January 24, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Before I read you today’s scripture, I want to give you a little biblical background so put on your student hats. Today’s scripture concerns the call of Jesus’ disciples but it is probably not the story that comes to mind when you think of that event. Most of us think of the story in which Jesus comes upon Peter, Andrew, James, and John fishing and he says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” That familiar story is the way that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate Jesus’ call of the disciples and I will preach on that one next week but the gospel of John relates the disciples’ call very differently.
And the story of the disciples’ call is not the only place in which John is very different from the other three gospels. Scholars say that it is likely that the gospel of Mark was the first gospel written and that when Matthew and Luke sat down to write their gospel accounts for their communities, they had a copy of Mark in front of them which is why those three gospels are so similar. The author of the gospel of John, however, while drawing on a lot of the same traditions that had been circulating among Christians for several decades, didn’t have the gospel of Mark in front of him as he wrote. His wording and the details of some of the stories are different from those found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In addition, the author of John loved symbolism and word play, and he wove metaphors throughout his gospel giving some of those stories layers of meaning not found in the more straightforward Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
We will see this in today’s passage in the author’s use of an unnamed disciple who appears throughout the gospel and is referred to only as “the one Jesus loved.” Commentators have speculated on who this unnamed disciple was but some have argued that the unnamed disciple represents the reader, you and me. The scholar Martin L. Smith writes, “Perhaps the disciple is never named…. so that we can more easily accept that he bears witness to an intimacy [with Christ] that is meant for each one of us.”
This unnamed disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, the one who is possibly in the gospel on our behalf so that we might experience the intimacy of Christ’s ministry through the disciple’s eyes, is the first disciple in the gospel of John to be called to ministry with Jesus. Listen to John’s account of the call of the disciples and see yourself in him.
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!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).New Revised Standard Version
Two of John the Baptist’s followers are hanging out with him when Jesus walks by. John the Baptist says to them pointing at Jesus, “Look, here is the lamb of God,” which was for John the Baptist a poor marketing move because no sooner are the words out of his mouth than his two followers abandon him and take off after Jesus. Jesus hears them tagging along behind and turns to them to ask, “What are you looking for?”
What a question: “What are you looking for?” Why are you here? Why are you chasing after Jesus? What do you hope to find in him? What are you looking for?
The two men are taken aback by this question and perhaps not ready to plumb the depth of their spiritual need, they respond in stuttering embarrassment, “Umm, we are just wondering where you are staying.” Jesus smiles and says, “Come and see.”
Nothing Jesus says in the gospel of John is straight forward. Not his question — what are you looking for? — nor his summons to, “Come and see.” In those three words, Jesus offers an invitation not to check out the rooms at the local inn, but to come and see a new way of being, a new way of living. What are you looking for? Well, come and see, Jesus says to us. Come and see what I am all about. I have come to bring light in the darkness; to open the eyes of the blind; to illuminate the world with my truth. Come and see, and discover new life in the seeing.
In these three words, the author of the gospel sets up the theme for everything that is to follow. Jesus’ call in the gospel of John is a call to a new way of seeing and the first to receive that call are Andrew and another man who is never named. By remaining anonymous, the author of the gospel invites us to imagine that we are that disciple; that we are called to walk with Jesus and see the world as he sees it. And from that first day, Jesus shows his disciples — and shows us — a life full of possibility. Jesus changes ordinary water into deep bodied wine; he heals the sick; he helps the paralyzed to their feet; he feeds 5000 people with a few fish and loaves of bread. He shows his disciples the remarkable power of God’s love and the disciples are captivated. Never have they seen such things; never have they thought that such life was possible. They declare their loyalty to Jesus and more men and women begin to follow him. The number of disciples increases and the crowds flock to him because who doesn’t want a life full of miracle and triumph? Jesus is a hit; everyone wants this life he promises.
But then things take a dark turn. Now when Jesus says, “Come and see,” he takes the disciples not to parties where the wine is flowing but into the cesspool of human society. He walks up to a man whose leprosy has rotted away his face and limbs, and, as the disciples wince in disgust, Jesus reaches out to touch the man’s diseased hand.
“Come and see,” he calls, and strides into the street where prostitutes sell their bodies to survive, where tax collectors cheat the people because they were cheated first by corrupt government officials. The disciples want to push the sinners and the thieves away but Jesus welcomes them into his company as friends. (1)
“Come and see,” he calls to his disciples — to us — and he walks all the way to Golgotha where the cruelty of the state and the pride of the religious authorities drive nails into his hands and feet in brutal execution.
“We don’t want to see this!” the disciples cry out, and they run away in terror and grief. They were excited to hear the good news as long as it was all good for them, as long as the world Jesus was showing them was a rosy pink world of daisies and sunshine, but when Jesus opened their eyes to the ugliness of the human heart, they turned away. Only one disciple stayed through to the end, the gospel of John says, the disciple without a name; the disciple who is you.
