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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 01/14/2018

A pivotal point in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke comes when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a pivotal point in those gospels because it’s the key faith question not just for Jesus’ first disciples but for all of us. It’s also the question the early church struggled with as it sought to describe God in light of what had been revealed in and through Jesus. It was the key question in the development of Christian theology.

“Who do you say that I am?” is perhaps the central question, but curiously, it never comes up in John’s gospel, not directly anyway. Instead, what John does throughout his gospel is to throw out possible answers to the question. Different names and different images and different angles are all part of the sometimes confusing dialogues and discourses that make up the gospel. John provides many ways for his readers to think about Jesus; images like the light of the world, the good shepherd, the bread of life, the vine, they all come from John. With all the names and images John does have a goal, a goal stated in chapter 20, that goal being to help his readers ultimately believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Not surprisingly, that goal matches the answer the disciple Peter gave to the “Who do you say that I am?” question in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

What you could say though, is that in the way he approaches his gospel, John offers many paths of discipleship, many ways to follow. There is a goal; it is important to remember that; believing in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God is the goal which is good to keep in mind in reading any part of John. But John, maybe more than the other gospels, seems to understand that there is more than one way to get to that goal. Everyone’s journey isn’t the same, everyone’s image of Jesus isn’t the same.

Today’s text is part of John’s account of the call of the first disciples. In these verses and in the ones that immediately precede them, the characters involved use the following titles for Jesus: Lamb of God, Rabbi, Messiah, the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, teacher, Son of God, King of Israel and—Jesus own title for himself, Son of Man. All of them are possible answers to “Who do you say that I am?” None of them is wrong; none of them is rejected by Jesus. Through these responses of Jesus’ disciples then, John winds up exploring the question of “Who do you say that I am?”

The way he organizes this material in chapter one is interesting though. All these titles come in the last part of the first chapter; but in the opening verses John has already poetically announced exactly who he believes Jesus is: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” John begins with this elevated, cosmic, mysterious image of Jesus, the Word, both with God and the same as God. In terms of Christology which is the study of who Jesus is, it doesn’t get any higher than that: Jesus equal to God.

So John starts with this cosmic, “in the beginning” image that places Jesus outside of historical time, but then there is a quick shift. That cosmic beginning is rooted in a historical, real time event, and so John continues with some details about the historical person of Jesus. There’s no birth narrative, no Christmas story here; instead, John moves to the beginning of Jesus ministry as he calls disciples. Epiphany is about Jesus identity becoming known and that identity includes disciples; they are part of who Jesus is.

It’s in the ensuing dialogue that makes up the rest of chapter one that we get all the previously mentioned titles for Jesus, starting with the response of John the Baptist and then moving to some of the other disciples. After those otherworldly opening verses though, now we’re very much back in this world. These verses make no indication that Jesus is anything other than a normal human. Those first disciples, located in real time, hadn’t read John’s opening “In the beginning” prologue. Jesus, located in real time, hadn’t performed any miracles, or shown any signs or engaged in any teaching. There is no apparent reason to find Jesus remarkable; he’s just Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

While the text offers no explanation as to why, some who come in contact with Jesus do immediately recognize him as remarkable; remarkable but not necessarily divine. When we hear titles like Messiah and Son of God, we perhaps hear them as divine, but at that time the expected messiah was not thought of as a divine figure and Son of God was a title sometimes used for the emperor, so the meaning of those titles isn’t totally clear. Other titles like rabbi and teacher clearly are human categories that give Jesus a degree of authority but many others would be recognized as having the same kind of authority. What John does throughout his gospel though, is to poke around at these titles, exploring various aspects of Jesus’ identity, both human and divine.

Regardless of whether they are understood as human or divine, what all the titles do is to invite someone into a relationship with Jesus for whom all the titles are correct. By including such a variety of titles what is also recognized is that there are different starting points in this relationship. As I said, when these titles are applied to Jesus, he doesn’t reject any of them, nor does he reject the person who uses it. He never says, “No, that’s not right; go away and think about it some more.” Instead, he says, “Come and see,” or “Follow me.” The invitation is extended no matter how complete or incomplete the person’s perception of Jesus is.

The reality is that for any of us, our perception of Jesus is probably never fully complete, but that doesn’t preclude a relationship. Jesus doesn’t demand that everyone’s theology be rock solid; instead he says, “Come and see.” He recognizes that a relationship with him is and should be a journey and that it might take you in a variety of directions, moving you from one title to another. The goal is always out there, believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but there’s no condemnation if you haven’t reached the goal yet or even if you had reached it at some point but now aren’t so sure. Jesus’ response is still going to be the same: “Come and see.”

This is really a great evangelism text, evangelism being one of the words that tends to scare Lutherans even though we say we’re part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and also the official name of this church is Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church. One is reminded of the joke about what do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who goes around knocking on doors but doesn’t know what to say.

In this text from John, Jesus gives us something to say: “Come and see.” You don’t have to have all the answers; no one does although some think they do. You don’t have to have all your theological ducks in a row; even the church fathers and great theologians throughout the ages haven’t agreed on everything. Decisions are made and official theology is adopted, but the discussion always goes on.

Jesus’ “Come and see,” is an invitation into a relationship, an experience which is an encounter with the divine. For some, the relationship and experience comes from belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God but for many, that belief comes out of the relationship; the relationship comes first. This text from John takes both into account. Some of those first disciples seemed to already be at the point of belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, or at least close to it, others only saw Jesus as a teacher. Jesus invited all of them to “Come and see.”

Another point worth noting in this text is the chain of invitation. In John’s gospel, it’s almost like you’re not a real disciple, not a real follower of Jesus until you have invited someone else, until you’ve extended the chain. In the verses before today’s, John the Baptist points two of his disciples in the direction of Jesus, then one of them, Andrew, before following Jesus, goes and invites his brother Peter. In today’s verses, Jesus calls Philip, but Philip doesn’t follow until he finds Nathanael and tells him about Jesus.

In some fashion, all of us are part of such a chain. Someone, somewhere, somehow invited us to “Come and see.” For some of us, it might not have been so much an invitation, more of an order from our parents, but the effect is the same; the relationship was made available to us.

We are all part of a chain that extends back to those first followers of Jesus. As followers in the present, we don’t want to break the chain and Jesus has given us the words we need to keep extending it: “Come and see. Come and see.”

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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