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“If I ever wrote the perfect poem…”: The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday, January 19, 2019:
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

We find ourselves in the midst of the fun and frivolous and sometimes problematic awards season for motion pictures. Here in recent years it’s become a bit of a focus for us, as some of us light-heartedly make our best guesses of Oscar winners; the charge of admission into this contest simply being a donation toward the region’s Out of the Cold program.

The winner of an honorary Oscar in the early ‘50s is the film Rashomon. A movie about a terrible crime in 8th century Japan, with different witnesses offering their particular (and differing) perspectives on what happened. Stories that overlap and complement, but also contradict.

Today’s story from the Fourth Gospel might feel like something of a Rashomon experience. Like last week’s scene from Matthew, we find ourselves alongside John the Baptist (so probably out in the wild, by the river). And last week we were sort of witnesses ourselves to the Spirit of God descending, like a dove on Jesus, as he comes out of the water. That same scene replays today, from a different perspective. But we don’t get a direct description from a narrator, though we do get a reminiscence, a testimony, from John the Baptizer. And it confirms that detail: the Spirit of God descending like a dove. But there’s no voice, either to Jesus or to the crowds (“This is the Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased…”) Though if you think about it, there is a voice, recounted by and directed at John, and only John: “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

(Another difference is that there isn’t actually a baptism described! The text doesn’t say that this isn’t one, and we might guess that this scene was. But that image of John baptizing Jesus would probably work against the writer’s point, that Jesus “ranks ahead of [him].”

So we have echoes of how the other three Gospels depict the scene, but we also can’t deny that there are differences. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I mean, it can win you an Oscar; it worked for Akira Kurosawa. It’s inevitable that there are going to be some differences of experience, expression, and opinion, based on who we are, where we stand, and where we’ve come from. Think of something Paul mentions in the letter to the Corinthians: “that you not be lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A whole and healthy Christian community is dependant on a variety of gifts and talents. If everyone were the same, we’d almost certainly be lacking. But if we learn to work together in consideration of our differences, we get a fuller understanding of how God has called each and every one of us.


And ‘call’ is the thread that weaves through all of the readings today. “The Lord called me before I was born,” the prophet writes. “Paul, called to be an apostle” begins the letter to the Corinthian church. (And this is a big call, for someone who was originally a persecutor of the Church!) And Jesus calls people as he walks by John: “Come and see.” (And our patron saint Andrew is one of them. Though note that this call story is different, in Rashomon style, than the more famous one in the other gospels, where Andrew and Peter are casting their nets in the sea. We can try to smush them together to smooth out the differences. But that might not do justice to the reality that God’s calling of us, and our experience of that call, can come in so many different ways.)

Some people have that strong sense of call. Some have heard a voice. Maybe a still, small one, or a loud booming one. But a voice beyond the usual chatter in our heads. Others have felt guided or witnessed signs, pointing them this way or that. Some have natural talents so clear, that their calling comes naturally. Others have felt called through the guidance and assurance of others. “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven, remaining on him” John says (to someone!) about Jesus. And maybe we’ve had someone in our lives who sees something — maybe not a vision quite like John describes — but sees some movement of God’s Spirit in our lives. Sometimes we rely on other people to see this, when we can’t. And let’s be honest, sometimes it’s someone helping us actually realize that we’re not as terrible and useless as we sometimes feel.

One important — and not the exclusive, but certainly important — part of being called is in baptism. In our baptismal service, with directions that this prayer by said “in full sight of the congregation” these words are said: “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” That sounds like a calling. Relying upon God’s Spirit for sustenance. Having an inquiring and discerning heart. (Not turning your brain off. Not retreating from the world or our questions, but digging deeper into them.) Having the courage to persevere when we face obstacles, and there will be no shortage of them. A heart to love God, and the gift of “awe and wonder” at the manifold and divers signs of God’s presence in the world.

That’s a part of our lives as disciples of Jesus. We’re pretty used to that word — “disciple” — maybe too used to it. Though for others it’s a less-than-familiar term, part of our characteristic religious language. The word basically just means ‘someone who learns.’ An equivalent word today is ‘apprentice.’ Someone who’s learning by doing. On the job training. That’s what those characters in the gospel story, originally following John, and now with Jesus, are invited to do. To be learners.

And isn’t it an interesting interaction they have, after Jesus says “What are you looking for?” My response would have been something like “So, I hear you’re the Lamb of God. Tell me, what exactly does that entail? How are you going to take away the sins of the world?” But the would-be disciples actually ask a much deeper question, of a sort. “Where are you staying?” And the deep spiritual truth that Jesus reveals: “Come and see.”

Today we get a sense of what discipleship means: what it looks like to be an apprentice of Jesus. To ask where he is, so that we can be there too, with those others striving to do the same. To be with Jesus, with others. Not accumulating easy answers, but learning on the job, being trained to recognize the Spirit in the different contexts and conflicts of our world.


Just last night I heard a quote that hit this home for me. It was part of a documentary about the famous, and famously rough-and-tumble Canadian poet Al Purdy. He said something like (and I paraphrase): ‘If I succeeded at writing the perfect poem, it’d be fatal. Because I’d stop. But with the way things are, I keep going.” That sounds to me like our lives as disciples. Not always getting it right, but looking to Jesus, as he passes by. And, with the companionship of others, seeking to be in his presence, and growing through all of this. Trying to write the perfect poem, but knowing that at the end of the day, there’s going to be more writing to be done.

So… with the people standing with John the Baptizer, Jesus says: “Come and see.” And, we read, “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” I don’t quite get the significance of that hour marker. Maybe it’s random. But so much of our lives seems that way, too. But that doesn’t make it any less important. We ask: “Rabbi, where are you staying? Where would you have us be?”

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter