“What are you looking for?”
These are the first words spoken by Jesus in the gospel of John. What are you looking for? What do you want out of life? What’s the purpose, what’s the meaning of your life?
Or to use the words of the poet Mary Oliver,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It’s a question we all ask ourselves sooner or later. I think it’s just part of what it means to be human. I think that God created us this way, to be always searching for meaning and purpose in life. We were created to be the bearers of God’s image in the world, but sometimes it takes a lifetime just to figure out what that means.
Last week we talked about our altars in the world. We talked about purpose, about mission, about our vocations and callings. One of the frustrations that can emerge in such conversations is that they can generate a little cognitive dissonance. We may realize that where we are doesn’t always line up very well with where we want to be. We may be forced to admit, to use the words of the U2 song, that “we still haven’t found what we’re looking for”. And that’s assuming that we’re not dealing with a more basic frustration, that we don’t even know what we’re looking for.
If you find yourself in this situation, then you’re in good company. Because the first two disciples that followed Jesus didn’t really know what they were looking for either. Clearly they were looking for something. They wouldn’t have been disciples of John the Baptist, living in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey if they hadn’t been searching for something in their lives. When John says “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” their ears perk up, and they follow Jesus.
But when Jesus turns and asks them “what are you looking for?” they don’t really have a good answer. They say to him, Rabbi, where are you staying?
Now I hardly think that the deepest longings of these two young people for purpose and meaning in their lives would be satisfied by knowing what sort of tent Jesus had and where he had pitched it.
But one of the interesting things about John’s gospel is that often, when Jesus asks a question, the answer that is given may miss the point or may not really make any sense, but, unbeknownst to the speaker, it does contain this kernel of truth pointing in the right direction.
“What are you looking for?”
The clue given to us in the disciples’ non-response is the word “staying”.
It’s a word that has already shown up a few times in today’s gospel, in fact it’s the word that links the first half of the gospel, the baptism of Jesus, to the second half, the calling of the disciples. It’s a word that will show up another 40 times in the gospel and 30-plus in the three letters of John. It is the greek word “menos”. But it’s easy for us to miss it, because we translate it different ways in English. Abide. Remain. Stay. To be with. To be in relationship.
This is the word used to describe the Spirit who descends upon Jesus and remains on him, who abides with Jesus following his baptism. And so when the disciples ask Jesus the question where are you staying, where do you abide, the real answer to that question is relational, not geographic: Jesus abides with the Spirit, and the Spirit abides with Jesus. That’s the answer to the abiding question. Jesus, of course, doesn’t simply tell them that – instead he invites them to “come and see”.
And so the disciples do come and they do see: they see where Jesus stays – that is, they see that Jesus abides with the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God abides with Jesus, and they, the disciples then abide, remain that day – that is they too enter into this relationship of abiding. They abide with Jesus, and through him enter into relationship with God, that very day.
Which actually illustrates perfectly why John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Because in the gospel of John, the sin of the world does not consist, at least not in the first instance, of our wrong-doings and ethical lapses. No, the sin of the world is not knowing God. It is the alienation, the separation in the relationship between God and humanity. As the prologue to the gospel puts it, “he was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” That’s the sin of the world.
And so if not knowing God is the sin, what is the opposite of sin? The opposite of sin is menos. Abiding. Being in relationship with God.
Jesus takes away the sin of the world by making God known, that is by revealing who God is and even more importantly by enabling us to enter into relationship with God through him. As he puts it in his last words to the disciples in John 15, “abide in me as I abide in you.” It is this relationship of abiding that takes away the sin of the world.
And what does that have to do with the title “Lamb of God?” The title “Lamb of God” is a reference to the Passover lamb in the book of Exodus. The Passover Lamb is both the agent and means of liberation used by God to free the Hebrews from slavery so that they could become God’s people. This is the exodus story all over again. God acts to overcome the alienation of God’s people, so that they can enter into relationship again. This is the basis of the Old Testament covenant: “I will be your God and you will be my people”.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s all related to our first question, the “what are you looking for?” question, the one that many of us wrestle with, or dare I say, struggle with.
I think we will always struggle with questions of purpose and meaning if we try to answer them on our own, in isolation, as individuals. Because we are fundamentally relational beings, and our purpose and meaning in life are grounded in our relationship with God. Our calling is grounded in relationship. First we abide with God, we invite the Spirit of God to abide with us. Then we will find what we are looking for.
That’s how it works in today’s gospel. The disciples don’t know what they are looking for. But they abide with Jesus, they enter into relationship with him. And then when Andrew, one of those two disciples, meets his brother Simon, the first thing he exclaims is that he has found what he was looking for, “we have found the Messiah.”
That’s how it works for us too. Abide in me as I abide in you. Ground your quest for meaning and purpose in an active, dynamic, prayerful, abiding relationship with God, and you will find what you are looking for.
Homily: Yr A P2, Jan 19 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 49.1-7; Ps 40.1-12; 1 Cor 1.1-9; John 1.29-42
Image by Georgie Pauwels, Creative Commons