[January 16, 2011] This reading takes place near the beginning of the Gospel according to John. The gospel begins with a poem. It’s about the Word that was God in eternity, before creation, who brought everything that is into being, who became at last flesh in a single solitary Individual. This Individual is the Source of eternal life for all who believe into Him. The poem is very deep and full of mystery. After we hear it, the story begins.
John the Baptist is on the stage and people want to know who he is. In contrast to Jesus who fourteen times in this gospel says, “I AM,” John confesses “I am NOT.” He says about Jesus, “He who IS, whom you do not know, comes after me. But compared to Him I am nothing because He comes from before me.” He is in fact the Word of the prophets that preceded me, the Word of God that came to me.
John points Him out and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” “Behold” means to look or see. “He is the One upon whom the Holy Spirit abides, and He will baptize those who believe into Him in the element of the Holy Spirit.”
So already, like the Gospel of John itself, John the Baptist points to Christ on the cross and says “Look! This Christ who will be crucified is the One who by His resurrection will immerse those who believe into Him in the Holy Spirit who abides upon Him.”
That was last week’s reading.
“What Are You Seeking?” (John 1:35-39)
Now John is standing with two of his disciples, Andrew and the author of the gospel, John, and he points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” At once they leave him to follow Jesus.
Jesus turns to them, as He turns to all of us, and asks, “What are you seeking?” What ARE you seeking when you come to church? What are you seeking when you listen to the words of the Bible? the words of the Gospel according to John? What you find will depend on what you’re looking for. So He asks us, “What are you seeking?”
The men ask Him, “Where are you staying?” The word “staying” is the same as the word “abide.” According to John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit abides on Jesus. Later Jesus will speak of the Father and Holy Spirit abiding in Him, and that He will abide in us—after the He comes again in resurrection through the Holy Spirit; He also He tells us to abide in Him. Where DOES Jesus abide? We want to know so we can abide with Him.
“What are you seeking?” Jesus asks us. Do we want to know where He abides so we can abide with Him?
Jesus says to the men, “Come and you will see.” He tells them to find out. This is also an invitation to us, an invitation to enter the gospel, to come so that we can see where Jesus abides. If we come into the story of the gospel, deeply into its meaning, we will see where Jesus abides. We have to come, though. We cannot keep our distance. We have to enter on this journey and follow along with the One who says to us, “Come and you will see.”
The two men went with Jesus and saw where He was staying, where He was abiding, and they stayed or abided with Him. This tells us what happens when we come to Jesus—the Jesus in the gospel—and learn from the gospel where He abides. If we see where He abides, then we can abide with Him. Don’t you want to abide with Jesus? The instructions here are very clear. “Come and see.” Hear the gospel and follow Jesus closely and you will see where He abides. Then you will be invited to abide with Him.
“You Shall Be Called a ‘Stone’” (1:40-42)
Andrew is not content to keep Jesus to himself. He immediately finds his brother Simon and tells him about Jesus. This is how evangelism works. It is simply inviting people to “come and see” just as you did. This is how Christianity spreads.
We don’t have to persuade anyone. All we need to do is invite them. “We have found the Messiah,” Andrew says to his brother. It doesn’t matter if we use the word Messiah. Another term may be more meaningful to us. The Samaritan woman didn’t use religious terms. She just said, “He told me all that I have done.” The people then went to see for themselves. After that they said, “It is no longer because of your speaking that we believe, for we ourselves have heard and know that this One is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:39, 42).
Andrew went to his brother. He began with the one closest to him, a member of his own family. We too can go to those in our family, or our close friends. We can tell them, “It’s not about us. Find out for yourself. Come and see.”
Peter went to Jesus and Jesus looked at him. Did it ever happen to you when you listened to the gospel that you felt as if Jesus was looking you over? We seek Jesus in the gospel. That means we look to see Him. But then we find that He is also looking at us. We are looking at Him but He is also looking at us. If this has never happened to you, maybe you’re not looking closely enough. We need to “come and see,” and follow Him to where He abides. Then we will find ourselves eye-to-eye with Him.
