Like many people, I began this new year with the intention to read more, and while I’ve often held this intention or hope, I don’t often live into it, but this year I had a stack of books that I was excited to jump into and two of them have been particularly striking this week as I prayed through our text set for today.
The first, a Henri Nouwen book, The Life of the Beloved. In it Nouwen, a Catholic priest and ivy league professor turned pastor for the L’Arche community of folks with intellectual disabilities, shares that the push behind this work is the relationship he had with one of his secular Jewish friends; out of their friendship emerged a request for Nouwen to write about why a life of faith matters, and to attempt to tie it to the lived reality of those who don’t share his faith. The point at which a life of faith and a life without it intersects, Nouwen asserts, is found in our belovedness; that we, by our created nature are so well loved and deeply cared for by God, that what is at the heart of how we navigate this world and who we are rests solely in the fact that we share in Christ’s Belovedness.
Last week, we heard about Jesus’ baptism as it is told in Matthew, in which we hear of this very belovedness, and that we can follow God’s call on our lives when we accept this belovedness. This week, we get John’s version of Jesus’ baptism, but we never actually have the events of the baptism relayed in this gospel account, at least not like last week. Instead, we get John the Baptist’s reactions to Jesus; we hear John proclaim that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and is the one for whom he has been preparing. The story of Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit descending like a dove comes here not with a loud affirmation from the heavens that Jesus is chosen, that Jesus is the beloved, but with an eye witness account. Here we get John the Baptist’s testimony of all that he has seen. And on the next day, John was standing with two of his disciples who turn to follow Jesus; Jesus then asks these two soon-to-be disciples, what they are looking for, they ask where Jesus is staying, and in response to this question, Jesus offers the invitation, “come and see.” They followed Jesus and remained with him and then eventually went out to proclaim that the Messiah has been found. Then Andrew brought his brother Simon to Jesus, and Jesus looked at him and named him Cephas.
Every week that I am set to preach, I spend prayerful time in the text; generally something arises, catches my attention, captures my imagination, or ignites some hope within me. But if I’m honest, this week was a struggle. John’s account of the important moment in Jesus’ life and ministry which we heard in a dramatic and moving way last week seemed to fall flat. And maybe this is because I had just done a quick scroll through the news: an entire continent on fire, a potential war, and impeachment, and that was just on the home page. What does this passage have to say to all that is going on in our world, in our society, and in our community? What can possibly be the good news of God in Christ in Jesus offering a vague invitation and handing out a nickname to Simon Peter? It just all seemed so disconnected to the really difficult places in which we find ourselves as we navigate the 21st century.
And then I picked up the second book that captured my attention this week, Seculosity, published by author David Zahl, in which the definition of this new word he coined can be discerned from the sub-title of the book: how career, parenting, technology, food, politics, and romance became our new religion and what to do about it. Seculosity, Zahl claims, has stepped in for religion in many places; we aren’t a society that’s getting less religious, but rather we are finding new homes for our religion in the secular world. And it was then that Jesus’ words to the two disciples came back to my mind and cut like a hot knife, “what are you looking for?”
What are you looking for in the attempt to be the ‘best’ parent and partner or the ‘right’ kind of political force in your social media feeds? What label can you place upon your yourself that will represent you and convey who you are to others? What are we looking for in all of these areas where God is present, but is not in the focus? What are we looking for? We’re looking, I believe, for our identity.
And the truth of our faith is that our identity comes not from any sticker we could put on our car or laptop, and it isn’t even who we are in relation to another. Our identity isn’t even those things that we really love about ourselves, no, our identity is found in the truth that we are beloved. We don’t have to earn this beloved nature; we don’t have to prove the we are worthy of God’s grace, but what is required for us to step into our call, is that we rest in our identity as the beloved.
After Jesus asks the disciples, “What are you looking for?” he invites them to “come and see.” Come and see a life that isn’t defined by your relationship to others, or what your credit score is, or how curated your social media accounts are. Come and see that your soul rests alone in God and in your created belovedness, from which you cannot be removed. Come and see that when we orient ourselves to a life dictated by this belovedness, we can’t help but step into all to which God is calling us. But after we recognize that we are equipped to live into our call and we can rest in our identity as the beloved, what comes next? After we are able to articulate what we are looking for, it is important to go out and seek it out.
Jesus extends the invitation to come and see to these two disciples, they follow Jesus and their next step is to go out and spread the Good News, “we have found the Messiah!” We have found the one who brings hope to the world, we have found the one whom death cannot defeat. The good news in this passage, then, even with all the wars and natural disasters is that the hope of Christ is real, that with all of the things in our world today, clamoring for us to stake our identity flag in it, that true source of who we are is the beloved of God.
So, I ask you, what are you looking for? And how might you go about finding it? Are you looking for ways in which to draw your mind to the hope of Christ? Are you orienting yourselves to the ways in which God is calling you into this life of the beloved; are you looking for ways to help others see it as well? Are you looking for ways in which you can see, name, and invite just as Jesus does in our text? One thing I know to be true is that God has instilled in each of us an identity as the beloved of God, and we don’t have to live into the narratives that are given to us, we can go beyond and take Christ’s invitation to come and see, and then it’s our job to go out into the world proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ and extend that same invitation: come and see.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky for Epiphany 2A on January 19, 2020.