I wonder what it would take for us to really believe, and to experience for ourselves, that Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness of our world, or as John puts it in today’s reading, the lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin?
What would it take for us, in other words, to experience the reality of the world we live in as centred on and shaped by the logic of reconciling love that is capable of transforming the limitations of our lives, rather than dominated by, and inescapably shaped by our most fearful circumstances? And I wonder, in part, because already, as the flooding begins to subside in parts of central and south-east Queensland and parts of New South Wales and Victoria, and other communities still brace themselves for the water bearing down on them, already the voices of some Christian leaders have been heard saying that this is a punishment. God, according to one prominent Christian pastor, is picking on the women and men and children of Queensland because of the Godless policies of the Australian government. Everything that happens, according to this view of the world, is God’s doing, and when tragedy strikes that means God is punishing somebody. The same Christian leader made much the same unloving and unhelpful comment after the Victorian bushfires devastated dozens of tiny communities two years ago.
The same sort of fatalism, but without the vitriolic hatred, underlies the words we’ve all heard following some tale of miraculous survival or rescue: ‘mate, somebody up there was looking after you!’ As though somebody up there picks a few to protect while allowing others to be swept away, plays favourites by leaving this house standing while whole streets burn. And maybe the unspoken fear behind all this is that God, in fact, is actually not in control of the accidents and the human evil of this world, that our faith actually isn’t some magic formula by which we can be sure that tragedy will always strike elsewhere – and reveals the human longing for security that makes us invest so much effort in looking for reassuring formulas – whether the secular version of looking for somebody to blame or the religious version of imagining a God who at least will protect us personally.
‘Ultimately’, a colleague wrote the other day, ‘ultimately as Christians we do believe that God is in control. That the Lamb of God does in some way, take away the sin of the World. And that all the savagery and despair and evil, all the stuff of the world that is not of God, is in some way dealt with by Lamb of God. Ultimately we believe that, but we are still left wondering and questioning, sometimes whistling in the dark to reassure ourselves.’ We need a sense of where the centre is, of how we can know the reality of Jesus as the Lamb of God who redeems all that in our human experience is irredeemable.
And I think this is what John’s Gospel points to, most clearly, in our reading this morning. And it points us to the reality of Jesus, not as an incantation or a formula, not as a divine insurance policy, but as a relationship and a way. And the key is in the interchange that Jesus has with two of John the Baptist’s disciples, one of whom John’s Gospel tells us is the brother of Simon Peter. ‘What are you looking for?’, Jesus says to them. This is straight after John has proclaimed Jesus as the one to whom he has been pointing, the anointed one of God. ‘What are you looking for?’
One commentator I read last week says the disciples are completely caught off guard, fluff their answer like daydreaming schoolboys caught off guard by a teacher’s question. So they say, ‘Oh, teacher, where are you staying?’ Um, well wouldn’t you think as disciples of John they would have had a better answer than that?
But actually it’s not, I think, such a bad answer. In many traditional cultures, certainly in the world of Jesus, to ask somebody where they come from is to ask more than that - more than a street address or directions on a map, the question is really asking: ‘who are you? What are you about? Where do you come from? Who are you related to?’ And not only that, the question introduces one of the key words of John’s Gospel, one of the words by which the Gospel writer tips us off that something important is being said here, the word, in fact, that informs us what Jesus does for us and how we are meant to respond. And the Greek word is meno, which the translation of the Bible we read from this morning translates here as ‘to stay’, but often gets translated as ‘to abide’. So the disciples ask Jesus: ‘where are you abiding?’ Do you start to get it? Jesus has just asked them: ‘what are you looking for? Do you want a guarantee, a magical formula, is that what you really want?’ And the disciples who, I think, do get the point, reply: ‘where do you abide?’ And so Jesus says: ‘come and see’.
It’s an answer that cuts through 2,000 years of crusted on Church doctrine, through all our preconceptions and whacky self-serving theories about ourselves and about God. Because we are invited, not into a set of doctrinal beliefs or ossified creeds but into a relationship, an experience and a journey. Check it out, come and see for yourself.
And so they came and saw where Jesus abided, and they abided with him. The first thing is what this is not saying. It isn’t saying, this is what you have to believe. Here is a set of propositions of facts – about Jesus, or about God - that are going to explain the world to you and keep you safe. It says something way simpler, something more like: ‘spend the day with me. Abide in me.’ Because abiding, in the sense of faithful remaining with, identifying with and dwelling with, is what according to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the Word is ultimately about. The Word who is in the beginning with God, and who is God, pitches a tent among us and abides with us. So what is being offered is both organic, woven into the structure of created reality, and foundational to who we are and who God is.
Many Christians initially come to faith because we want to know what is certain. What life means, what the world around us means. And because deep down we want some assurance that whatever life means, it will endure. And our yearning for certainty leads us, sometimes, to invent structures that appear to give just that. Structures that all too often get shaken when tragedy strikes, or when human evil breaks into our lives, and our certainties start to get exposed as a bit flimsy.
What’s being offered, instead, is not certainty in the sense of protection from the world around us, or even certainty in the sense that we will never again doubt or lose our way – but certainty in the sense of knowing where the centre of our existence is. Certainty in the sense of locating our lives within the matrix of relationship with the source of all life. What’s being offered is a journey from the centre, which is God, into the future, which is also God; and the assurance that whatever happens, we will abide in the relationship that informs us who and why we are.
We have seen, in the stories coming out of Queensland over the past few days, a remarkable sense of a people rediscovering who and why they are, of communities struggling together and supporting each other, rising above individual loss to reach out to others in greater need. It’s a lesson in abiding, of recognising that what makes us who we are is remaining in faithful relationship, living from the centre of that relationship which invests hope in all things, and that even in the midst of heartache and tragedy believes in the future. As we abide in God, and God in us, so we also learn to abide in one another and this, ultimately, is to learn the way of Jesus.