Isaiah 49:1-7+Psalm 40:1-12+1 Corinthians 1:1-9+John 1:29-42
There was a news story that captured headlines one year ago in November, at least for as long as headlines last these days, when missionary John Chau was killed by residents of a remote North Sentinel Island as he attempted to convert them to Christianity. He had been warned not to go. This was a Neolithic tribe who made it clear that outsiders were not welcome, yet in his zeal to win souls for Jesus, Chau approached the island not once, not twice, but three times, and the warning arrows turned deadly.
At the time, I was in my first semester as a doctoral student, and there was a lot of discussion about this amongst my classmates and our professors. From where I sat, Mr. Chau was a renegade zealot who did not respect the boundaries of the islanders. Such populations are extremely vulnerable to disease. While Chau did not “deserve” to die, it could certainly have been expected that his actions might result in his death. Some of my classmates admired his fervor if not his methods, and it led to a deep discussion about the role of missionaries in the world today.
Now, I am sure that I don’t have to tell you that Christian missionaries have been the perpetrators of deadly violence for centuries in an effort to spread the gospel. Carrying disease, threats of punishment and death for noncompliance, and imposing foreign cultures and beliefs on so-called “backward” peoples were part of the missionary handbook.
As the discussion with my classmates continued, however, it took an unexpected turn. Three of my classmates were born in countries in which missionaries did their work, and to a person these three said that they would not be Christian, would not be pastors, would not be sitting in a class with me at Drew had it not been for missionaries. Korea, Ghana, and the South Pacific island of Tonga were all Christianized by missionaries, and in Korea, at least, the largest Christian churches in the world flourish to this day.
It is obvious that had someone not told someone else about Jesus, none of us would be sitting here today. The last words in Matthew’s gospel are:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:19-20)
Jesus commands us to go and tell, and if there is one thing I know about Episcopalians, the last thing we want to do is to evangelize others, to tell Good News to those we meet.
In our gospel story today, there are two interesting dynamics at play. One is that John the Baptist, the one who started this movement according to this fourth gospel account, is deflecting attention from himself. John had invited people out into the desert, away from what he viewed as a corrupt Temple system, and baptized them. He claims not to have known who Jesus was and only baptized people because that’s how Jesus was going to be revealed to him. And sure enough, when John baptized Jesus, the Spirit descended on him. “Here’s your man.” And so, John is now pointing Jesus out to others: there he is, the Lamb of God, the anointed one.
John may have started a movement, but he understood that the fulfillment of God’s purposes was not his to do. I don’t know if he ever considered responding differently, like maybe railing at God, “What am I? Chopped liver? Why can’t I be the One?” But that isn’t what John did. He was only the signpost, and he played that role well, even as it cost him his life at the hands of Herod.
John had a pretty significant following, and one of those followers was Andrew, the brother of Peter. Our text tells us that two of John’s disciples heard him say “There’s the one you’re looking for; he’s the Lamb of God,” and off they went after Jesus. It’s probably a good thing that I am not John the Baptist, because I would have failed at this big time. If I said to all of you, “You know, Laurie Wurm is doing amazing things over in Jersey City; I think she’s the one you ought to follow,” and you all actually did that, I’d be devastated! I don’t know, maybe John did have a twinge of longing, but if so, we don’t even get a glimpse of it. He understood that his role, as ours is from time to time, was to commend someone else, come what may.
The second interesting dynamic is that Andrew and his unidentified friend left John, followed Jesus, spent some time with him, and didn’t just go back to John or go home and think about what he had told them. No, Andrew went to his brother Peter and told him they had found the One, the Messiah. And as we know, the rest is history, at least for Peter, the Rock, whose throne still sits in the church named for him in the Vatican. And all because Jesus said to Andrew, “Come and see,” and Andrew went to Peter and said, “Come and see.”
A few weeks ago, I asked you all in my newsletter what it is that brings you to All Saints. Why do you show up here on Sunday mornings when there are so many other places you might be? Jesus asked Andrew the same question: “what are you looking for?” And then he told them to “come and see.”
We know that human beings have a desire for meaning and purpose, we know that there is something beyond possessions and careers and money. The big questions of life and death cannot be answered by things such as these. We’re all looking for something.
So, what are you looking for? Jesus invites us to come and see. Jesus invites all of us to come and see, and this, I believe, is our model for evangelism. We aren’t asked to have all the answers or to understand all of the theological underpinnings of what we are about here at All Saints. All we have to be able to do is to recognize that there is something, someone, calling us, and we in turn call on others to “come and see.”
I still don’t believe that imposing Christianity on anyone is the right way to go. But even I need to challenge myself, to question whether or not my soft view of evangelism is less about respecting others and more about lacking courage. I can live a life that demonstrates the kind of love Jesus taught, but if I don’t tell anyone that I live this way because of Jesus, then what good is that? How will anyone know if I don’t tell them? How will this Church – not just All Saints but Church with a capital C – survive if we don’t invite people to come and see?
It’s not about beating people over the head with a bible and telling them all the things they have to do or not do. It’s about love, God’s love as revealed to us in the person of Jesus.
So, what are you looking for?
Come and see…and invite others to do the same.