Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Stay With Us": a sermon on John 1:35-42

Franco Zeffirelli’s six-hour miniseries ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ will be forty years old this year. If you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend it; it’s probably the best movie about the life of Jesus that’s ever been produced.

Not that everything about it is entirely faithful to the gospel accounts; like many film makers, Zeffirelli couldn’t resist the temptation to put his own mark on the story. One change I found particularly intriguing was that Zeffirelli’s Jesus hardly ever invites people to “follow me”. Instead, he looks at them with a penetrating gaze, repeats their name, and says, “Stay with us”. “Andrew – Philip – stay with us”, he says, and the other disciples grin at them and welcome them into their little group.

That’s not what the gospel writers said, of course, and yet I can’t help thinking it’s not a bad way of expressing what Jesus’ invitation was all about. The problem is, it’s a very counter-cultural way of looking at discipleship today. These days we’re not very good at ‘staying’ anywhere or ‘staying focused’ on anything. We’re not very good at working at our computers without clicking on a hyperlink every five minutes, or stopping regularly to check our email. We’re not good at committing ourselves long term to a small group at church; we’re so busy, we’ve got so many other things going on in our lives, we can give Jesus four weeks max, and then we’ll have to move on to somewhere else.

But Christian discipleship is a long-term commitment; you can’t get the benefits of it in a short time. There’s no such thing as an instant prayer life; there’s no such thing as thirty-day transformation. Eugene Peterson has a phrase he likes to use: ‘A long obedience in the same direction’. That’s Christian discipleship: being willing to follow Jesus, and stay with him, day in and day out, for years and years and years. Staying with him through exciting times and through dry times. Following him when it’s easy and when it’s difficult. Being faithful to him when we feel his presence and also when, for long periods of time, we don’t. “Stay with us”. Don’t be an on-again, off-again Christian. Don’t be one of those who gives up when the going gets tough or when your fellow Christians get too annoying. “Stay with us”.

I can hear echoes of that phrase in the story of Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and his unnamed friend in today’s gospel. The scene is Judea, down by the Jordan river, where John the Baptist was carrying out his ministry of preaching and baptizing. He was announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, and crowds were flocking to him from all over the place. Some of them, no doubt, only stayed for a day or two; they heard John’s message, wanted to be part of his Kingdom of God movement, and so asked for baptism as a sign of their repentance. They were sincere, I’m sure, but they had a lot going on, and they had to get back to their regular lives.

But some stayed, and became ‘disciples’ of John. Yes: John the Baptist, as well as Jesus, had disciples. Lots of people did in the ancient world. It was the standard way of learning – or, I should say, the standard way of experiencing transformation. You didn’t just go to the professor’s classes and take notes on his lectures. You hung around with him. You listened hard to every word that came out of his mouth. If you were lucky, and if he let you, you moved in with him, so that you could watch how he treated his wife and children, how he treated the tradespeople who worked for him, how he dealt with stressful situations. Your goal wasn’t just to learn the things your teacher knew. Your goal was to become like your teacher. That’s what it meant to be a disciple.

Andrew and his friend were disciples of John the Baptist. Perhaps they had been there at the moment when Jesus had been baptized; perhaps they had seen the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, and heard the voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased”. And now, the next day, they were with John when Jesus walked by again, and they heard their master say “Look, here is the Lamb of God” (John 1:36). Watch what happens next:
The two disciples heard (John) 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.

“Where are you staying?” That seems like a strange thing to ask, doesn’t it? I’ve been rector of this parish for nearly seventeen years, and I’ve rarely been asked the question, “Where do you live?” People who want my help make an appointment to come see me in my office. People who want to learn more about the Christian life sign up for a course at the church. Very few people feel the need to know my address!

But in the time of Jesus discipleship was all about personal contact. If these two men were going to become disciples of Jesus, they had to know where he was going to be, because they had to be there with him. They needed to be able to stay with him, to watch him, to listen to him, to pay close attention to all that he was doing, so that they could imitate him.

Actually, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is a disciple too. A few chapters later he says to his disciples,
“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing…” (John 5:19-20a).

So Jesus, the human being, also needed to model himself on someone. As God the Son of course, he shared the nature of the Father, but when he accepted the limitations of our humanity and became one of us, he had to grow and learn just like we do. But he had such a close relationship with God the Father – he had learned the secret of listening to him and watching what he was doing – and he modelled his own actions and words on the things he saw and heard from his Father. And now he calls us, in our turn, to come close to him, so we can model our actions and words on the things we see and hear from him.

“Stay with us”. Don’t be in a hurry. Be willing to take time to watch, time to listen, time to absorb what Jesus is doing. In Rowan Williams’ beautiful new book ‘Being Disciples’, he says that this is very much like being a birdwatcher. I’m a bit of a birdwatcher, so this image resonates with me. Listen to what Williams says:
‘I’ve always loved that image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T.S. Eliot… called “the kingfisher’s wing” flashing “light to light” make it all worthwhile. And I think that living in this sort of expectancy – living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind both relaxed and attentive enough to see that when it happens – is basic to discipleship’.[1]

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Stay with us”. What does that mean for us today? We can’t ‘stay’ with Jesus in the sense of discovering his address and moving in with him. So how do we ‘stay’ with him? Let me make three suggestions.

