Twice a month, I meet up with some clergy colleagues to explore our ministries, support one another in our life choices, and pray and study together. Often, our devotions take the form of a Bible study, and today we looked ahead toward Sunday’s Gospel, a portion of the first chapter of John in which John the Baptist recognizes Jesus for the first time. Here it is, for you to reflect on:
The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him 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. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
The passage suggests that Jesus is really hard to find. John the Baptizer is, after all, his cousin, someone who (presumably) has known Jesus his whole life. And yet, John says, not once, but twice, “I myself did not know him,” meaning, “I had known him his whole life, and yet had not seen that he was the Beloved of God.”
We do not, of course, know the whole truth about any other human being. Most of us do not know the whole truth about ourselves. And yet, God is hiding there in plain view. We overlook his footprints in ourselves and in one another, in the faces that are so familiar we can forget that they are holy. I myself did not know him — and yet, he was there all along.
The other thing about that passage is the constant interruption of translations: “Rabbi”= “teacher”; “Messiah” = “anointed”; “Simon”=”Cephas”=(“Peter”)=”Rock.” From earliest times, apparently, the church was struggling to interpret and translate the meaning of Jesus into terms that would matter to the men and women of their neighborhood. Language, culture, all was on the block, fluid, moving from one framework to another. My colleague Jim wrote on Monday about a fantastic bilingual ordination service we held last weekend, with people from many nations and a couple languages dancing together in the aisles of the church. That kind of mixture has been there all along.
And, if we are honest with ourselves, some of our “translations” are probably more successful than others. We Episcopalians hold a tradition of great beauty and dignity, all to honor a man of great simplicity and humility. That beauty is something I treasure deeply, and yet, it can sometimes obscure the face of Christ. Nora Gallagher writes, “What I want from church, or any faith community,…is a look between human beings that says we are knitted together, standing in a circle, holding each other up, waiting for the next ax to fall, rather than persons following a crowned Jesus…The reality …is about Jesus kneeling in the dust, making a paste of spit and dirt. The reality is much more raw.” (Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic)
The question she asks is the question that haunts all our worship: How do we find that humble man? How do we find the man of clay? How do we, who are of earth, become every more “earthy,” until our clay touches Christ’s and becomes a vessel for his golden? How can we worship that will reveal that man? And how can we allow ourselves to love him?