An Open-Ended Invitation

Sermon preached for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Psalm 40:1-11

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.

Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.

 

John 1:35-42

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).

***

I want you to imagine the following scenario: you receive a letter at your house. It’s postmarked from here in town, but there’s no return address. Inside is a single sheet of white paper. On the paper is written an address, a day, and a time. That’s it. Just a where and a when. For argument’s sake, let’s say Devou Park, Feb. 18th at 2 o’clock.

How many of you would toss the card and forget about it?

How many of you would try to figure out more about it? Maybe compare the handwriting with notes from your friends, or call up Covington Parks and Rec, or see if your neighbors got the same card? How many of you might go, but only if you can find some more information about it?

And how many of you would simply show up, just to see what it’s all about?

I know I belong in the research category—but that even if I could find out more about this event, the way the invitation was made, I probably wouldn’t go. I don’t care for cryptic. I like to have a sense of what I’m getting myself into. I grew up in the age of Google, and, to borrow a phrase, I like to know before I go. As much as I might want to solve the mystery of the invitation, I know I’m a lot braver when researching on the internet or in the library than showing up in person.

Not everyone shares this trait. I know lots of folks—some of you raised your hand already—who love surprise adventures. These are the folks who feel knowing too much beforehand spoils things. They might be excited by this kind of invitation—because whatever happens, it’s bound to be interesting, with such an intriguing start.

Now, neither way is necessarily a better way of being in the world—the researchers probably save themselves some heartache but miss some opportunities, and the adventurers get to do more but may end up in trouble for it. But I have to think that today’s gospel introduces us to three guys who were very much the adventurer type. There’s just no other accounting for how our scripture starts today.

Three guys are standing together. One points to a fourth and says, “Look—that’s the lamb of God!” And the other two, hearing this, go follow him.

There’s no fanfare. No discussion, no internal debate. No making plans or checking that the doors are locked and the stove is turned off. They just hear “this is the lamb of God” and they follow.

To be honest, I don’t think they know what they’re in for. I mean, “look—that’s the lamb of God” is a beautiful and powerful and theologically rich metaphor for those of who know this story ends on the cross, but if you didn’t know that? If you just heard your teacher call this other guy God’s Lamb? It doesn’t exactly tell you what to expect.

But they still follow him, because they’re impressed with John, and John is impressed with Jesus, and if you’ve got a hero, you follow their heroes too. And when they follow, they aren’t thinking forever. They’re just going to investigate, to see what God’s Lamb is up to in the Galilee.

Jesus notices. He notices that they’re following him, and I think he notices too that they don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into. He even asks them—“what are you looking for?” And it’s a question I think we all wrestle with, what is it that we’re looking for when we follow Jesus? Who is it we hope we’ll see when he turns around? Are we just curious for curiosity’s sake, because someone else seems to think he’s worthwhile, or is there something deeper we hope to satisfy, some missing piece we’re hoping to find?

I wonder what we would say—what I would say—if Jesus came in those back doors today and asked us this question: “what are you looking for?” Love, kindness? Acceptance? Purpose? Challenge? Forgiveness? Approval? Balance? Would we even have a name for it?

If we don’t have a good answer, we aren’t alone. John’s disciples employ the ancient diversion tactic: they answer Jesus’ question with a question. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” which honestly, given that they’ve been following the guy, is starting to sound a little stalkerish, but in Jesus’ time traveling rabbis would set up shop at the local synagogue or a patron’s house and teach for a few days. The disciples just want to hear Jesus’ lectures while he’s in town. After all, if he’s the lamb of God, he’s probably pretty good. And it’s only a few days out of their schedule.

At this point, you’d think Jesus would tell them where he was staying, and maybe give them directions. But he doesn’t. He just says “come and see.”

“Come and see.”

And they do—they go with him—which is why I think these first two disciples, Andrew and the other one, are the adventurous type. “Come and see” has to be the vaguest possible response to what seems like a very clear and simple question. But you almost get the sense that it’s this open-endedness that captures their attention, and keeps it captured for three years.

Come and see. It’s not really an answer at all. But it is a pretty amazing invitation.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to become a disciple of Jesus. Disciple is one of those church words we throw around so much that it begins to lose its shape. Literally, of course, disciple means student, but to be a disciple is more than just to study Jesus or to know about Jesus. After all, there are plenty of excellent scholars of Christianity who are also committed atheists or people of other faiths. Being a disciple means being part of a relationship—not just learning about the teacher, but learning from the teacher. Being Jesus’ disciple means coming to know Jesus. It means answering the invitation to come and see what he’s up to in your life, in the church, in the world.