Will you be that unnamed disciple and stay with Jesus even when he calls you to open your eyes to the ugliness of the human heart and to the grief and pain of human cruelty, or will you cry out with the others, “Why do I have to see this?” and then abandon the one who has promised you salvation?
Why must we see it? Why can’t we follow a gospel that is all reward and no cost? Why can’t we spend the church budget on gilded roofs and ignore the poor clamoring at our doors? Why doesn’t the minister just preach about heavenly rewards in the sweet by and by so that we can block out the sounds of suffering in the bitter here and now? Why did Jesus — why does Jesus — force us to open our eyes to the ugliness and pain of the world that we would rather not see?
Let me tell you a story about the cost and the promise of having our eyes opened.
Many years ago, when my niece Naomi was in first grade, my sister Wendy got a call from Naomi’s teacher.
“I wanted you to know that Naomi had a rough day today,” the teacher told Wendy. “In preparation for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day next week, I told the story of Dr. King’s life. After the lesson, we all went on to the next activity but I noticed that Naomi wasn’t crayoning with the other children. She was sitting silently at her desk, tears rolling down her cheeks. When I asked Naomi what was wrong, she looked up at me and said, ‘I’m sad because they killed Dr. King.’”
Until that moment, Naomi’s world was that of a typical six year old’s, safe and sheltered by the love of her family where the worst that ever happened was discovering there would be broccoli at dinner. Death was a new thought; and hatred unheard of.
Naomi’s teacher warned Wendy that there were more lessons to go, and sure enough, as Naomi learned about the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, her sheltered world was rocked. On Tuesday, she came home in bewilderment to say to her mother and father, “Did you know that they used to make Black people sit in the back of the bus and they weren’t allowed to drink from the same drinking fountains as White people?” On Wednesday, she reported with amazement that restaurant owners had once prohibited people of color from sitting at their tables. And then on Thursday, the cruelty of segregation which had baffled Naomi struck her with full force when the class heard the story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby Bridges was the little African-American girl who had dared to walk before a raging crowd of White protestors to integrate the elementary school. Ruby went right to Naomi’s heart as she heard of how the brave six year old — a little girl the same age as Naomi — endured the flashing of reporter’s cameras, the sight of policemen holding back the mob, signs condemning her, and grown men and women pouring curses on her small head — how she endured it all to walk resolutely up the steps of the all-White elementary school and then, at the top of the steps how she turned and prayed for those who hated her before finally entering the building.
At the tender age of six, Naomi’s eyes were opened to the reality of human bigotry, cruelty, segregation, and hurt, but they were also opened to something even more powerful.
On the last night of that traumatic week, Wendy stopped by Naomi’s room to tuck her into bed. Naomi’s eyes were closed and at first Wendy thought she was sleeping, but as she went to leave, Naomi opened her eyes and said, “Do you know what I’m doing, Mommy?”
“No, what are you doing?” Wendy asked.
“I’m praying for Dr. King and for Ruby Bridges and for all the mean people in the world. That’s what Ruby Bridges did — that’s how come she was so brave.”
Jesus says, “Come and see,” and opens his disciples’ eyes to the worst that people can do to one another. He shows them bigotry and apathy and self-righteousness and the utter cruelty of the cross, but he also shows them that the cross is not the end of the story. The gospel ends not in death but in resurrection. Human cruelty is not the last word; the last word is the powerful healing word of God’s love. When the resurrected Jesus meets Mary weeping at the tomb, he says to her, “Who are you looking for?” bringing us back to the very beginning of our call, and as we look upon the man who has risen victorious over the worst that the world could do to him, we know, this is what we are looking for; the risen Christ is who we are looking for; this power to sustain life in the midst of death and hope when we were tempted to despair; this is what we are looking for. Naomi couldn’t understand the power of faith until she had first confronted and understood the power of cruelty; our eyes cannot be opened to the true salvation of God’s persistent triumphant love if we close our eyes to the suffering that makes salvation necessary. A Savior who brings wealth and prosperity to comfortable people is not much of a Savior, but a Savior who walks right into the midst of our suffering to embrace withered flesh and bring healing to broken hearts, to sit in prison cells bringing a word of hope, to hold the hand of a dying woman to bring her comfort, to teach us the courage to forgive and the power of prayer in the face of one’s enemies, that is to discover true salvation because here is a Savior who can turn our tears into laughter, who can lift us when we have fallen, who can heal us when we are broken into pieces, who has taken on the worst of that life can give out in order to show us the best of life with the one who saves us.
“What are you looking for?” Christ asks, and then he holds out his hand to you and says, “Come and see.”
1. Though most of the encounters I describe here are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all four gospels turn toward the cross about half way through.