As we walked through the front yard up to the three familiar brick steps that led up to the front door of the house, I always tried to peek into the sunroom to see if I could catch a glimpse of my grandfather sitting at his desk. It was where he spent most of his time. We would then knock on the door and wait, for it takes a while to answer the door when you are over ninety years old; but as soon as the door opened, I knew exactly what my great grandfather was going to say. "Are the boys from Richmond County finally here?" We had driven all the way from Augusta, Georgia, to Atlanta, just a little over two hours away; but he always made it sound like we had driven from the other side of the country.
Paw-paw always teased us to make us feel welcome, and it worked. He gave us a hard time because we were from Augusta, as if it was a far away land. He probably teased us because we liked him teasing us, so each time we stepped over the threshold of the house and whenever we left, I can still hear his voice, "You boys are alright, even though you are from Richmond County."
I knew he was just teasing, but every time we left the house, I always wondered what it meant to be from a place. How does a place shape us? How does it get deep down inside of our bones, where it is always a part of us? No matter where I go, I will always be a boy from Georgia. Our place says something about who we are.
Jesus knew full well the implications of that question. From the beginning of the Gospel of John to its very end, people are concerned with where Jesus is from because they are concerned about who he is.
We can still hear the incredulous voice of Nathanael. Philip had come to Nathanael, putting his hands on Nathanael's shoulders and looking him straight in the eyes, letting him know that he had important news. He said, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." But Nathanael could not believe it. From Nazareth? Are you sure? Without even thinking, the words came out of his mouth, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"
This same question comes up again at the end of Jesus' life--this time when he is standing before Pilate. Pilate asked, "Are you the King of the Jews?" But this was not Pilate's real question. Pilate's real question was, "What is the truth?" Jesus had come to testify to the truth, so it begged the question. But throughout the entire conversation, there is only one real answer that Pilate receives, "My kingdom is not from here." The truth was difficult to see because Jesus is not from here.
To be from a place means that it is part of who we are. Jesus was from Nazareth, which was about fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee; and it was about twenty miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. It was west of Mount Tabor and about 1,300 feet above sea level. But when Jesus was asked about the truth, Pilate was not seeking information readily available in the yellow pages of Nazareth. It was not a question about his hometown. It was a question about a new way of life.
As a good friend once told me, "It is hard to be a small town boy with a big city haircut." You look the part, but you feel out of place. Falling off of the turnip truck in the big city entails a learning curve because the way of life is different. The rhythm of each day is foreign--the buildings are so tall, the crowds are so thick, the pace is so fast.
Basic questions are baffling. How do you hail a taxicab? Are the sandwiches at the sidewalk lunch cart safe to eat? Will the doorman really keep my packages when they are delivered? Where do I walk my dog? The way of life is different.
The disciples knew this much. They were a diverse group, trying to get used to a new way of life. There was Simon Peter, who was always quick to speak. He proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, but he also denied Jesus three times as well. But then there was Thomas, who kept quiet until he was absolutely sure of what to say. He needed to see the scars on Jesus' hands before he could speak up about the resurrection.
There was Andrew and Philip, who brought a group of Greeks at Passover to meet Jesus for the very best reasons, but then there was Judas, who brought people to see Jesus for the worst reasons. Then there was Matthew the tax collector, whom we know all about. Jesus said, "Follow me," and Matthew followed; but then there was Matthias, who is mostly unknown and chosen by casting lots in order to replace Judas. They were all learning how to follow and how to lead, how to wash people's feet and how to dust off their sandals, how to feed large, hungry crowds and how to drink from one, single cup.
They were a diverse group, trying to get used to a new way of life. All of them were different, but they all had one thing in common. They all knew what it meant to leave home. They had left home to follow Jesus, not just leaving a place, but also leaving to follow a new way of life.
It is difficult to leave home, like the t-ball player who reared back, swung as hard as he could, and then got his first hit of the season. He watched as the ball rolled down the third base line. Everyone cheered and pointed at first base, but he just stood in one place.
If we want to understand the truth about the kingdom of God, we have to leave our place. We have to leave home. To leave home means that we move from what we know to what we do not know. To leave home means that we are willing to embrace what is unfamiliar for the sake of a new way of life.
I can still remember standing at the front of the sanctuary on the third step leading up to the pulpit, looking out at the congregation looking at me. All of the first graders were lined up on the third step. I can still see the bright red carpet on the floor and the balcony overhead. I stood there with a new Bible in my hand with my name on it, a gift from the church. It was a place where I felt at home.
I had grown up in that church. People called out my name in the hallway. I knew where people sat in the sanctuary. I saw familiar faces every week. But that morning, the church said something strange. It gave us a Bible and said, "Take this with you wherever you go." Little did I know that I would eventually leave home.
We do not have to travel far in order to leave home. Sometimes it is a matter of a few miles, where we encounter something new that teaches us about following Jesus. We come to learn that the Bible is not a cul-de-sac, where the journey ends; rather, it is a busy intersection that sends us out in all directions, pointing us to the living God, so we see the world with new eyes.
Jesus is not from here, but he came with a way of life that is bound to the needs of others. He came because of the brokenness of the world, so we begin to fully understand the gospel of Christ when we listen to the gospel through those needs, which always call us beyond our place.
We are always thankful for our home. It will always be a part of who we are. I am thankful that I am a boy from Georgia, but when I stood on the steps of the church and it placed a Bible in my hands, it was inevitable. The church knew then that the kingdom of God is not from here, so they knew I would leave home, even if I never moved away.
They knew what I did not know. They knew that seeking the kingdom of God meant discovering a larger world of discipleship and grace. We leave home and discover the grace of discipleship and the discipleship of grace.
We live what Kathleen Norris calls a "vowed life." Our baptismal vow, our commitment to follow Jesus, widens our world. As in all of our commitments--to our spouse, to our friends, to our work, to the church--they widen the circle. It may seem as if our vows narrow our lives, making a single commitment, but they widen the circle of our lives. They give our lives focus, but they widen them.
As in the words of Ruth, "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." Our vows widen our lives to include another.
We learn to live each day with gratitude for where we are from, but we widen the circle to include our neighbor and the stranger, to include empathy and hope, to include the poor and the hurting, to include forgiveness and grace, to include our friend and enemy.
We live with a new innocence and integrity, humility and hope, grace and gratitude, faith and forgiveness, widening the circle of our lives, for Jesus is not from here. We seek the kingdom of God, where Christ reigns, who came from another place in order to transform this one.
Let us pray: Gracious God, we are thankful for the places where we are from and the people they have made us. We are grateful for how those places have taught us, led us, and loved us. As we hear the voice of your calling, give us the strength and the courage we need to follow Jesus. Lead us to new places, where we discover the grace of discipleship and the discipleship of grace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
- Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 40.