Thank heavens there’s no aptitude test you have to pass before you can follow Jesus. You simply start where you are and invite others to do the same. Here’s a sermon for Epiphany 3A.
COME AND SEE
A Sermon on John 1:29-51
With Allusions to Isaiah 42:1-4 and Acts 17:16-34
Time is going by so quickly that it’s not going to be long before some more of our youth will be going off to college. The admissions process will include taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test—the SAT–and Achievement Tests, submitting transcripts of their grades and recommendations from their teachers, and filling out applications with questions like the following: “Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you,” and “Why this college?” Do this in less than one page.
Getting into the college of one’s choice is often a great concern. “Are my grades good enough?” students wonder. Some take special classes to help them do better on the SAT, and it is not unusual for people to retake the SAT several times hoping to improve their score.
Imagine if Jesus had given his prospective students an entrance exam. Today’s gospel lesson might read like this: Andrew, what does baptism mean? Peter, explain the term, “Lamb of God.” Philip and Nathanael, demonstrate your knowledge of Scripture—the law, the prophets and the writings. Bring me references from John the Baptist, the leader of your local synagogue or other teacher. Tell me what you can offer this company of disciples. I want evidence of loyalty and strength.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order has a section that describes what mature Christian discipleship looks like. It’s quite a long list and here is some of what it includes: proclaiming good news, taking part in the common life and worship of the church, praying and studying scripture, responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, working in the world for peace, justice, freedom and human fulfillment. That’s just some of the list.
Imagine if a congregation turned that into an entrance exam that you have to ace before you can profess your faith, become a disciple, and join the church! Who could get in? Who could ace such a test even after many years of working at it?
But all Jesus asked his first disciples was “What are you looking for?” Two disciples of John the Baptist sought Jesus just because of what John said. They wanted to know more. “Rabbi—teacher—where are you staying?”
Peter came because of his brother, Andrew. Philip wasn’t even looking for Jesus. Jesus saw him first. Nathanael went toward Jesus because Philip piqued his curiosity about Jesus of Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael wondered.
Those first disciples all came to Jesus from different starting points. There was no weighing of applications, no comprehensive exam of knowledge and merits, just an invitation, and a gentle invitation at that. “Come and see,” Jesus said. Whatever their starting point—spiritual hunger, family ties, or just plain curiosity—Jesus invited them to come. Come and see.
Is this not the reality in the church, here at Morton and in every church? People approach Jesus, and his body, the church, from different starting points. Some people come for the music. Some come because they are hungry for inspiration, strength, fellowship and family. Some come just because they have a vague sense that something is wrong, something is missing from their life, that there must be something “more.” Some come seeking healing of some kind, seeking healing, solace for deep, deep wounds of trauma, or sickness. Something to hang on to in the face of crisis, in the face of death. A lot of us come for a lot of those reasons.
Christ Jesus invites one and all to come to his side. There is no admissions test, but how often do we behave as though there were, that we have to get our act all together and we have to ace something before we can be a disciple?
People seeking Jesus are often anxious and hesitant. How would the body of Christ receive them if they knew how incapable they are of acing anything?
I read a powerful story about one such seeker. The pastor of the church where this woman sought Jesus described her this way: “She did not often come to church on Sunday mornings,” the pastor wrote. “She came to my office regularly to talk during the week, but she did not often come to worship. She would quietly come up behind me in the halls during the work week with haunted eyes looking for something, hoping for something. After a few pleasant words, she would usually go away and then I would get on with the busyness of my day.
But, the pastor continued, “One day, with fear in her eyes, she appeared behind me and told me she had written something for me to read. She handed me a crumpled-up piece of paper that was still wet from the sweat of her palms” (Journal for Preachers, Lent 1999, p. 21ff.).
It was a poem about why the woman came to church. She poured out her longing to find rest, freedom, peace, something that she couldn’t even name. But she looked all around at the rest of the congregation singing and smiling, and it appeared as though they had their act all together, their faith put together. They all seemed to have found God, and she couldn’t join in. “’Help me,’ she cried in the poem. They say, ’I believe in God.’ Where is God?” (ibid., p. 21).
This woman was wounded, a bruised reed, a dimly burning wick like those in Isaiah 42, and when everyone else in the church looked so strong, so assured, so knowledgeable, she felt terribly alone, like an outsider with her face pressed to the window, looking in at a party in progress.
It is a story to make you grieve! Everyone comes to church with problems, some with deep wounds, great pain in our bodies or souls. Everyone has so much growing left to do in the Lord Jesus. Why did that woman, and why do we think we have to get it all together, to be ready to ace some test before we can take a place in the company of his disciples? Why are we afraid to let others see us as we all really are: people with a lot to learn?
The truth about us as the people of God is that we are all a mess before God. The fellowship Sunday School class is reading a book that is really making us think. It’s called Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. There’s a chapter called “The Messy Truth About Spirituality.” The author, Adam Hamilton, says, “What I really want you to know is this: There are no secret truths [that some get and some don’t get]. There is no spiritual giant out there who has this figured out while the rest of us are bumbling in the dark.” (p. 141).
Adam also includes a quote from one of the leaders in youth ministry in the United States today, Mike Yaconelli. Mike says, “My life is a mess. After forty-five years of trying to follow Jesus, I keep losing him in the crowded busyness of my life…For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. Yet when I look at the yesterdays of my life, what I see, mostly, is a broken, irregular path littered with mistakes and failure. I want desperately to know God better.” (p. 141).
That’s the truth about the insiders in the church. But somehow, Christ’s church has done something through the centuries to give newcomers to the body reason to fear they might be gossiped about, reason to feel so ashamed of not knowing, not understanding, not being able to come up to standard.
It’s pure and simple sin in the church. Sin! It’s sin that causes folks who have loved Jesus all their life to question the reality of somebody else’s commitment to Christ if it happens suddenly, as at a Billy Graham crusade. It’s sin in the church! It’s sin that causes people who can point to a specific moment when they became a Christian, a precise born-again moment, to question the faith of those who awakened to faith slowly, who cannot point to a particular moment. Who is any disciple to be putting on airs of superiority and warning Jesus that some other person’s faith is deficient? Jesus himself is simply holding out his hand saying, “You come on. Just as you are, come with me. Come and see.” Everybody’s got to start this journey with Jesus somewhere! Just start where you are.
“Come to me! Come see where I stay,” says the Lord Jesus Christ. “Come to me, all you who are curious about me. Come, people like the Athenians, the philosophers and intellectuals whom Paul tried to meet on their own turf. Come, you who don’t know Genesis from Revelation. Come with all your doubts and questions. Everyone, come just as you are. Start where you are! And you that have been on the journey a while, start again where you are!
All of you who are in pain, all who are overwhelmed with what’s wrong or what’s lacking in your life, you come on to me now, Jesus calls. Don’t wait! Come now! Come to me, all you tired people. Come with me, people who feel so alone and different from others you see among my disciples. Trust me. I want you with me. I really do. You come and see! You will see great and greater things!” Come!
Lord, we want to go with you. Lord, we want to say “yes” to your invitation. We want to start and start again. Help us. And help us, Lord, to give your invitation.
I keep coming back to the prayer for the church that we prayed as our call to worship today.
Almighty God, we pray for your blessing on the church in this place. Here may the faithful find salvation, and the careless be awakened. Here may the doubting find faith, and the anxious be encouraged. Here may the tempted find help, and the sorrowful comfort. Here may the weary find rest, and the strong be renewed. Here may the aged find consolation and the young be inspired; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, p. 19, #7.)