Charles Qualls: Two Powerful Stories and a Distraction

Every time I prepare to teach or address this story from John 1 in a message, I realize that something in the scripture here bothers me. At first, it was just a feeling of unease. On balance, the story is one of identity and awakening. A story that helps us with our own discoveries about Jesus. Among other things, it is an account of how one of Jesus’ most central followers discovered faith through Christ. How could that be bad?

Yet, I kept coming back to something that was off-putting for me. What was it?

For centuries, the Church has had a word for a taboo practice. That word is proselytizing. To proselytize someone, you could be doing something as innocent and good as telling them of your own belief while in a welcomed conversation. Nothing automatically wrong with that.

But we also use the term in another way. One church might essentially steal someone away from a belief, group, or place where they are already active. You poach them into your own circle, if you will, from another they were already established within. So, we use the word to express what many feel is an integrity matter. Namely, that churches shouldn’t recruit against each other.

Churches, and groups within churches, have long been counseled to avoid such practice, if for no reason other than the ethic that if we can take someone from your church, then your church could also take someone from ours.

John had a group of disciples who followed him, perhaps even before Jesus had his own group. Now John, in his certainty and conviction about Jesus, pointed out to his own disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” We read these words, and this is a beautiful testimony of John’s own recognition and faith through Christ. It places him among the very earliest to grasp just who and what Jesus was. The uncomfortable part for me comes in the notion that as soon as John said these words of praise, two of his own disciples switched teams and went right home with Jesus.

Realizing that I am reaching the tolerance limit for some of you at even the hint that Jesus might have done something untoward, that’s not really what I’m saying. Nowhere in the story does it suggest that Jesus actually recruited or even invited them to follow. They did so of their own accord. What I am saying is that it’s at least awkward for me how this plays out. Perhaps for you, too.

All of which illustrates how any of us can react first to something that gets triggered within us and completely miss the real action - in this case, at least a couple of powerful parts of the story that actually bookend the fascinating movement of the disciples. For instance, a fellow pastor notices that the New Testament gospels give John the Baptist a lot of spotlight. We pay John the Baptist a lot of attention, and eventually we might reach the conclusion that he’s pretty important.

But for what? If you only listen to him, or pay attention to those who don’t quite know who this John is, you might wonder why all the focus? Earlier in this gospel, the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” According to John, he “confessed and did not deny it, but confessed….” Why the double emphasis there? Then to throw all attention off himself, he says to them, “I am not the Messiah.” They remain undaunted. “What then? Are you Elijah?” He answers, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet, then?” they ask. John responds again in the negative - “No.” “Who are you?” they ask. “We’ve got to go back and tell the people who sent us something. What do you say about yourself?”

John reached back into his knowledge of the words from the prophet Isaiah and quoted him: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” Then, when they asked him, if he were not Elijah, then why did he baptize, again John deflected “I baptize with water. But among you stands one for whom I am not even worthy of tying his shoe.”

So, in our gospel story today this line of deflection and announcement from John the Baptist continues. John is pointing beyond himself to one who is greater. He is heralding this revolutionary new thing that God has come to do among us. No mere encultured false modesty, John instead actually understands who he is and who Jesus is. He is calling things as he sees them.

Many people say that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. In this case, John is telling us who he is so that he can make the case for who Jesus is. We hear that “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” He goes on to share a compelling, firsthand testimony of what he saw. John was in the water with Jesus when the heavens opened up and the voice of God descended on Jesus’ shoulder like a dove.

He testifies that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. Jesus will baptize not with water, but will bring with him the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is powerful news. To the extent anyone took him seriously, John was announcing the presence of God among us.

Then, because the Promised One had been so awaited, we saw these two disciples take John’s word and decide to follow Jesus. Gerald Slovan, in his writing on this text, observes how differently John shows these two coming into Jesus’ mentorship. Rather than being called to follow as he moves along the way, here in John’s gospel these disciples seek Jesus out and go to him instead.

But what is the other big story here then? It says that in verse 38, “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?’ And he said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

Jesus’ question to them is powerful. It is insightful, and one that I consistently ask anyone who approaches me about joining the church I pastor. I ask them versions of it, like “What are you finding among us that makes you want to join?” or I may ask them, “Is there anything in particular that you are hoping to get here?” These are not cynical questions. They are not borne of distrust or even self-doubt. Instead, they are opportunities for clarity. They are invitations for all parties to know each other better.

The answer that John’s disciples gave must have been a good one, if you think about it. They responded to the question about what they were looking for by first calling Jesus “Rabbi.” The fact that the writer of John’s gospel bothers to translate that for us points us to its significance. Because this word meant “Teacher.” They wanted instruction. They wanted to learn from one they felt was able to teach them.

Then, they asked him where he was staying. As willing disciples, this was tantamount to them saying, “We want to sit at your feet and be under your formation.” Only then did Jesus extend the invitation: “Come and see.” Now, we find out the identity of one of these disciples who changed from Team John to Team Jesus. He was Andrew.

Here the story connects all the dots for us. We are told that Andrew was Simon Peter’s brother. The picture is painted. They will stay with Jesus in general. But Andrew seems to have taken a break and ran off pretty quickly to find his brother. He knew someone at home who might want to get in on all of this.

I played on a championship baseball team during my teenage years. We were good enough to win in our league, but none of us moved very much further to a higher level. For us, those were our glory days. The odd thing is that a couple of the guys had younger brothers. It seemed like they were always under foot. Sometimes they would show up at our practices. They would want to throw with us, and occasionally you could tell they wanted to hit. I saw them mostly as being too young to be out there with us. Truthfully, I saw them as a distraction and worried that they might get hurt because of being a little overmatched.

What I couldn’t see yet was that both of these little brothers would one day go on to start on the high school’s varsity team. One of them played ball in college. The other went into coaching, and today is the manager of a U.S. national all-star team that plays an international schedule.

In verse 41, Andrew “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).”

Hundreds of years’ worth of yearning for God to speak and to move seem wrapped up in Andrew’s invitation to his brother. Now, he too will come to Jesus. Andrew was the first to follow Jesus. He will continue following. The one upon whom an entire people have waited is proclaimed in these words of invitation that Andrew extends to his brother.

But when we consider Jesus’ own inner circle of followers that emerged later in the gospels, we think not of Andrew. We think instead of Peter, James, and John. They were privy to conversations when others weren’t. They accompanied him to the Garden of Gethsemane and even on to the foot of the Cross. Peter may have in some ways been a little rough around the edges. Certainly, he seems impulsive, always ready to jump. But he was the one whom Jesus would later charge with feeding his sheep. Maybe those qualities served him well when it came to faithfulness to his Lord. He, especially, would go on to be regarded as primary among the Apostles - the father of the New Testament Church.

If what we hope for is to get to know Jesus, this story is revealing. But we have to catch ourselves amid our distractions. We have to pull away from the curiosities eventually, so that we catch the essence.

John was convinced. He was clear about who he was relative to Jesus. He understood the importance of his role to prepare the way and to proclaim the good news of One who had arrived.

The disciples discerning who Jesus was is also a powerful story. John’s own testimony helped them to figure things out. Would that we might have their clarity and willingness to follow. If Jesus asked what we are looking for, could we answer like they did? Then, we might be able to make our wisest choices about whose voice was primary in our lives. We might have an easier time telling God’s voice from others that rise above the din.

Two powerful stories that inspire us, because they remind us of who Jesus was and what he can do in our lives as well.