In today’s Gospel reading, after John declared Jesus the Son of God, Lamb of God, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, two of John’s disciples abandoned their leader, and decided to follow Jesus. Jesus notices the surprising allegiance change or may, it was mere persona curiosity and then, asks the two, “What are you looking for?” I wonder what was going through their minds when they decided to abandon the camel hair clothed, wild honey eating, locust devouring wilderness prophet, for some “just washed” Rabbi that was recently been proclaimed the Son of God. Did they think maybe Jesus was a little more “normal” than John? Maybe they could be a little more “down to earth” with Jesus, not have people look at them as being odd, and not being so challenged to live a life of radical faith? Maybe this Rabbi would be a teacher who would not demand so much repentance and transformation every day from them. Maybe they wanted another teacher.
In my many years of retail buying, I experienced a similar phenomenon. When it comes to people’s purchase patterns and personal preferences, allegiance to a particular brand is less about clothes themselves, and more about being affiliated with something that defines who they are and what they value. Remember all those clothing brands in the 1990’s (some are still around today), like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, or Calvin Klein. These brands are about personal identity and personal style. What you wear seems to say to others, who you are as a person. Ralph Lauren shows your classic style and love of luxurious materials. Tommy Hilfiger screams American cool with a modern twist on tradition. Calvin Klein epitomizes the persona of city dweller, or urban “wanna be.” When people look for clothing, they want more than just a cover up, they seek an affiliation with people just like them and the outer garments help that statement become clear. We have to remember though, being a Christian is not a brand we wear merely as a banner of affiliation. So, maybe those two disciples’ brand of rabbi that they had been following was not what they were seeking after all, and maybe the one they hoped Jesus would be, would more likely fit their tastes and preference. So, they left John and followed Jesus.
Churches are like that too. When new people come to a new church community, they hope to find something for which they were looking. Some arrive and stay in a community for a variety of reasons. Some are new in town, having just retired and recently moved to the area. Some are “church shopping” trying to see what style of worship and music, social activities, mission work, or entertaining and uplifting sermons the church offers, and teachings ones that fit their style and desires. Others come to a new community, because they were disenchanted or disappointed in their last church. It could have been because their agenda was not allowed to become manifest, or maybe they did not like the priest’s haircut or accent, or maybe they were actually hurt or injured there. Some maybe come to a new community really trying to find Jesus there and because they need a spiritual respite.
My point is this, church and teachers are not like brand name jeans. People come to a community or group because they hope to find something for which they are looking; namely Jesus Christ. “What are you looking for,” Jesus asks John’s disciples. I am afraid though, those two did not really know what they were seeking. So, rather than answer Jesus, they asked him another question, “Where are you staying?” At what place are you hanging out Jesus? Where is that location and destination, because we want to go there. See, Jesus was not inviting them (or us) to a place, a social calendar, a good preacher, or some local mission work but rather, a new way of life, a transformation so radical that they did not (and often we do not) know what was (is) in store for them (us). Jesus is not inviting us to a place, but to a new way of life.
Rabbi, Where are you staying (abiding)
When you think of church do you think building? You know this little nursery rhyme, “Here’s the church, here’s the people, open the doors and see all the people.” People in this scenario are secondary, and the building is primary. I like my version much better. “ Here are the people, we are the church, because we are not a building, and we need no steeple to show people how to find us.” The Body of Christ is not a place, a destination, or a building. It is not where we stay for an hour each week, hoping to be identified merely as Jesus’ followers. John’s disciples asked Jesus, “Where are YOU staying” but maybe that is the question that Jesus is asking us? Christians, where are you staying. “It seems a curious request until we notice that the verb for “staying” is translated elsewhere as “abiding.” (2)
In other words, in whom do you abide? Merriam Webster defines abiding as: to bear patiently, to endure without yielding, to wait, or to accept. In Christ do you abide patiently, waiting, when you are seeking Jesus’ call on your life? In Christ do you endure everyday struggles without yielding, trusting Jesus to abide with you. In Christ, do you accept that you are following the one who will change your life and bring you peace, joy, and fulfillment that no material things will every give you. Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.” “Jesus urges his disciples to ‘abide in me as I abide in you,’ Jesus offers himself to John’s disciples as the place for them to abide. (2)
If we choose to abide in Christ, then Christ becomes the grounding of our being, his core values become ours, and we follow the way he shows us to live life abundantly. Where or better yet, with whom do you abide? What grounds you, what are your core values, and where does God fit in all that for you? Christ abides in you as you abide in Christ.
