as

“Jesus stopped and turned toward his two followers and gazed deeply at them.”

He said: What do you seek?  τι ζητειτε   The word seek is defined strive for or “devote serious effort to realizing a desire.”

So it’s not (casually) “hey, whaddya want” but  (intently ) “What do you yearn for?”

They replied addressing Jesus as “Rabbi,” This was a term of great respect, especially for illiterate first-century fishermen. Keep in mind that Rabbinic Judaism had not yet developed, so “rabbi” wasn’t yet a job description.

“where are you staying?”  Doesn’t this sound strange in English? If somebody asked you that, you might answer “at my brother-in-law’s place down by the lower green.”  But the Gospel word staying μενεις  means more than just sleeping overnight someplace. It has a deep sense of permanence. It means abiding, in the sense of the old song, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”  In Greek it echoes the Baptist’s words, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it abided upon Jesus.”

Jesus replied, “Come and see.”  Those words are as plain in Greek as they are in English. Come and see!

So let’s reread these verses. Let’s try to slow down their action and get closer to the heart of their meaning.

The two followed Jesus as his disciples. 38Jesus stopped and turned toward them. He faced them, gazed deeply at them, and said to them, “What do you yearn for?” And they said to him, “Teacher, where do you abide?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.”    They came and saw where he abided, and they abided with him that day.

Following. What do you yearn for?  Where do you abide?  Come and see! They came and saw and abided with him.  (Thank you for indulging my scholarly moment. I will stop now.)

The point is this: the graceful spark of recognition allows our relationships to start and to continue.

It comes to us when we’re ready for it. Relationships blossom for those who are prepared for the spark to light our hearts on fire. For those of us who are ready, the spark of grace can transform us.  John the gospel-writer spelled out some of the preparation for grace and the response to grace.

The great gift of the spark of recognition comes wrapped in all these things:

  • Following, together (it’s usually not solitary).
  • Full attention. The questions: what do you yearn for?
  • Where are you staying?
  • the invitation – come and see.
  • The acceptance: They went, saw stayed.

In my daily life I get offered lots of relationships. I suspect the same is true for you. People sometimes ask to be our facebook “friend.” Or they ask us to “follow” them on twitter. People come to my door or send me letters asking me to support their causes, usually by giving them, well, cash money. Television commercials try to spark my trust and offer me their little bit of salvation, in the form of some drink of beer or miracle drug or an island in the sun or whatever. A sports franchise tries to enlist my loyalty as a citizen of Red Sox Nation … and I do fall for that one, year after year, after year.

Many of those offered relationships are shallow. Now shallow relationships are fine. Not every relationship starts with “Look! The lamb of God!”  It’s OK to give a bag of food to a cranky one-time visitor to the food pantry. It’s OK to say a heartfelt “thanks” to a stranger who helps you in some way.  Who knows? Maybe the graceful spark will catch a heart on fire in one of those shallow relationships, and it will become deep.

Still, many of us come to church because we want relationships that aren’t quite so shallow as those. We hope to hear the question “what do you yearn for?” from Jesus and from one another.  We hope to hear the invitation “come and see” from each other and from the almighty.  And we hope to practice asking, answering, and following. Let’s do that, for each other and the world. We can do it without thumping our Greek dictionaries.

It’s my prayer that you’ll ask a stranger this week, “how are you doing?” and listen to the answer. It’s my prayer that somebody will ask you that question, and listen to your answer. Because in those questions and answers, we run the risk of recognizing the spark Jesus’s invitation.  “Come and see!” Let’s take that risk.

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