First, the most fundamental thing is that we stay with him in prayer. Jesus himself was a person of prayer; that was how he ‘stayed with’ his Father. We’re told in the gospels that it was his regular custom to get up early in the morning, a great while before day, and go out to lonely places so he could pray. On at least one occasion those prayer times lasted all night long; most times, I suspect, they were shorter than that. But he made a habit of it, and we can be sure those times helped make him the person he was – the person who did nothing unless he first saw his Father doing it.

What did he actually do during those times of prayer? We aren’t told very much about it, but if we work from the prayer Jesus gave us as a model, the one we call ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, we can be sure he wasn’t just presenting his daily shopping list to God. The Lord’s Prayer starts by focusing on God’s concerns, not ours: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.  A person who begins their prayer like that is a person who has spent a lot of time in silence, listening, watching for ‘the flash of the kingfisher’s wing’ – paying attention to the silence, because they know that’s where they’ll sense the presence of God, and perhaps even hear a quiet word from God in their hearts.

So our prayers need to leave time for this quiet watching and listening. We can’t rush them. My own experience is that this seems to get easier with age. When I was young I seemed to have a lot of things I wanted to say to God. Now that I’m older, I’m more content just to be with God, to be quiet in God’s presence. It’s not that I don’t say anything; far from it! But I do enjoy just sitting in the quiet, or walking in the quiet, trying to pay attention to what’s going on, so that I don’t miss the signs that God is with me, that God has things he wants to communicate to me.

All of us have a lot of demands on our time these days. Many of us have family responsibilities, especially those of us who care for small children. It’s not easy to make time for prayer. It wasn’t easy for Jesus either, living as he did in a world where most houses were small and real privacy was rare. I suspect that Jesus did a lot of praying together, with others; I don’t think he was always trying to escape from them. But he felt the need for that alone time with God, too, and he made it happen. As his disciples, we watch what he does, and we imitate him.

We stay with him in prayer, and we also stay with him in the Scriptures. Jesus, of course, never owned a Bible in his life. Most people in his world didn’t; the printing press was far in the future, and handwritten books were only affordable to the very rich. But Jewish people in the time of Jesus gathered often to hear the scriptures read in public, and they committed large passages to memory; people without access to books tend to have better memories for that kind of thing. And we know that Jesus was familiar with the writings of the prophets and the psalms; they were the story of his people, of course, and he heard God speaking to him through them.

Again, this is something you can’t do in a hurry. Becoming familiar with the story the Bible tells isn’t something you can accomplish in a short time. We need to make Bible reading a habit, something we do regularly, either alone or in the company of someone else. A few years ago our bishop challenged us to read through the Bible in a year using a daily scheme of readings she provided for us, and I know that some of you did that. Those kinds of plans can be helpful, but there’s nothing wrong with reading more slowly, too – savouring every word, using your imagination to put yourself in the story you’re reading, listening for what God might want to say to you in what you read.

So as we think about being disciples of Jesus – of ‘staying’ with him – we need to think about making time for prayer and for reading the scriptures. And the third thing I want to remind you of is this: we stay with him by being with the poor and needy. Jesus meets with us Sunday by Sunday as we gather here to worship God and share the Eucharist, but he spends his working week among the poor and needy. That’s what he tells us in Matthew chapter 25; he reminds us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick or the prisoner, it’s really Jesus we’re serving. He’s present everywhere, but most especially among the poor and marginalized. If we want to meet him – if we want to ‘stay with him’ – then we need to go and look for him there.

I don’t need to give you folks lessons about this; some of you are heavily involved in volunteering with organizations that make a difference in the lives of the poor. But of course, the needs are enormous and there’s always more we could do. Generosity with our money, generosity with our time, a willingness to build real relationships with people, to listen to their stories, to have genuine human contact with people who are often excluded and ignored – that’s all part of ‘staying with’ Jesus by ‘staying with’ the poor – with ‘Christ’s poor’ as they were often known in the Middle Ages.

Let me close by saying this: most of us are here today because we’re hungry for God. We know that Jesus is the one who reveals God to us, and he’s the one who teaches us to know God. So we’ve become his disciples. We’re watching him, listening for his voice, trying to see what he’s doing, so we can imitate him.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” we ask. Where can we find you, Lord Jesus? In Zeffirelli’s movie, Jesus replies “Stay with us”. As we go into this new year, as we think about growing as disciples, let’s think about these three ways we ‘stay with him’. Let’s ‘stay with him’ by spending time in prayer, listening as well as talking. Let’s ‘stay with him’ by spending time in the scriptures, so that the stories that shaped Jesus can shape us as well. And let’s ‘stay with him’ by spending time with the people who need our help, the poor and needy, the downtrodden and the marginalized.

Jesus is calling us this morning. “Follow me. Stay with me”. How are you going to answer that call this year?




[1]  Rowan Williams, Being Disciples (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2016), p.5.

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