Knowing and Known By Jesus. A Sermon For the Second Sunday of Epiphany (Yr A), Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 15 January, 2023.
Readings – Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
38When 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?’ (John 1.38)
Sometimes these days, when I think about Covid and think that it might be over, I feel a bit like the prairie dogs I used to see in Alberta, when they pop out of their burrows and look around anxiously. Are we done? Are we back to normal? (It doesn’t help that we now hear about a new variant called Kraken!).
As far as church goes, as we reflect on the last two and a half years, we can at least take comfort that we learned a few things. We learned a lot about technology and live-streaming (full marks to this church!). We learned a lot about the importance of inspirational leadership, thanks in part to Bishop Andrew and his folksy but faithful Friday emails to the Diocese. We learned, the hard way, about our own fragility, as practically every church in the Diocese struggles to recover from deficits and diminished offerings.
I think most of all we learned how important community was. Churches, especially larger ones, sometimes divided into cliques or tribes – the early service vs the later one, the old prayerbook vs BAS, and so on. All that went away during Covid and we were hungry just to be with one another, like survivors of a shipwreck who run into one another on some island. During the second shutdown in early 2022, when I was interim at another church, I decided that we would livestream our service rather than trying to do them by Zoom.
I had my reasons for this – I’d spent a lot of learning how to livestream, people could hear the organist, I didn’t really like preaching on Zoom – but I realized soon I’d made a mistake. The congregation loved their Zoom times. They loved visiting with one another, so much so that it was hard to get them shut up for the service. And honestly, could you blame them? I want Morning Prayer on Zoom, said almost no one ever! In short, people wanted the community that church provides because people, especially older people, are often lonely.
Even before Covid, I think we in the developed world realized that perhaps the greatest scourge of our age is loneliness. In 2018, an article in The Economist magazine described loneliness “as perceived social isolation, a feeling of not having the social contacts one would like”.
Often loneliness is associated with particular groups, such as the elderly, immigrants, or transient workers, but it’s also seen as a more general problem. Age UK, a charity, found that for 41% of Britons over 65, their only source of company was a pet or the television. A 2010 study found that 35% of Americans over age 45 felt lonely. In Japan there is a word, hikikomori, for the half million people who shut themselves up in their houses for months at a time and who eat alone. Our Thursdays CO3 gatherings and our Community Suppers offer warmth and food, but are also aimed at loneliness – the offer a chance to be with other people and talk to them.
Churches can (and should!) offer connection and community to the lonely, the elderly, and the forgotten, but so do other places. The Collingwood Legion is just one place in town that offers euchre, lunches, and companionship. The one unique thing that churches can offer is Jesus – if we’re bold enough to be up front about who we are as his followers. Sometimes our natural Anglican diffidence about evangelism means that we shyly veil Jesus behind words like “loving”, “inclusive”, and “welcoming”. The last All Saints mission statement was big on those words but shy on Jesus, and I’m not sure the name Jesus can actually be found on our website, which is odd, because we talk about him a lot on Sundays.
It’s thus helpful that we can spend another Sunday in the company of John the Baptist, because John knows who Jesus is and he isn’t shy in telling people about him. In our gospel today John says, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (Jn 1:34). In fact, just before Jesus appears, in this very dense first chapter of John’s very dense gospel, John is quizzed by the priests and Levites about what he’s all about, and he says to them “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (John 1:26). Ironically, the priests and Levites don’t even understand who John is, whether he’s the Messiah, or a prophet, and he says, no, I’m just a guy pointing to Jesus (Jn 1:19-23).
In many ways, John the Baptist shows us what the church at its best should do in a world that increasingly does not know Jesus First, he has a lot to say about Jesus because he is absolutely sure of who Jesus is. “[T]his is the Son of God” he says, pointing to Jesus’ identity, and twice he says “here is the Lamb of God” which points to Jesus’ obedience to God and his willingness to sacrifice himself to save us from sin and death.
Moreover, John does not seek his own benefit. He has his own disciples, his own students, but he sets them free to follow Jesus. As John says later on, Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3.30). The church exists not for its own glory, and it does not seek members to maintain the institution (which is often our motive when we talk of church growth). Rather, the church exists so that people may discover who Jesus is.
It’s ironic that people gravitate to conspiracy theories like Q Anon that have no truth to them, whereas Jesus is not some arcane body of knowledge to be discovered, nor is he some unapproachable celebrity who has to be stalked. Jesus wants to be known. When John’s disciples meet he, Jesus initiates the meeting: ”When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ (Jn 1.38). And that question, “What are you looking for”, is surely the greatest question that people are waiting to be asked, and that brings me back to the idea of loneliness.
When we the church think about outreach what we have to offer, we think about all sorts of things that are really secondary. We think, we can offer a beautiful building, or a certain kind of music, or moral guidance, or programs, or theology, or whatever. What if the greatest thing we can offer is an introduction to Jesus, to Jesus as God who wants to be known, who wants to come alongside us and tell us that we’re loved and we’re not alone? That’s one the reasons why I love our Thursday morning gathering, because as I said earlier it’s a way to show God’s love to the lonely.
“What are you looking for”? Jesus genuinely wants to know our answers to that question. Our immediate answers may be obvious ones according to the rule of this world – health, wealth, strength, security. However, it may be that we can only think about consider better answers when we spend time with Jesus and learn to see the Kingdom of God as Jesus sees it. Learning to think of better answers to Jesus’ question may take time.
“They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” (Jn 1.38-39). The invitation to spend time with Jesus is the core invitation of the church. It’s not an invitation to self-righteousness, or an invitation to secret knowledge or some superior dogma. It’s not an invitation to participate in one side or the other of the culture wars.
Rather, it’s an invitation to spend time with Jesus the rabbi/teacher and to eat, laugh, and learn with fellow students of the rabbi. It’s an open-ended process that addresses the issue of loneliness in two ways. The first is the community, fellowship, or koinonia of the church that says “we seek truth and goodness together, and we’re glad you’re with us”.
The second, more profound way that the church can answer the problem of loneliness is, and I’ll say this again, by introducing people to Jesus. Jesus is not the remote, transcendent God. Jesus is the immanent, incarnate God, the God who seeks to dwell among us, which is the first and greatest message of John’s gospel (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”). And in spending time listening to this Word and learning how to speak the language of the faith, we can be led to better answers.
What are you looking for?’ (Jn 1.38). One can imagine many good answers to this question: forgiveness, a tender heart, courage to forgive another, strength for the day, peace, serenity, grace to face age and adversity – these are just some of the things Jesus will grant us. But the best thing that Jesus offers, I think, is the promise that we will not walk alone. Jesus embodies the presence of God promised by the psalmist , so that even if and when we walk “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23.4) we are never alone.
All of this begins with the simple invitation “come”. Come be with us. Come and ask questions. Come and learn. Come and rest. Come and meet Jesus. Come and know that you’re loved. Come and know that your life has meaning and purpose and does not end with death. For really, the church’s message is same as what Andrew says to Simon: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41). Amen.