Two Powerful Stories and a Distraction
Published 6:25 pm Friday, January 20, 2023
By Charles Qualls
Every time I prepare to teach or address this story in a message, I realize that something in the scripture here bothers me. 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 us 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. 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. 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 actually bookend the fascinating movement of the disciples.
For instance, John’s ability to discern who Jesus was, and then point beyond himself to the presence of the Promised One is remarkable. We pay John the Baptist a lot of attention, and eventually we might reach the conclusion that he’s pretty important. But for what?
John himself was a popular presence. Crowds were flocking out to see him. Disciples were following him before they did Jesus. Church leaders found him so compelling that they wondered if he might be a resurrected prophet, like Elijah for instance. But rather than bask in the lavish movement he had created, John used that movement to announce someone else’s presence: Jesus.
The other powerful story we should instead focus on happens after the disciples awkward shift. Now that two of John’s disciples were physically walking behind him, Jesus turned and broke every rule I was taught about outreach in my Church Training years. “What are you looking for?” he asked them.
Not necessarily a cynical question, his direct query was a chance for them to state their intentions. It was also a chance for Jesus to decide whether this was the kind of follower that would benefit him to take on. Apparently, they answered correctly in the space of one word when they called him Rabbi. The scripture translates the word for us as “teacher,” giving us a key to understanding why it was a good answer.
His affirmation of their answer comes in the fact that only then did he invite them to come with him. Their clarity of who he was, and of why they felt ready to become part of his movement, is central. Because they followed him, Peter himself also soon joined in.
When we come to church, are we clear as to why? Is it out of habit and schedule? Or, are we there because Jesus is the central and formational presence for our lives? These are two powerful stories, once we push past the distractions.