Come and See

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 26, 2017, the eighth Sunday after the Epiphany and the occasion of Baptism and Covenant Renewal.

Text: John 1:35-51


At a red light the other day, I pulled up behind a car covered in bumper stickers:  “Our God is an awesome God.” “Smile, God loves you.” “Do you follow Jesus this close?” My reaction was swift and visceral.  It was not positive.  And these were benign messages—no “Heaven has extreme vetting” or anything… And yet I had this negative reaction; as I caught myself, I began to wonder why.  After all, I believe that God is awesome, that God loves us, that it’s important to try to follow Jesus’s teaching and example.  So why the negative response?  My apologies to anyone who may have Christian bumper stickers on their cars; but I think I tend to have a reaction to “bumper sticker theology” because I worry that Christianity so often gets portrayed as shallow, cheesy, and irrational—and sayings like “Jesus is my co-pilot” and “God answers knee-mail” don’t easily counter that portrayal.  Again, it’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus is with me and I pray for Jesus to guide me every day.  It’s just that these sound bites without any context or grounding in what they mean in a lived, human life are so easily mocked and dismissed.  And then there is the fact that folks who seem happy to publicly proclaim their love of God or Jesus on their cars or on street corners tend to be associated with a certain type of Christian, the type who is judgmental and homophobic and believes “God ‘n country” is one word.  This is surely not fair and not always true, but I imagine it feeds my gut response when I pull up behind a car slathered in Christian slogans.


But Jesus says that we are to be witnesses—it’s currently our overarching, guiding scripture, that place in Acts 1:8 where Jesus says “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” And we bring our congregation-wide study of A Disciple’s Path to completion today as we think about what it means to say that we will support the church with our witness. 


So if I feel uncomfortable when confronted with Christian bumper stickers am I just not committed enough to get out of my comfort zone?  Do I have to go there in order to be a witness?  Or maybe, these days, in order to be a faithful witness I need to have lots of tattoos and piercings and “dress down” and reject anything that smacks of “traditional church” so that I might be received as “relevant.”  Or maybe, in order to be a faithful witness I have to belong to a certain political party—or none.  Or maybe what is required is that I never miss a protest or that I serve in a certain role at church or that I eat only organic and fairly traded food…  Ugh.  What do I have to do? What do I have to be?


Last week, our stop along A Disciple’s Path focused on service.  We were reminded that each of us is called to be and to become more fully ourselves. We each have particular gifts and unique ways of contributing to the common good in and through the Body of Christ (the church).  In other words, you don’t have to be something or someone you’re not in order to be a faithful witness.  Today, we are nudged to think about how we—in all our uniqueness—might intentionally share the good news of God’s love with others.  It may or may not involve bumper stickers.


In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the anointed Messiah, “the Son of God,” and the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  And when Jesus walks by, two of John’s crew follow him and are the ones who first receive Jesus question: “What are you looking for?” Just think of all the possible human answers…Andrew and the other guy simply stammer, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  That’s perhaps as good a response as any…Where are you?  If you really are the Lamb of God who will cleanse the world and make it whole, if you really are a greater Rabbi than John who will teach a way of life and love that is holy and true, if you really are the Messiah, the one who will show us who God is, the one who will bring justice, mercy, freedom, then where do you live?  Where can we find you?  Where are you in the midst of suffering?  In the tragedies of life?  In the silences, the questions, the quandaries, the highs and lows? 


And Jesus answers, “Come and see.”  It is significant that Jesus doesn’t launch into a sermon or perform any miraculous act or argue the finer points of scripture or try to convince anyone to intellectually agree with anything at this point.  All we see and hear from Jesus is an invitation:  “Come and see.”  The invitation is to join Jesus on a journey, to be in a relationship with him, to share in the Christ-life, to follow in Christ’s Way.  Jesus says, “Come and see…”  Come and see who I am.  Come and see where I live.  Come and see what it means to abide with me.  Come and see how I am with you in both suffering and joy.  Come and see that while you seek to understand me, to name me, I am naming you.  Come and see who you really are and what you are capable of.  Come and see that you have a role in ushering in the vision that you seek, come and see that you are a co-creator with me to bring about an increase of peace, love, reconciliation and joy. Come and see…


Andrew, after receiving this invitation and being with Jesus for a day, found his brother Simon and said, in essence, “You gotta come and see this guy—he’s the real deal!”  And after Jesus invites Philip to join him on the path, Philip finds Nathanael and shares what he’s found.  Now Nathanael was evidently a bit prejudiced and skeptical: “What good can come out of Nazareth?”  Philip simply repeats Jesus’ invitation, “Come and see.”  Do you see the pattern in the story?  Jesus invites someone to walk with him; that person has an experience on the path that leads them to invite someone else to come along.  Notice that Andrew and Philip didn’t go door to door or begin disseminating tracts on a street corner.  They reach out to people they know—Andrew to his brother, Philip to his skeptical friend.  And their message is one of hope and joyful discovery: Come and see the life I’ve found!  Come and receive the love and purpose that can be found in relationship with Jesus.  Come and see for yourself! 


Folks, this is evangelism; sharing an invitation to experience God’s love through Christ-shaped relationship in community.  The word “evangelism” (which simply means to tell the good news) has taken on some serious baggage over the years, as it has come to be associated with a certain brand of Christian perspective, theology, and practice.  That association fuels my negative gut-reaction to certain types of outward expressions of Christian witness (bumper stickers).  And I imagine that association is among the reasons that many of us don’t really acknowledge our spiritual practices and church engagement outside the walls of this place.  But it’s confirmed again and again that the way most folks find their way into meaningful, life-changing spiritual community is through the invitation of a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker.  Last weekend, as the women on retreat shared the stories of how they came to Foundry, I was struck by the number who came at the invitation of another. 


We are evangelical about all sorts of things in our lives—we get excited about TV shows that touch our hearts, writers who inspire us, technologies that we can’t live without, “must-see” places… These kinds of things we passionately and easily tell others about because we believe they are a gift and will make a positive difference in others’ lives just as they have for us.  If a service project, a ministry team, a small group, a Sunday School class, or participating in worship gives you joy, hope, a sense of purpose, an experience of giving and receiving God’s love, why not invite someone else to join you?  


I have said that we are currently in a struggle for the soul of the Christian faith.  There are those who want to hold Christian faith hostage, equating “orthodoxy” with a list of restrictive rules about what human life, bodies, and relationships can be and making the name of Jesus not that of a God who is with us in solidarity and love, but of a God who’s out to get us if we make one misstep.  This makes our evangelism that much more important—to live and share an experience and vision of Christian discipleship that understands orthodoxy primarily in terms of loving God and loving others; that seeks to embody that love in sacrificial acts of prayer, presence, gifts, service, and witness; that does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly along the path with God.  “Come and see…” That is the invitation we have received.  And our unique witness—even with those who may be skeptical—can be just as simple.  Just come and see…