The comedian Flip Wilson had a standard stock reply to anyone who ever asked him about his religious affiliation. “I’m a Jehovah’s bystander” he would say proudly. “They asked me to become a Jehovah’s Witness, but I didn’t want to get involved.” When I first encountered this answer, although I laughed at the time, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a sense in which Flip Wilson’s religion may yet turn out to be the biggest denomination of all.
Certainly if measured by size of congregation some individual Churches appear very successful indeed, but attendance as part of the crowd may have little or even nothing to do with participation in the principles of living that a particular Church claims to be teaching. In the same way attendance at a top sports event may indeed measure side-line popularity, but is a very poor indicator of how many among the spectators are actually players of the observed sport.
Some of the older members of the congregation may even remember a time back in the nation’s social history when Church attendance was almost taken as a given, because with no Sunday trading, no Sports events permitted on a Sunday and strong social expectations for Church attendance, Church in effect was the only game in town. Although Church members looking at dwindling congregations may look back with some nostalgia to those days, the modern theologian Marcus Borg has a different view. He looked at the decline in mainline churches over the previous forty years and said: I quote (and this from Borg’s book entitled: “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary” P303)………
“The good news in this decline is that, very soon, the only people left in mainline congregations will be the ones that are there for intentional rather than conventional reasons. This creates the possibility for the Church once again to become an alternative community rather than a conventional community, living into a deepening relationship with a Lord rather than the Lords of Culture. This is exciting.”
In the events portrayed by the gospel writers at the start of the faith we now claim to follow, intention not convention was called upon at every step.
It is also appropriate to remember that this particular Sunday on the Church calendar is called the second Sunday in Epiphany. An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, (epiphaneia), literally translated as a manifestation or a striking appearance, is commonly used to refer to a sort of an “aha” moment when suddenly ideas seem to click into place. Although probably originally intended for new insights of a religious or philosophical variety, these days it often refers to a major scientific insight or in fact any re-organization of ideas which allows a situation or major puzzle to be understood from a radically new perspective.
Today’s reading is relatively straightforward and to the point. It lists a number of these aha situations, each centred on intention rather than convention. I doubt if the participants in the gospel writer John’s account knew why they had been affected to the point that it made a difference. However as Mark Twain, that master of homespun philosophy once put it: “You cannot rely on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”
John the Baptist had been anything but following convention when he accepted the task of telling the Jews that in order to show they were ready for the coming of the promised Messiah they would need to behave like gentiles converting to Judaism and have themselves baptised in the river Jordan. We can only imagine how annoyed the Priests and Pharisees became at when they saw Jews participating in John’s baptism. Each of those being baptised, were in effect stating, by their participation, that they were living in a time when the convention of their religion had not been true to its principles. Notice too that the choice John offered was very different from our modern equivalent of confessing we have gone astray which is sometimes nothing more than inviting people to shut their eyes and say AMEN to someone else’s prayer. By contrast, the only way someone might have accepted John’s baptism was to undergo an undignified and very public intentional display of a kind which the participants would have known full well was unacceptable to conventional religious leadership.
Jesus himself not only reportedly made his own intentions abundantly clear with his own baptism, but did so in such a way that it was clear to his observers that he was setting himself outside convention. When John the Baptist pointed to him and called him the Lamb of God it may well be that John had suddenly realised by that stage, by Jesus’ acts and words, that here was a probable Messiah who was setting himself up as an eventual sacrifice to what he believed. An aha experience if ever there was one.
John the Baptist was so affected by his encounter with Jesus that according to the gospel writer, he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and found in this confirmation that, unlike his own Baptism offered with water, that Jesus would be the one to baptize in the Spirit.
Jesus also apparently recognised that gaining followers was not simply a matter of offering explanation in an intellectual sense. We cannot be certain what had been in his mind, but by requiring action instead of offering pat answers to their questions the net result was to give the disciples a new way of seeing.
Two of John the Baptist’s disciples were so struck by John’s reaction to Jesus, their imagination was roused and they saw Jesus as a Rabbi and asked him where he was staying. Notice he didn’t answer directly but instead said come and see for yourselves.
This appeared to have given them an even clearer view of Jesus as someone really significant and they went off to fetch the man Peter who was eventually to become the leader of Jesus’ disciples. Whether or not Peter would have dropped everything to follow if Jesus had not quickened his imagination by renaming him Cephas (the rock) we can never know. What we do know is that Peter’s experience of Jesus changed him from being an observer, to that of an intentional participant. His imagination was awakened and he now saw things differently.
Now for the more difficult part….. Well strictly speaking it only becomes difficult if we accept the challenge to learn from this passage and then try to apply what we have learned for our own individual situations.
I mentioned earlier one of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain. Here is another related quotation, this time from Henry Thoreau “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
If we were for example to think of ourselves as the modern equivalent of the disciple Andrew, whose main contribution appeared to have been as with today’s reading, namely that he was often the one who introduced people to Jesus, straight away we come up against a small problem. Jesus is no longer present in the flesh.
So where is this Jesus we would like people to see? After all for those we bring – the only flesh and blood they will encounter is that of his modern day interpreters and followers. In short, they can only encounter Jesus as in nothing more or less than those like us. And that will inevitably mean encountering as many different manifestations as there are individuals attempting to follow Jesus. We are by no means all John the Baptists, or a Peter the rock, or an Andrew the introducer. Yet for all of us, flawed as we are, whether or not others will see part of the Christ in us, will ultimately depend not on the conventions we follow, but rather on the areas of life into which our intentions take us. Remember Thoreau. It is not what they look at ( or, let’s be truthful…. rather….. not what we hope they will look at) which matters. It is what they actually see ….. in us! And unfortunately if they stick around it will not be simply meeting us in the controlled, safe and regulated environment of a Church setting – or a service of worship. If the first disciples had to come and see Jesus in his own local setting, surely those who come to see his modern day representatives are going to have to settle for doing the same.
We may well prefer that the Church should post advertisements to invite people in to meet the minister who can then organize a meeting with Jesus by proxy through his or her sermons? But isn’t better to admit we probably all know that the poet Edgar Guest had it right all along when in one of his poems he wrote : “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” Like it or not, if we want to throw in our lot with Jesus, our lives are the sermons that will be seen. Since Jesus was able to summarize all that was important into two simple interrelated commandments, love God and Love your neighbour as yourself, perhaps the quality of our lived sermon will be discovered in how well we are able to live our love for neighbours – because in so doing we live our love of God.
We may not have been to theological college – but neither had John the Baptist, Andrew, Peter or even Jesus himself. By the law of averages we are unlikely to have the right characteristics to make us likely successful disciples. Even some of Jesus’ original bunch might not have scored too well in that department. But it is not our eloquence, or education we are measured by when it comes to discipleship. Perhaps it is simply the matter of getting our imagination into focus as we come to realize how Jesus might appear when we see him in that new way.
Today is the second Sunday in Epiphany. Can you identify that moment of Epiphany for you?