There Goes a Lamb, Epiphany 2(A) – January 15, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Winston Churchill once called his political opponent “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

At least for much of the 19th Century popular art, hymnody and poetry tended to portray Jesus as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Part of the problem would seem to be that we confuse love with sentimentality. Social media, for all its wonders, seems to have fueled concepts of anger and love, easily protected by a firewall of separation from physical contact. Pictures of cute little kittens fight for screen space with graphic videos of atrocities. “False news’ stimulates belief, particularly among those who haven’t received basic training on how truth should be distinguished from falsehood.

So when Jesus walked by and John announced to his followers, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! “, what were they to make of such an improbable claim? If they had the slightest familiarity of their faith and religious tradition, two words stood out. They were “lamb” and “sins.”

The edifice of first century Judaism was based on two traditions. The older, the one that placed the Temple center stage, invoked memories of their father Abraham, as he attempted to offer his wife Sarah’s only son Isaac as a human sacrifice. In the story God’s messenger instructed Abraham to substitute an available animal, a goat, for his son. The story has many nuances, but its most important is the step it makes from barbarism to a more benign concept of substitution. God was going to accept an animal, albeit one in mint condition, as a blood offering by which the person, family, tribe or nation were “atoned”, made one with their Creator. Around this system grew the Tabernacle and then the Temple cult, supervised by an hereditary priesthood descended from Moses’ brother-in-law Aaron.

The second vital part of Jewish religion in the days of Jesus was the synagogue system. The Old Testament tells the story of Israel, torn apart, situated between aggressive world powers, conquered again and again. The conquering powers sought to cower the Jewish people by destroying its visible connection with God. Those Jewish people taken hostage “by the waters of Babylon” not only wept; they gathered together to hear their Scriptures read by authorized teachers. In first century Palestine Temple worship, with its substitutionary sacrifices, situated in Jerusalem, jostled together with synagogue practice, hearing and receiving the Scriptures and applying them to daily life.

Note how today’s Gospel brings together these two practices, not in a theory, but in a Person. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, “who died that we might be forgiven, who died to make us good.” Jesus is also Rabbi, the authorized teacher, in whom God’s law is renewed and applied to the new citizens in his chosen nation.

If you are up to date with the never-ending church squabbles about how Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is a substitute for our sins, our family sins, the Church’s sins and that “of the whole” world, the important point is that God knows how this is true.

Our minds are best focused on the Eucharist, rather than on theories of how Atonement works; on a Person rather than a theory.

In the Holy Meal, we re-member. We bring to life in the here and now, the sacrifice, once offered for the sins of the whole world. We eat and drink, ingest, the life of Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Before we reach that point in the service, we hear Jesus the Rabbi, the authorized teacher, expounding to us God’s law, the words Jews heard at the time of Jesus and the words Christians have heard since the time of Jesus. And we corporately confess our misdeeds, missteps and flirtations with evil.

We do so as God’s community of priests, as we stand between God and the human race, the nations, the Church, our families and ourselves.

Sitting in your pew this morning, look up, and with the mind of faith see the Lamb of God, the one you call Rabbi, and in your hearts pray, “ Have mercy on us. Grant us peace.”

Written by The Rev. Anthony Clavier. Clavier is Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, IL. He is also co-Editor of The Anglican Digest.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 2(A).

A call to relationship, 2 Epiphany (A) – 2014

January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

This doesn’t happen very often with our new lectionary, but today there’s one theme that can be found in all four of our readings from scripture. It’s the notion of being called.

The readings from Isaiah and from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians both begin with words about being called, about being set apart by God. This fits right in with today’s section of John’s gospel, in which we hear his account of what is usually called “The Call of the First Disciples.” John the Baptist points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of the Baptist’s disciples hear this, decide to check out this Jesus guy, and end up abandoning John and going off with Jesus instead. It’s this call, the call of these first two disciples, that is the one we need to pay special attention to if we want to understand what it’s usually like to be called by God.

After all, this business of being called is a tricky and an important thing. It’s easy to get confused about it, especially the way we use it these days. We tend to equate being called in terms of the language and context in 1 Corinthians and Isaiah. That is, with being told by God to do some specific thing, usually a pretty major thing. We talk of being called to be ordained, or being called to a special – usually a full-time and professional – form of service, almost always in the church.

And that’s about all we do with being called, and it’s really handy. You see, by looking at things this way, most of us can listen to the story of the call of these disciples and neatly separate what happened to them from what’s going on with us. “After all, they were called – we’re just ordinary folks.” So we’re safe from all that call business. It’s about someone else.

An interesting perspective on this can be gained by serving on one of the diocesan Commissions on Ministry. One of the things a Commission on Ministry does is interview people who want to be ordained; and those folks really struggle with this idea of call.

