“The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’*
The First Disciples of Jesus
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed*). 42He brought Simon* to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter*).
I’m not sure you’ve really come to know this about me yet, but the movie industry and I are great friends. There’s something very intriguing to me in observing how stories come to be conceptualized and told on the big screen….and some of the movies (or even TV shows for that matter) that I hold in particularly high regard are ones in which the director simply gives the actors the framework of a plot within which to work – the bare essentials of a storyline – and then allows them to develop their own characters and dialogue. This makes room for the amazing improvisational talent of actors like Steve Carell, Catharine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Seth Rogen to really shine. I really marvel at people like them who can enter an unscripted situation, and produce something that’s witty, original and often satirical on the spur of the moment. It doesn’t just happen, though – all that raw talent had to be developed through lots of intentional work and risk-taking and rising to opportunity. No bird learns to fly without leaving the nest, as the saying goes, and gifted improvisers have learned to both hone and trust their comedic instincts.
I’ve been giving the notion of improvising a lot of thought over the past while as I’ve been endeavoring to find something useful and perhaps even spicy to say in my Vestry report, and then subsequently during two days of rather focused and intense conversation I had this past week with other members of the diocesan leadership team. There can be no denying that big changes are ahead for the Anglican Church here in the city of London and in the diocese as a whole. This isn’t news to most of us, and as I reflected in my Vestry report, up to the present St. James has had the luxury of being relatively insulated from this kind of reality by virtue of its size, its culture, and its relative stability. The Church beyond us, though, is struggling with the reality of diminishing resources, both human and financial; and the equilibrium that we take for granted here has been replaced in most other churches by a significant lack of predictability, and in some quarters a palpable sense of impending disaster. In the Church, as in any sphere of life, things that threaten our equilibrium make us unsettled, upset or even angry – and the natural response is to batten down the hatches and try to ride it out rather than engage in the conversations and processes that might result in something different than what is familiar and known to us. Simply put, we resist change because change is often unscripted: it implies work; it often implies improvisation; it implies the necessity to adapt to something unknown – and it’s that reality that we find unsettling and anxiety-provoking….even if we have the sense that the new thing, whatever it may be, might turn out to be better than what currently exists. Folk wisdom offers many a blanket panacea to address that kind of situation: things like, “better the devil you do know than the devil you don’t.” Intellectually we may know that the only constant thing in life is change, but we do tend to resist it with every fibre of our being.
I wonder, then, if Jesus really knew what he was getting into when he decided to challenge the status quo and embody a new spiritual direction for humankind: whether he really understood human nature and its almost pathological resistance to doing or thinking about things differently. Well, if he did, he didn’t let it affect or deter him. Oh granted, he sometimes complained about it, or expressed frustration about it, but it didn’t stop him from forging ahead ….and that’s rather key to understanding and living the Christian faith. It’s not really about being entrenched in maintaining the status quo at any cost, but more about allowing the Spirit a little room to breathe.
Our gospel reading gives us more than a small hint that in Jesus, God was doing something new and different, something as yet unexperienced, something that would alter tightly held and hotly defended suppositions about eternal truths….and today we’re being offered a glimpse into the notion of adaptability that we can and perhaps should pay attention to.
Today’s story all starts with a changing of the guard. John the Baptist has had a tight group of followers, a group that includes Andrew; and John’s message to his followers on this particular occasion is that Jesus is now the one they should be paying attention to; he is the person to take over and lead them forward; so he gives them permission to transfer their allegiance and loyalty from himself over to Jesus. John’s whole purpose has been to announce and set the stage for the Messiah, and now that these tasks have been completed, it’s time for them to take the next step under new leadership.
Two of John’s disciples, perhaps surprisingly, are so intrigued and so willing to investigate this suggestion that without so much as a ‘by your leave’ they immediately set out to find Jesus – curious enough to go and see if John is right. Jesus receives them, and by the end of the day they’re convinced that he is indeed the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Lamb of God, just like John has said. Their curiosity, their openness, has resulted in something wonderful, something unexpected. Convinced that they’ve been introduced to something energizing and potentially life-changing, one of them, Andrew, goes off and finds his brother Simon and brings him back to Jesus – who promptly renames him Cephas, Aramaic for “rock”. We’re not told why, but my suspicion is that it’s a bit of foreshadowing on Jesus’ part. It’s like he has said to him, “Today I’ve changed your name, but just hang around with me for a while, and I’ll change your life.” And that’s how the gospel proceeds to unfold: in story after story we’ll continue to hear how lives are changed when Jesus becomes part of them.
The willingness to look beyond what is to what might be is a core theme in this season of Epiphany, and it dovetails with the current thrust of most conversations occurring now in this church, in this diocese and in the Anglican Church as a whole. Today’s gospel would suggest that trusting God and taking risks opens the door to as-yet undiscovered opportunity, even if that might mean relinquishing some of what is known as comfortable and familiar. The key is in recognizing the call to faithfully continue to assess and reassess who we are and who we are called to be, trusting that something new, exciting and life-giving – and yes, unscripted – might lie just beyond the next bend in the road. Without a doubt these are exciting times in the life of the Church, in which we are being called to participate in the birthing of something new, faithful, and life-giving. For the opportunities that lie before us, for the invitation to ‘sing a new song’, and for the faith that be believe moves mountains, we give thanks to God and together say Amen.
Th Venerable Nancy Adams