Have you ever though about what it means to be a Christian? I don’t mean a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or an Episcopalian. I mean a Christian. What it means to be a member of a branch of Christianity isn’t difficult to define. One has to be baptized, confirmed and eventually receive communion. There are a few doctrines that need to be known, depending on the branch of Christianity. One is also expected to attend Church services occasionally.
But I invite you to think about something else, something much more basic. Have you ever looked beyond your denominational affiliation? Have you ever ask yourself what it means to be a Christian?
I hope this question doesn’t sound silly to you because I’m very serious in asking it. I’ve discovered, over the many years that I’ve been a priest, that there’s generally a difference between a Christian “born into the faith,” and one who has converted. The convert seems to be more under the influence of the Spirit, more inquisitive. The convert seems to continually ask, “Who is Jesus?”
Keep this question in mind as we reflect on this week’s Gospel passage from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. This Gospel is considered by many scholars as a “baptismal gospel,” or the “convert’s gospel” because it’s so easy to use as a guide for converts during their spiritual journey.
The Gospel begins with John the Baptist ministering along the Jordan River. He’s emphatic as he responds to the questioning of the religious leaders. He’s not the Messiah! He’s merely a voice calling out from the desert announcing that the great day has indeed come. The Messiah’s appearance is imminent.
The day after this encounter with the religious leaders John sees Jesus coming toward him to be baptized. He’s immediately struck by a tremendous revelation. He points to Jesus while making the greatest testimony of his life, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He continues while his disciples listen. “I saw the spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” The Gospel then goes on to report the events of the next two days – two remarkable days.
The day after the baptism, John again sees Jesus, and again points to him testifying, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The statement is so understated, and yet so wonderful. John can see, through the illumination of the Spirit, the essence of Jesus. The lambs sacrificed throughout the centuries to make reparation for the sins of the human family were only symbols. Jesus is THE Lamb. His sacrifice will set all people free, once and for all! He is the Passover lamb.
Hearing this second proclamation, two of John’s disciples are pulled to follow Jesus. “Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, ‘What are your looking for?’” His question touches a nagging feeling in their hearts. The feeling that continually reminds them that they’re not complete – that only a part of them has been born.
Their answer is quick and simple. “Rabbi, 2 where are you staying?” Perhaps another way of framing their question would be, “Who are you?” Jesus could not have given them a better answer. “Come and see.” John’s writing speaks volumes in so few words. “So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon.”
The greatest journey that can ever be taken has begun. Who could ever forget the moment it began? “It was about four in the afternoon.” Andrew, the brother of Simon, is one of those two disciples. For him, this moment can’t be kept secret. He grabs his friend and runs off to Simon. “We have found the Messiah!” That first moment with Jesus had been a tremendous revelation. John called him the Lamb of God. They met Jesus, and knew immediately that he was indeed the Messiah!
“He brought him to Jesus who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, the son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” Jesus doesn’t merely look AT Simon. He looks INTO him. He sees who Simon really is. Jesus then does something marvelous. He changes Simon’s name to Cephas, the Rock! When Jesus declares, “You are Peter,” he’s anointing Simon for a mission. He’s to be the foundation of the new Israel.
The next day Jesus decides to travel to Galilee where he finds Philip. A mere, “Follow me,” is enough for Philip to join this small band of disciples. Philip, like Andrew, can’t keep this meeting a secret. He immediately goes off to Nathaniel with a powerful proclamation! “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.”
This Gospel passage is laying out an important spiritual process for us. This is the heart of my reflection. Look at the process. John the Baptist perceives that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s guided by the Spirit to peer even more deeply into the person of Jesus. He sees that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Andrew and the other disciple, moved by John’s proclamation, begin to follow Jesus. He invites them to stay with him. This is a tremendous, life-changing event. They will always remember that it happened at four in the afternoon. Philip, in turn, runs to Nathaniel. He tells him of the meeting, and shares an insight he has had: all that the law and the prophets had spoken has come to fruition in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Nathaniel is the only skeptic in this account. “Can anything good out of Nazareth?” he asks Philip. Nazareth is a town in what is considered by many to be a politically left-wing, liberalthinking Galilee. The area warmly invites new ideas, and has spawned numerous insurrections in the past, each of which was brutally crushed by the occupying armies of Rome. But Jesus moves right past Nathaniel’s prejudice. He looks him in the eye as he announces, “Here is a true Israelite.” Something in that statement strikes a cord because Nathaniel asks Jesus, “How do you know me?” Jesus then makes reference to something only Nathaniel would know, “Before Philip called you I saw you under the fig tree.” That statement is enough for him. Without any hesitation, he makes a profound profession of faith. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the king of Israel!”
I began this reflection by asking a question. Have you ever asked yourself what your being a Christian has to do with Jesus? The spiritual process in this account of the call of the disciples is simple. People hear about Jesus from someone who has “seen” him. This initiates an attraction to him, and they begin to follow him. They want to find out more about him. Who is he? Where does he live? What’s he all about?
Insights materialize. He’s the Lamb of God. He takes away the sins of the world. He’s the Son of God. But developing concepts about him isn’t enough. A deep relationship must develop. “He is a true Israelite.” “How do you know me? “I saw you.”
These little phrases are mystical testimonies. They speak of mutual self-revelation. Jesus looks INTO us. We look INTO him.
A few years ago I wrote about Brother Gerard, a friend of mine in the Order. He called me one night to tell me that he had just been put into hospice. I felt terrible, and really didn’t know what to say. I merely choked out, “O Gerard.” His response was as powerful as John the Baptist’s cry to his disciples. “John, there’s nothing to be sad about. I’ve been waiting to see Jesus my whole life!”
My prayer for the New Year, for me and for you, is that we never become complacent as Christians. That we continue to ask, “Where do you stay?” That we decide to follow Jesus every day. That we discover something new about him often, and that we continually see ourselves in a different light because we’ve discovered him.
Jesus’ final message to the disciples who had just discovered him are meant for us, too. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
God bless you on your journey. May you never stop discovering Jesus.