A few of the people interviewed will have had powerful experiences of the presence of God, and they think that this means they have to do something new and different – for Episcopalians, alas, that usually means to run off and get ordained.

But the vast majority of people interviewed have come to where they are through pretty ambiguous, complicated and circuitous paths – paths that have led them to suspect that it might be a good idea to get ordained. At the same time, they aren’t sure if they are “called,” whatever that might mean. So they all just dread talking to the commission because they know they’re going to be asked about it, and they all think they ought to have a better answer than they do.

But the fact is, this whole way of looking at, and at looking for a call from God as a call to a specific job or a task really misses the main point. Sure, there may well be such a thing as a special call to a specific ministry or type of service, although that is both rare and very easily misunderstood. But that’s not usually what the Bible is talking about when it talks about being called; it’s not what’s really going on in the gospel we just heard; and it’s not what is usually going on with us as God calls us.

Being ordained, or being a missionary or a monk or something like that, is quite secondary to the real, the central call we all have from God. Those two followers of John the Baptist who Jesus asked to “come and see” were called exactly as we are called. They were called to be disciples – just as we are called to be disciples. They were called to be disciples in their place and in their time, for the sake of their generation.

One of the things this means is that we don’t have to imitate Andrew’s, or John’s, or Peter’s actions in order to see, with some clarity, how their call is like the call of Christ to each of us, and to all of us.

The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not first, or primarily, call them to do a particular task or to fill a particular role. Indeed, he didn’t ask them to do anything. Our call as Christians is not initially for us – as it was not, initially, for his first disciples – a call to tasks.

It is, instead, an invitation to relationship. Jesus does not say, “Do this”; he says, “Come and see.” Only later does he give specific content and direction to where that might lead. There’s a big difference between a call to a task and an invitation to relationship.

To respond to a call for relationship, for intimacy, is a very different thing from signing up to do a piece of work – in the same way that falling in love is very different from getting hired. To set out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved, it’s negotiable, it has its limits, you know what it looks like when the job is over, and so on. To be called into relationship – to be called in love – this is an invitation to enter a mystery; it’s to move out, blindly, into uncharted waters.

When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is calling us first to himself – to a personal intimacy and a shared life. That’s what matters, that’s what is primary. Everything else is left behind; everything else becomes secondary.

Now, if we look at Jesus’ call from the perspective of what’s left behind, it’s a call to repent. But if we see that same call from the perspective of what comes next, then it’s a call to seek him first, to know him better and to move toward making that relationship the central focus of our lives.

When we are called, and we are called, each and every one of us – just look again at our Baptismal Covenant – this is primarily a call to be held by Jesus for a while, and not to go anywhere, not to do anything. It’s a call to find out where Jesus lives, and to spend some time living there. By and by, this will lead us somewhere. But we won’t know where for a while, maybe not for a long while.

This is why a sense of call – something that wanders through our lives from time to time – can often be both frightening and frustrating. We might know something, perhaps something very important, is going on; something that has to do with all of our life and much more. Then, grabbing on to the wrong notion of a call from God, we start looking for what we are called to do. After all, we live in a society that insists that for something to be important it has to produce.

Instead of that, we are, especially at the beginning, simply asked to get to know God and Jesus a little better. It’s a call to listen, and to wait. It’s a time to imitate the psalmist, a time to “listen to what the Lord God is saying.” We need that first. We need that most.

This is what happened to those first disciples – they stayed close to Jesus for a while. They learned what they could and came to know him a little. Then, admittedly long before they thought they were ready, Jesus gave them things to do. For some, these tasks were dramatic, for others they were quiet and invisible. The call to Jesus will always, in one form or another, find expression in ministry. But the call comes first. There can be no real, abiding and sustaining ministry without relationship with Christ, without obedience to him as he calls us to himself.

We are called to be disciples. Each of us. That call comes with our baptism, and that call to relationship and ministry will haunt us, and track us down; it will trouble our sleep and whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It will grow stronger and weaker and stronger again. It may seem to go away, but it always comes back. Because finally, it’s our Lord calling us to himself. It’s his call to life, to joy and to true peace. It’s a call to all of us.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

Come and see, 2 Epiphany (A) – 2011

January 16, 2011

Isaiah 49:1-7Psalm 40:1-121 Corinthians 1:1-9John 1:29-42

So very often, the gospel passage appointed for a given Sunday contains one major theme, or one simple story. Not today. Today’s gospel is chock full of proclamation, imagery, and narrative. Let’s review the major themes in these dozen verses of scripture:

• John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him and proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God.”
• John the Baptist reminds us that he baptized his cousin Jesus, and the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.
• John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the very Son of God.
• Two disciples call Jesus rabbi, or “teacher,” and Jesus invites them deeper into the mystery, with a simple phrase, “Come and see.”
• Finally, we have an abbreviated recounting of the story of Andrew and Peter deciding to follow Jesus and saying, “We have found the Messiah.”
There’s so much material for theological musing that it almost seems as if this should be the subject of many sermons, not just one. And the theological assertions in today’s gospel reading are profound: “Here is the Lamb of God,” “This is the Son of God,” and “We have found the Messiah.”