As someone who grew up in the church, I am fascinated by the stories of folks who came to discipleship later on. My own formation as a disciple happened much the same way as learning to speak or read—somewhat organic and somewhat taught, but without much fanfare or even, dare I say, choice. I am aware that much of the reason I am Christian, and Presbyterian to boot, is because my parents were, and while I have made the conscious choice to remain so, and to dedicate my life to this way of practicing my faith, I did not come from a blank slate.

But for the folks who do come at faith fresh—how does one become a disciple? Become a Christian? Different traditions have different answers. At the church I attended in seminary, someone, probably from one of the outside groups who used the building, used to leave tracts in the women’s restroom. The last page of the tract was always the sinner’s prayer, the one about acknowledging your sin and accepting Jesus as your lord and savior, with the instructions that if you just prayed that prayer you’d be all set. I was never sure if I was impressed or irritated at the chutzpah needed to leave a tract in a church bathroom, but I am pretty sure that one prayer, prayed once, does not a disciple make. Discipleship is a journey, not a pitstop.

On the whole, Presbyterians are not given to tracts, but we do love our books. If you ask one of our more fundamentalist siblings how to become a disciple, you might get an 8 page booklet, complete with cartoons. Ask a Presbyterian pastor, and we’re likely to load you up with two translations of the Bible, six commentaries, a theology primer, several memoirs and monographs, and maybe a couple of conference recommendations thrown in for good measure. If what you want to do is research our faith and know about it—and there is a lot of value in that—we are very well equipped.

But what I have learned, in listening to stories from friends who have come to faith after childhood, or come to a radically different faith than the one of their childhood, is that they are rarely moved by someone with all the answers. The more a pastor had an answer for all their questions, the less they trusted her or him. What made the difference was finding someone who would listen to their questions. I am reminded of the words of the Psalm we read this morning: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” In starting down a new road of faith, they found an open ear of more use than a flapping jaw. And partially I think that’s because in listening to others we model for others how to listen to God. If we learn to keep our ears open to other people’s questions, we might hear in them the questions God wants us to be asking, too.

Discipleship starts not with a set of rules and roadmaps but with a set of questions: what should I be doing with my gifts here on earth? am I loved? how do I believe in God when there is so much pain? what am I looking for? Jesus, where are you staying, so I can catch up with you?

And to all those questions, Jesus smiles and says, “come and see,” and I hope we can learn to be more like Jesus, less anxious about having all the answers and more comfortable with simply offering invitations to join us as we figure it out together. I hope we’ll see curiosity and questioning as a crucial part of being a disciple, not as a roadblock to it. But most of all I hope we’ll be willing to follow Jesus even with all our questions and confusion, not needing to know exactly where we’re going or have all our research done beforehand.

For someone with my personality, that’s a scary prospect. Jesus might always take me somewhere I didn’t intend to go. In fact, I can almost bet on it. But this is the call to discipleship: come and see. Come be part of the adventure.

Andrew and his friend did not know where this journey would take them. They did not know that the next three years of their life were spoken for in just a few quick minutes. They could not know that three years later they would be sitting in an upper room listening to Jesus be their rabbi for the last time. But I wonder if they remembered the first question they ever asked him: rabbi, where are you staying?

Because there, in that upper room—chapter 15 of John, if you’re playing along at home—when Jesus is giving them their final lessons in discipleship, Jesus says this: abide in me, and I will abide in you. That’s how we usually hear it, but it’s the same verb in the Greek as stay—meno, like remain.

Rabbi, where are you staying? they ask, right at the start.

And at the end, he finally gives them an answer. “Stay in me, and I’ll stay in you.”

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“In you.”

We do not need all the answers before we begin, or indeed at any point along the journey. We don’t need to know where we’re going. We don’t need to have every eventuality planned for. And if we were on our own, that would be terrifying. If I was on my own on this discipleship road, not knowing what’s around the corner would scare the heck out of me.

But I believe that I do not walk alone. I believe that Jesus stays with me.

And that gives me courage to stay with him.

Remember our imaginary invitation from earlier? Now imagine that the same envelope arrives at your mailbox. No return address, no recognizable handwriting. And inside, this time, not even a time and place, but just two lines:

Lamb of God.
Come and see.

Would you toss it in the trash? Or would you go see what it was all about?

Amen.

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