Seeing is Believing
After John’s disciples’ question about where Jesus was abiding, Jesus tells them, “Come and see.” It is a curious invitation and grammatically, if we were to add one little bit of punctuation, it becomes even more intriguing. “Come and see,” may simply mean, if you want to see where I am lying my head and getting meals, “c’mon and I’ll show you.” However, add a comma after the word come, and you get a whole different invitation, “Come, and you will see.” Jesus announces he has come “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Jesus invites to come and see or rather, to come to spiritual transformation, to become enlightened, to have their eyes opened, and to know the truth. Jesus invited them to come, and see what you seek. Jesus invites us to the same life change.
To experience that change, we need to not only know who Jesus is intellectually, we have to know him personally, and that means being open to having your eyes opened to the truth. So who us is this Jesus to us, and once we know the answer to that question, then we must ask, “how does that knowledge change my life, when my eyes are opened, and when I actually see the truth? “Anything can happen if you have the eyes to see it. “Come and see” beckons us to an alternative world, a place we have never been.” (2)
In the original version of the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, children from all over the world and their parents/chaperones were offered an opportunity to find a golden ticket in their chocolate bars. The winners of the contest were invited to experience the mystery of the famous and secretive Wonka Chocolate factory. Each child who won, came to the place with different agendas, personal challenges, and character flaws. Violet was obsessed with chewing gum, Augustus indulged too much in sweet treats, Veruca was a conceited princess, and Mike spent too much time in front of the television screen. Despite their struggles, these little issues and spiritual maladies kept each one of them, from experiencing the joy, peace, and gift that the chocolate factory had to offer.
There was this one little boy though named Charlie, who came to the factory and at the end of the story, won it all. He lived poorly, without much food, clothing, or luxuries the other kids possessed, but he came to the factory open to all its wonders and all it had to offer. He did not seek anything for himself, other than the love and joy Wonka and his workshop had to offer. He came seeking not a place that identified with him or aligned with his wishes, but he came so that he might find his true identity in that place, and his eyes were opened to the pure imagination it offered.
At one point in the movie, Wonka invited the kids and parents into his chocolate room. A fantasy room where everything was edible: leaves on the chocolate trees, flower petals that were like teacups and saucers, and a river filled with liquid milk chocolate. As the door opened and the children saw what was inside, everything changed. Gene Wilder, who played Wonka sang a song, and the lyrics have a deeper spiritual meaning, than I imagine he knew when he recorded it. I think of it often, especially when I enter the doors of the church. Wonka sang: Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you’ll see, into your imagination. There is no life I know, to compare with pure imagination. Living there you’ll be free, if you truly wish to be. If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to do it, wanna change the world. There’s nothing to it.
Now, imagine the next time you enter the doors of the sanctuary, you hear echoing Jesus’ invitation to imagine who you are and whose you are. We are the blessed children of God, who come together and answer Jesus’ invitation to “Come, and to truly see.” If you come innocently like Charlie, seeking to be transformed by the love of Christ, you will be transformed, and in Christ, “you will know there is no life I know, to compare to life in God’s family. Living there you’ll be free, if you truly, truly wish to be.”
(1) Norris, Kathleen. “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary [Ja 20, 2008].” The Christian Century, vol. 125, no. 1, Jan. 2008, p. 22.
(2) Willson, Patrick J. “Come and See.” The Christian Century, vol. 110, no. 37, Dec. 1993, p. 1297.