It makes us want to ask Jesus not just “Where are you staying?” as the disciples did, but also “What exactly are you up to?” “What is your purpose?” or even “What do you want of us?” To these, and to all such questions, Jesus issues the same gentle invitation: “Come and see.”

What exactly is this Lamb of God? Come and see.

Who is the true Messiah? Come and see.

Why should we follow you, Jesus? Come and see.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “Why not give discipleship a try?”

This is a difficult thing for us in the twenty-first century, is it not? First of all, we know that to choose to follow Jesus is a major life decision. Discipleship requires dedication, work, and sacrifice. And as a consequence, we want that choice to be an informed decision.

For most of us, making a major life decision is an arduous and prolonged process. We need time to do research, to consult experts, to ask the opinion of friends. We may consult Consumer Reports before buying a car, or even a toaster. In medicine nowadays, they are very careful to secure your “informed consent” before the most minor procedure, and modern pharmaceuticals come with warnings about their many side effects.

So we carefully sort out the options, search for information online or in books, and begin to compile a list of pros and cons. What are the benefits, and what is the cost? We have all done this at one time or another. In a manner like this, we may have made a decision to enter into a primary relationship – or to leave one. To buy a house, or take a new job, or move across town – or even across the globe.

Making informed decisions is a worthy endeavor, as it helps us avoid repeating some of life’s biggest mistakes, making a bad situation worse, or facing the mountain of unintended consequences of a poor choice. In a way, our society’s tendency to encourage us to “do the homework” so thoroughly may be one of the reasons why Christianity appears to be in decline.

Let’s see. It may go something like this: if we choose to become a disciple of Jesus, then we will be expected to work harder than we ever imagined, to give more than we thought possible, and to surrender our stubborn need for control to serve the divine will.

And what do we get in return? This, of course, is where the invitation to “come and see” becomes so pivotal.

Because, on the face of it, we get nothing – at least nothing the world would consider a “gift.” Just more work, more need requiring us to give, and more and more opportunities to surrender. That’s because the gift of God’s grace is free, and offered to everyone without condition. There’s nothing anyone can do to earn it, deserve it, or be excluded from it.

And in our transactional world, this just does not seem like the kind of situation to which we aspire. No. In our world things go more like: first I give this, and I then get that in exchange. This is how it is supposed to work, right?

But the gifts of God’s mercy, love, and grace – they just are not like that. They are ours, freely given, without condition. So, if we choose to become disciples of Jesus, and to give our time, talent, and treasure, what do we get for all our trouble?

Come and see.

The values that Jesus puts forth in his gospel do not really make any sense in the system in which the world assesses worth. You really have to immerse yourself in the mystery before you can even begin to understand.

The world cherishes wealth. The world esteems power. The world treasures control. But the gospel calls us to love the poor and serve the needy, without condition. And the gospel compels us to surrender our lust for power and give up our need for control. And what are the potential consequences of that?

Come and see.

The Savior of the world, you see, is also the one our scriptures call “a man of sorrows,” “acquainted with grief,” and “despised and rejected by men.” That surely doesn’t sound like someone destined for success or greatness, does it?

The spiritual life is full of paradoxes, those seeming contradictions that actually express a deeper spiritual reality. Paradoxes such as: gaining our life by losing our life, enjoying true abundance by giving away our possessions, and becoming followers of the all-powerful one who emptied himself of power.

You really need to “come and see” in order to understand – or even begin to understand. Without regular experience of the liturgy, our Sunday worship is just an empty ritual. So come and see, again and again. Without an ongoing discipline of prayer, our utterances are nothing more than endless demands of God.

Come and see, and try again. Without personal sacrifice, our lives can become meaningless, focused more on the accumulation of material goods than on sharing the love that comes from God.

So come and see the Lamb of God, on whom the Spirit descended like a dove, the Son of God.

Come and see Jesus the rabbi, who teaches us the way of salvation.

Come and see Andrew and Simon Peter, who drop their nets and leave behind everything to follow Jesus.

The invitation was offered to those anonymous disciples so many years ago, and it is offered to us again today. Come and see – and be enriched in Christ, in speech and knowledge of every kind. Come and see – and learn again that God is faithful, and that you are called into the fellowship of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Come and see – so that you too can declare with confidence, “We have found the Messiah.”

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Drew University and currently serves as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, N.J.