We all know and remember when personal life-changing events happened – when you met the love of your life, when a parent died, when your child was born. We also remember when we heard the news of world changing events – when Pearl harbor was bombed, when Kennedy was shot, when the World Trade Center was attacked and collapsed. Momentous, life-changing events.
What about the first time you encountered the love and grace of God, and knew it for what it is? What about the first time you said “yes” to following Jesus? In the evangelical tradition, that is a pretty standard question. Most evangelical Christians are able to remember clearly when they accepted the over-flowing grace of God, and committed themselves in faith and gratitude to following Jesus. It becomes an important anchor in their story of faith, as they give witness to the way God has worked in their lives.
For Christians from a more main-line Protestant tradition, or from a Catholic or Orthodox tradition, that question can be harder to answer, because many of us grew up in the faith, and so we can’t really remember a time when we did not know and love the Lord. Or we may have come to faith gradually, bit by bit, and it is only by looking in the rear-view mirror that we can see how far we have traveled in our faith. We don’t always have that bright line marking a before and after.
But I hope all of us can identify one or several times when we have experienced a major spiritual growth spurt, a fresh out-pouring of the Spirit, a new clarity about Jesus and his claim on your life, a spiritual awakening. Take a minute and see if you can remember such a time.
This morning’s Gospel is all about meeting Jesus for the first time, and the impact it had.
In John’s version, this meeting takes place the day after Jesus had gone to the river to be baptized by John the Baptist. The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us about that event; it happens off-stage, and we only hear about it afterward. John and some of his disciples are out in public and John sees Jesus coming toward them and points him out to the disciples: “Look, that’s the guy I was telling you about; he’s the One who is God’s Passover Lamb, the Anointed One. I know it because I saw the Holy Spirit come down on him in the shape of a dove, and God told me that’s who he is.”
It happened again the next day with Andrew and another of John’s followers. Jesus was passing by and the two disciples followed. When Jesus heard them, he stopped and asked them: “What do you want? What do you seek? What are you longing for?” And they asked Jesus where he was staying – but that word is about more than just a lodging place. The word really is about abiding – enduring, being rooted in, being steadfast. They wanted to know what gave Jesus his grounding, the roots of his being. And his answer to them was: Come and see; come and find out for yourself; an invitation to enter into relationship with Jesus, to learn from and be transformed by him. And Andrew and the other disciple remember very clearly when this momentous thing happened to them – four o-clock in the afternoon. From that point on, everything began to be different for them. That was their bright line.
But even as they crossed the threshold of the Kingdom of God being inaugurated in their midst, they did not just sit tight, pleased with their own spiritual awakening, their own up-close-and-personal moment with God’s Messiah. Andrew went off to find his brother Simon, so that he, too could come and meet Jesus. And in very short order Jesus changed his name to Cephas (in Greek), Peter (in English) – meaning “the rock,” you might his name was changed to Rocky.
And that happens so often throughout the Biblical story. Someone has an encounter with God, a deep and life-changing experience, and God changes their name, their identity - an outward sign of the inner reality that the Spirit of God is bringing to fruition in that person’s life. And we know from the Gospel record that Andrew and Peter and the other disciples would abide with Jesus for the three years of his public ministry, which gave them a grounding and a preparation for their mission that was launched when the Holy Spirit was given to them at Pentecost, after the astounding events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
That’s the way Christian life works – for all of us. Jesus calls us to abide with him, to put down roots through prayer, and Scripture, and worship, and song. Jesus asks us to stay close, to learn from him, to watch and listen. But eventually, we get sent out – first for a test-drive, and then for longer runs, on more difficult terrain, sometimes in bad weather, sometimes with a great deal of urgency. Our life of service to others and the world in Christ’s Name is always fueled by the Holy Spirit. Our work on behalf of the Kingdom of God is driven and shaped by what we have learned, and absorbed, and internalized by our prayer, and study, and reflection. And eventually we get to that place where we need to return, rest, abide once again, if we are to be ready to be sent out on the next mission, the next errand for God.
Today is the birthday of someone who knew all about being on a mission for God: Martin Luther King, jr. His birthday is January 15th, and for the last 20+ years it has been set aside as a federal holiday – not just to remember the life and work and witness of Dr. King, but to inspire Americans from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, from all walks of life, to work for the ongoing justice and equity of our national life.
But where do those values come from in the first place? The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But where did Jefferson get it? In reality, the truth of equality comes from God, from knowing - as we read in Genesis- that we have all been made in the image of God, that human nature was designed to reflect the divine capacity for goodness, for love, for relationship, for co-creating with God. And if each person - male and female – has these God-given attributes, then wealth, or rank, or race, or status, or gender cannot change or take away the dignity and value of any person. Dr. King knew this, lived this, and his study of Scripture, theology, and history deepened his conviction.
We each have a mission for God. It may not be as dramatic as Martin Luther King’s; we may not always be clear on what that mission is. And it will change and develop over time. But our mission for God is always grounded, fed, watered, supplied by our ability to abide in Christ, to put down deep roots with Jesus so that we may draw strength, knowledge, wisdom, healing, joy, and power to do that which we are called to do: to proclaim the Good news of God in Christ in word and action, as the Spirit leads us.
Let us pray in the words from the hymn “Lift every voice and sing”, written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899, that became known as the anthem of the Civil Rights movement:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, N
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 15, 2017