(1 Cor. 1-9; John 1, 29-42)
Soon after our present Bishop came to the diocese in 2009, he introduced a programme entitled ‘Living God’s Love’, which has just been reviewed and renewed. The vision behind the programme is to see God’s Kingdom grow in the world through flourishing, Christ-centred communities, inspiring people of all ages and backgrounds to discover God, grow in their relationship with God, and respond to God’s transforming love through serving others.
One strand of that programme is entitled ‘Making new disciples’.
In the passage from the Gospel of John we heard this morning, we are given John’s account of the calling of the first disciples by Jesus. It is very different from the accounts given in the three other gospels: it takes place by the Jordan, rather than Galilee, and the disciples are not called from their regular work, but are already followers of John the Baptist. They are pointed towards Jesus, rather than being directly called by him.
But there is a pattern to their becoming disciples, a pattern which modern research has shown is still the most effective way of making new converts today.
First, someone who has already had a life-changing encounter with Jesus speaks about it, and points the way to where he can be found.
Second, the potential disciple makes the decision to go and see for themselves, and has their own encounter with Christ.
Third, they share the details of their experience with others who are close to them and trust them – and so the process continues and the company of disciples grows.
Jesus is the first and the supreme example of one who hears God’s call, responds to it, and is so committed to that call that he is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist witnesses that Jesus is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit; that is the one who can lead you into a life-changing encounter with God. He proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, the one who is so close to God, so like God, so dear to God, that he is like a Son of the Father. He testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God; that is, the one who sacrifices himself for all people. Andrew proclaims him as the Messiah, the anointed representative of God for whom the Jews had been waiting.
Like those first disciples, we also are being called; we need to respond; we need to commit ourselves to following Christ’s self-sacrificing way.
We will not all encounter God in Jesus in the same place. For some of us that encounter will take place in prayer or in worship. For some it will be in reading and study – and not necessarily in the study of theology or the scriptures: for some people their study of the arts or of science may bring an encounter with the God revealed by Jesus. For some the encounter will come in service to the lonely, the bereaved, the hungry, the sick or refugees. Others may encounter God in the glories of nature.
Many people, though, will encounter God in Christ through relationships, and in particular relationships with people like us, who have heard the call, had our own life-changing encounter with God, and are now, like those first disciples, sharing our experience of God’s anointed one with the world, through our words and our actions.
That is not just something for a limited group of people, like clergy, theologians or lay ministers. Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom started at his baptism; our call to proclaim the Kingdom of God was given to us at our baptism. And just as Jesus was strengthened and empowered for his task through the gift of the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so God equips us for our task of proclaiming the Kingdom through that same Spirit, if we will open our hearts and minds to receive her. It is through the actions of everyone who is called that the Kingdom will be established on earth.
Every Christian individual and organisation who hears Christ’s call to ‘Come and see’ needs to help in addressing the challenges we face as a world, and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to meet them.
It is easier in our generation to ‘come and see’ those challenges than it has ever been before: TV and the Internet bring us daily evidence of the destruction of animal habitats, the pollution of the oceans, the melting of glaciers and the Arctic ice caps and other results of global warming.
They bring pictures into our living rooms of starving children in the Yemen and elsewhere, of the destruction of cities like Aleppo, of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and of refugees freezing on the streets of Paris and in the camps of Lesbos and Syria.
They face us daily with the challenge to consider what it might mean for us to proclaim Christ in today’s political and economic world; to consider what it might mean for the choices we make when we vote in local and national elections and when we shop, and for our interactions online and in person with our friends, neighbours and those who represent us in Parliament and councils.
If we choose to proclaim Christ when we do those things, it may mean that we will be mocked and threatened as Jesus was, by those whose power and prosperity is threatened by what we say. Or, it may just lead to us being thought odd, and maybe rejected by our family and friends, just as Jesus was.
This first chapter of John’s Gospel shows us the process of becoming a disciple of Christ, of hearing about him, having a personal encounter with him, committing yourself to him, and then proclaiming him to others. Many Christians talk about the encounter with Christ, often called conversion or baptism in the Spirit, as a once in a lifetime event. But though there may, for some people, be a specific once in a lifetime event when this commitment began, it is in reality something that continues throughout our lives, as we follow the Lamb of God in sacrificing ourselves in the decisions we make every day.
It is also often spoken of as something that happens to us as individuals. But following Christ is not just an individual thing, as everything that we do has an impact on the communities we belong to. This is especially so in the call to ‘come and see’ the Lamb of God and imitating him in living our lives sacrificially. Our transformed lives have the potential also to transform communities, another of the strands of ‘Living God’s Love’.
I am sure many of us feel overwhelmed sometimes by the enormous scope of the changes that are needed to transform our world so that it comes closer to being the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. We question what we can do as individuals.
Earlier in the week I was listening with admiration to President Obama’s farewell address to the American people. He spoke about his early career in Chicago, where he ‘witnessed the power of faith,’ and ‘learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.’ He reminded them that change isn’t always for good, that progress needs to be worked for, and can be reversed, and made his last request to the American people as President in these words “My last ask is the same as my first. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours. I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice:
Yes We Can.
Yes We Did.
Yes We Can.”
‘Yes we can’. That was a secular political message – but it was a message that grew out of his Christian faith, his encounter with Christ and his commitment to follow him. As we allow the Holy Spirit to empower and equip us to do the same, together we can change the world. We can become, like Peter, stones who together are built into the place where others will encounter God in Jesus. Our very being and our communities and workplaces will become the places where Jesus is staying. Through us the Kingdom can be established, as we too invite people to come and meet Christ and to live sacrificially in his name.
A prayer by John Van de Laar:
The struggles of our world feel overwhelming, Jesus;
beyond our ability to understand, let alone solve.
We do not have the capacity
to silence the justifications,
to heal the addictions,
to restore the brokenness,
to repair the destruction,
or to reverse the trajectories
of our self-centred, short-sighted weakness,
our heartless, dehumanising aggression.
But, we do not face these struggles alone, Jesus;
You have aligned yourself with us,
in taking on flesh,
in going through the waters,
in laying down your life;
And you have invited us to partner with you,
in proclaiming Good News,
in freeing the imprisoned,
in restoring the broken,
in uniting the divided;
And you have given us the capacity,
the divine Spirit,
to be co-workers with God.
For this, we are eternally grateful.