That was when Jesus gave Simon a new name. He called him, “Peter,” which means stone. In some cultures, when you give someone a name, you’re claiming them as your own, as when you adopt a child. Jesus was saying in effect, “You are mine. I’m making you My disciple, one of My inner circle.” When we get eye-to-eye with Jesus in the gospel, He starts claiming us as His own. We no longer belong to ourselves but to Him. He’s entitled to do this, and we had better let Him, since He called the worlds into being and formed them: we already belong to Him. It may seem like He’s capturing us, but really He’s freeing us from someone else who captured us—who had no right to.
But why does Jesus call Simon a stone? What kind of name is that? As far as we know, “Peter” was not a proper name back then. It was the word for stone. The clue is probably in how Peter used the word “stone” in his epistle. He says we are living stones being built up into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5). In the last verse of our reading, verse 51, there’s an allusion to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:11-22. When Jacob woke up, he called the place “Beth-el,” which means House of God. So I think Jesus named Simon Peter because Simon was going to become an important stone in the building of God’s spiritual house, the church.
Just as Simon is a stone in that building, so are all who come to Jesus. When Jesus calls you and makes you His own, when you hear the Gospel and become a believer in Jesus, you become a stone. You used to be clay, but now you’re a stone, and now He’s working you into shape so you can be fitted into the house He’s building. That house is the house of God, the place where God abides. “In My Father’s house are many abodes,” Jesus says in John 14:2. “When I go to the cross,” He told His disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you.” “Then in resurrection,” He says, “I am coming again and will receive you to Myself, so that where I am you also may be.” What are you seeking? Jesus asks us. We want to know where He abides so we can abide with Him. “When I send the Holy Spirit,” He answers, “I will come to you and will receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also. You will abide in My Father’s house so that just as I abide in My Father and He abides in Me, the Holy Spirit and the Father and the Son will abide in you and you will abide in us.” All this is in John 14. Paul says that in Christ, “you are being built together into a dwelling place of God in spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).
“You Shall See Heaven Open” (1:43-51)
After that, Jesus calls Philip and—just like Andrew did—Philip invites someone else, Nathaniel. Like the people we speak to, Nathaniel has questions Philip doesn’t know how to answer. So he says to him what Jesus Himself told the other disciples, “Come and see.” Again, we the listeners are also being spoken to. “Come and see,” the gospel says to us. Come, follow the gospel as it tells us the story of Jesus, and we too will see.
Just as Jesus looked at Peter and sized him up, so he does the same to Nathaniel. Nathaniel, like us, wants to know how come Jesus can see through him. Jesus tells him He already knew him, before Philip came to him. As we look for Jesus in the gospel, sooner or later we will find Jesus looking at us. He not only looks at us, He looks us over. Now we realize that not only is He looking us over and examining us, He’s also not discovering anything He didn’t already know. We find that we are known by Him, that before we come to know Him, He already knows us. It’s disconcerting to discover that someone whom you never met knows all about you. But it’s also comforting to know that we are known so well. We are known and understood. There’s nothing left to hide. And this One, who knows us so well, wants us.
Nathaniel recognizes somehow, he doesn’t know how, that he has run face-to-face into God—in the face of Jesus, in the Person of Jesus. “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel!” he says. He might not know fully what he means. The king of Israel was called the son of God, but in the gospel Jesus is Son of God in a much fuller and completely different sense—He is the only-begotten of the Father. In any case, as we “behold the Lamb of God,” as we look and see, we too discover that the One whom we meet in the gospel, who comes to us through the gospel, is none other than He who is the “I AM” of God.
Jesus says to Nathaniel, “So you believe now. Good. But you’ve only just begun to see. You all—including you the listener!—will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, as if He were a ladder that stretches between heaven and earth.”
When Jesus was baptized by John, heaven opened and the Spirit of God descended from heaven to earth and abided on Him. Heaven opened and remained open above Him. If we see where Jesus abides, we too will see heaven open above Him. And if we abide with Him, heaven will be open above us too.
The heavenly Word became earthly flesh. Jesus is where heaven and earth meet. He descended to earth from heaven. He will ascend to heaven from earth. Then the Holy Spirit will descend from heaven to earth to us, and we in spirit will ascend from earth to heaven. The body of Jesus, broken on the cross and resurrected, becomes the ladder that links heaven and earth.
