When I was in college, the class that had the most profound influence on my life was a Buddhism class. To be honest, I don’t know why I signed up for it except that I’m sure it fulfilled one of the general requirements and fit in my Freshman schedule. I was a Baptist, newly engaged, almost 19, and an English major. I wasn’t necessarily doing everything by the book, but I was ticking off those things on my life’s to-do list.
One day at the end of one of the Buddhism classes, during which I had asked a question about something, the professor met me at the bottom of the steps in the small classroom auditorium. Looking directly in my eyes, he asked me,
“Where do you come from?”
He asked it slowly and deliberately, like it meant more than what he was simply saying, but there was another student nearby. I needed to get to whatever was next, so I just replied quickly, “Bentonville? In Northwest Arkansas?”–questioningly in case he wasn’t familiar with the state’s geography or in case that wasn’t really what he was asking.
“Where do you come from?” he asked again intently. I didn’t get it. I glanced at the other student who was smiling. He probably got it, but I was clueless. In the rush that is the end of class, other students with hopefully more understandable questions took my place, and I politely and quickly left, still wondering. I told him where I was from. What else could it possibly mean?
John doesn’t give us a description of Jesus’s baptism, how the dove descended or the voice came from heaven. What he gives us is his testimony, testimony that “the Spirit descend(ed) from heaven like a dove” and that “the one who sent (him) to baptize with water said to (him), ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” [The one who sent him, of course, is God (from 1:6).] I imagine John’s utter excitement when he sees Jesus in the flesh, all the Truth brought to life. I imagine his, “Look, guys! There he is! The Son of God!!” If you’ve ever seen a celebrity somewhere unexpectedly and no one really believed you until they saw for themselves, I figure it’s something akin to that feeling. But this isn’t Julia Roberts or George Clooney. This is the Lamb of God.
Do you think Andrew and his buddy follow Jesus respectfully because what John said makes complete, rational sense? Are they genuinely curious about this man John seems so absolutely certain about, or are they following like would-be bullies? I can’t help but think of Jesus walking past, knowing their hearts, waiting for them to choose to follow. When he turns, they all stop in their tracks, looking intently at one another. And Jesus, with full presence of Spirit, asked the two who followed, “What are you looking for?”
Maybe caught a bit off-guard, they fall back on pleasantries, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” That sounds so much better than saying, “Well, we’re just looking to see if John’s as crazy as he sounds.” Because surely Jesus couldn’t be the one foretold, the Messiah himself? Have you ever done that? Been thinking about something but asked or said something entirely different to mask your true thoughts? It’s awkward and rarely convincing in most cases. Can you imagine trying to pull it off in front of Jesus? Fortunately, Jesus invites the budding disciples to “Come and see” where he’s staying, and they remain with him a while. As they remained with him, the more they came to believe in him. The longer they stayed in his presence, the more assured they were that they had found what they were looking for. They believed enough that they could give their own testimony, as Andrew did when recruiting his brother: “Simon, we’ve found the Messiah!” They hadn’t even given voice to what they were looking for until then. Up to that point, Jesus was showing them who he was by letting them abide in his presence. Being with him, don’t you know they felt the dawning of understanding, the first glimpse that this was the promised deliverer?
Hoping that we’ll stay with him, too, Jesus asks us today,
“What are you looking for?”
And the beautiful thing is that we don’t have to know specifically. We can feel clueless. Maybe we’re looking for the faith–however imperfect it may be–of the apostles. Maybe we’re looking for an occasion for our own testimony, an encounter with the Almighty that transforms our life and gives us a clear heading. Maybe we’re looking for a glimmer of light and hope that will bring us into a truly unified country. Whatever it is, Jesus knows if we draw close to him, we’ll find what we seek. Like a wise teacher, he tells us,
“Come and see.”
We have to understand, though, that just being with Jesus won’t be all sunshine and rainbows. We can pray all day long, “Jesus, I want to be happy; Jesus, I want all my friends and loved ones to be healed; Jesus, if I had just a little more money, life would be so much better . . ., and I promise I’ll give more to the church.” Jesus doesn’t promise that walking with him will lead to happiness and success as we understand it: those things are fleeting. Jesus does, however, mention joy and being made complete, being blessed in the kingdom of heaven–not #blessed on our license plates or social media statuses–being truly blessed when the world is turned upside down … and the leader of our hearts and souls and minds is our Lord and Savior … and we show genuine love for God, our neighbor, and ourselves. People wouldn’t have to wonder who’s “really” Christian then, would they? The song says, “They will know we are Christian by our LOVE.”
What about others looking to us?
What do we tell others who might be inclined to follow us because they see we have something they want, too? I have to admit, I find myself prepping people at the jail for their first experience of our church, our community here in this building. They love what they experience outside these walls and inside theirs at the detention center. “What church is it, again? The Episcopal Church?” they ask. I make sure they know where we are.
But what happens between there and here? After working to build up their worth behind bars, they get released back into the world that broke them in the first place. If they make it into our pews, how do we receive them? “We start our services in silence mainly,” I tell them. “People are going to be dressed up, but not everybody. The choir sits in the back couple of pews. Everything is in the bulletin, but feel free to just watch. We have coffee between services most Sundays…” I wonder if I’ve already scared them from coming in the first place; I’m already apologizing for their first experience.
I should take my cues from Jesus and do like CB does, telling folks to just “Come and See.” If and when others, the stranger, our neighbor comes, we welcome them and remain with them with humble, open hearts. Jesus gave us the best evangelical advice we didn’t know we were asking for. Just “come and see.” Just stay with Jesus a while, and he’ll show us our heart’s deepest yearning. He didn’t say WE would know what that was, but He does. “Abide in me,” doesn’t he say later in John?
We’re not here to boost our membership or pay off mortgages or have the most beautiful stained glass in town (though those things are nice, right?). We’re here to draw close to the Lord and share that Good News to the world. If we’ve ever come close to God, we’ve been touched by the Light and Love of the grace of God, and Spirit lingers with us. And since Jesus already came into the world for us all, we’ve been commissioned to bear that light not to our own loved ones, not just to our nation, but to the world. The least we can do is share it with our neighbor.
For my friends in the jail who are looking for a church, I tell them to go where they feel the presence of God. Because if they don’t experience the presence of God in a church, even our church, I tell them to keep looking. The burden of proof on whether God is in our church, in our homes, in our country lies on each of us. Are we close enough to God through Jesus Christ to be honest about what we’re looking for, to even let our hearts be open to the truth of what we’re looking for?
What are we all looking for, really? The presence of God. Yes, our worldly treasures and lack of suffering make life easier, but that’s surface level. Wanting a better life for others, not just my family and friends, but for those around the world–opportunity and health and safety. That’s good. I want all those things, too, but there’s something deeper, something more. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’m not sure I can even name it. Maybe because it’s too big, I’m too scared, it’s too much, and it’s not within my power. I’m looking for that ocean of love that is God.
We’re looking for the presence of God, oddly enough, because that’s where we come from. We’re all looking for our way home.
We’re looking to be restored to wholeness, to be transfigured into the likeness of Christ. We’re craving to be the image of God we were created to be. All those who followed Jesus in his day thought he was the Messiah who would deliver them from oppression by the powers that be. But Jesus, the Light of the world, the Light unto all nations, came to show us our way back to God, to show us where we come from, and to show us our way home. Today more than ever, we need to draw real close to Jesus and stay a while in His presence to see what he has to show us.