“What do you seek?” Jesus asks us; the gospel asks us. “Where do you abide?” we answer. We want to know where He is, where He abides, where we can find Him, so we can be with Him where He is. He answers, “Come and you will see.” So, come on this journey. Listen with us the Gospel of John; find out where He abides. As you look closely, you’ll find Him looking you in the eye and looking you over. You will find Him claiming you as His own and telling you you’re a stone in the house of God. If we stay and find out where He abides, and abide with Him, we’ll find out we’re abiding in Him as the abiding place of the Father on earth. “Come and you will see.”
The story of the gospel begins with John in the desert. Like Moses, he leads the people out of the “world” into the wilderness. It is not his place to lead them into the Promised Land. That is for the One who comes after Him, Joshua/Jesus. He only baptizes in water; the One coming after Him baptizes in the Holy Spirit.
John emphasizes this contrast. The priests and Levites and Pharisees who question him set up the foil. People are looking for the King, Priest, or Prophet, the One-Who-Is-To-Come, but John says he is only a voice. Indeed, in contrast to the One who is the “I AM” (egō eimi), John asserts, “I am NOT” (ouk eimi). The text, by what it says and by what it alludes to, bring the later part of Isaiah before us. The imagery of wilderness and Promised Land in connection to Isaiah refer us not to the past but to something new that is coming, the end of what is old. Not, I must say, the end of Israel as others say, but rather the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises to Israel.
The wilderness hints at the Sabbath, where there are no human works, where God is satisfied with His work. Psalm 95 spoke of how the people failed to enter God’s rest, and Hebrews 4 tells us how that rest was put on hold for another Day. That is the Day of which Isaiah speaks. The dove brooding over the waters of chaos, the dove that Noah released from the ark, has been searching for a place to rest, and finally finds it in Jesus (the One in whom the Father is well-pleased). The dove comes down to “abide” on Him.
When we leave John the Baptist our attention moves to where Jesus “abides” and His disciples abiding with Him. The word “abide,” which means to stay, to remain, to dwell, has connotations of rest, rest and satisfaction. There is a Sabbath in Jesus, in our abiding in Him. The Sabbath-rest of the Promised Land is fulfilled in Jesus, who abides in the Father and who invites us to abide in Him. The peace He grants refers to this rest. “Peace to you” He says to His gathered disciples on the evening of Easter.
In Jesus’ question, “What are you seeking?” we hear an echo of Isaiah 55:6, “Seek the Lord while He may be found,” and also the call of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:34-36. This is similarly true of the Lord’s next words, “Come and you will see”: we hear an echo of Isaiah 55:1 and the call of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs.
“What are you seeking?” is similar to the question He asked those who came to arrest them, and that He also asked the Magdalene when she stood by His tomb weeping, “Whom are you seeking?” The question in the beginning of the gospel corresponds to question at the end, just as where He abides finds its concrete answer in the Easter story. This correspondence and answer is also reflected when Jesus says, “Come and see,” and Thomas says, “Unless I see …”
The disciples “see” where Jesus abides and Jesus looks at Peter and saw Nathaniel beneath the fig tree before He sees Nathaniel coming to Him. But when Jesus says to the disciples whom He has gathered (foreshadowing the gathering of the disciples on the evening of Easter day), “You shall see greater things than these” for “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” this is ultimately the follow up of His invitation, “Come and see.” They wanted to know where He abides. This is where He abides, where heaven and earth join together, where the ladder (the Tree of Life?) reaches into heaven from the stone on which Jacob slept. He is the house of God in whom we abide. The house of God is where He who abode in heaven had His abode on earth, the root of heaven on earth. This place is in Jesus Himself, His incarnate flesh (He “tabernacled” among us). We are transported to the scene on the evening of Easter, where He breathes into His disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For us too the heaven opens.
Isaiah has John proclaiming, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” and we see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. God has a straight highway in His Son. Our baptism—in which we share in Christ’s death—is a participation in His baptism when heaven opened above Him. In Him the heaven opens above us and the angels—the messengers of God—have free concourse. In the open-ended Easter story at the end of John (Jesus never leaves), Jesus remains (abides) with His disciples, manifesting Himself as One who is always present with them, present even when they do not see Him. The beginning of the Gospel according to John introduces us to the fulfillment at the end. And on it will go with the gospel in concentric circles as we get closer and closer to the heart of the mandala of the cruciform gospel in Him who says to us, “I AM.”