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2nd Sunday after Epiphany

The beautiful gothic architecture in Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : Guest Preacher Sunday 19th January 2014

Sermon by Rev. Michael Patella, OSB

1 Cor 1:1-9;

John 1:29-42                                                                   

About 30 years ago, when I was living in New York, I was standing at the east corner of 65th St. and Broadway waiting for the light to change so that I could cross.  And there, standing on west corner of the same street, recognizable in a group of about half-dozen people was Sir John Gielgud, who at that time was arguably the most accomplished actor of his day.  At first, I had my doubts it was he, but once the light did change, and he and I approached each other, there was no doubt in my mind that yes, that man was Sir John Gielgud.  Immediately, a fierce conversation began in my head between my Freudian superego and me.

I told myself to run after him to ask for his autograph, but the superego squelched that idea.  He’s British, said the superego, and the British do not like people fussing about them and making a scene.  British or not, I rejoinded, he is an actor, and all actors love flattery and adulation in all forms, at all times, and in all places.  Since I felt that I had the better argument, I silenced my superego, made an about face, and greeted Sir John.  He was delighted by my interruption, and he thanked me.

In today’s Gospel, we also have someone being recognized within a crowd.  John the Baptist sees Jesus, and like a paparazzo standing with a fans outside a theater, he shouts, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” How is it that John the Baptist recognizes the Lamb of God from among everyone else milling about in that crowd?  Was he expecting Jesus?  Was this a pre-planned chance occurrence?  Was the Baptist overcome by Jesus’ holy bearing?

It seems that such a question bothered the early Christian community as well, for the text has John the Baptist himself giving us a clue on how he picks out Christ from among the many.  He says, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33).

Although we can spend the rest of the day discussing what actually took place when the Spirit descended upon Jesus, we can get a good idea of the event by following up on that second part of the John’s declaration,  “…the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” for at this point, John brings all of us, all the baptized into the picture.  If we are baptized into Jesus, then through Jesus, we become the Lord’s presence here on earth.  What do we look like?

Throughout the Christian world, at this very moment, we are celebrating the Week of Christian Unity.  As baptized members into Christ’s body, we must then ask how others recognize us.  I must be honest.  This question is one I really struggle with.  How do non-Christians view us; indeed, how do we view ourselves?  We could dwell on our shortcomings, I suppose, and bemoan how they permit Richard Dawkins, Ayn Rand, and others to portray us as ignorant phonies, but that does not really furnish an answer.  After all, if we are Christians, sin and shortcomings are part of the package; we openly declare by our baptism that we are redeemed sinners, so it should not be a surprise to anyone when we privately and openly fail.  Even if we could clean up all our hypocrisies—an impossible task in itself—we must be able to show something more remarkable, to be seen as leaven in the world. 

I like to think that we are all in that diverse crowd milling around John the Baptist, when someone might, just might call out, “Look, here is a Christian, someone who follows the Lamb of God!”  How would that person know?  What might that recognizable difference look like? 

Would that recognizable difference be similar to what I noticed in Sir John Gielgud on that sidewalk in New York, a difference honed by acting and elegance?   No.  Other attributes should form the identifying marks of a Christian.   John’s Gospel can help us to note them.

John’s Gospel develops and emphasizes Christ as the sacrament of God.  Know Christ, and we know the Father.  Moreover, Christ is the firstborn of all creation; as his creatures, we have a share in his radiating presence.   

What does this radiating presence look like in us, or rather, how should it look like in us, the rest of us Anglicans, Romans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Calvinists, Evangelicals in the West; Greek and Slavonic Orthodox, Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, Malabars, and other Chalcedonians and non-Chacedonians in the East?  How do others recognize us?

Despite the fact that our historical narrative of Christianity has been, to put it mildly, jagged, Christ’s redemption enables us to learn from our history instead of being condemned by it.  Why any of us choose to be Christians and remain in the Church can be for reasons that we are not very comfortable explaining, even if we could actually express them.  That does not matter.  What does matter, and matter very much however, is that the rest of the world recognize us all as Christian disciples following Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Universe. 

If we are following him, then we are doing as he did.  We follow Jesus in his concern for the poor and outcast.  We follow him in his absolute refusal to entertain darkness and death.  And we follow him in his joy and hope of living in a grace-filled universe. 

Jesus went to the poor and outcast first, and as Christians, we have an obligation to do the same.  We cannot shrug our duty to the downtrodden any more than we can shrug off our baptism. 

Secondly, sin is the state of living in darkness and death, and Jesus has conquered sin and death and laid waste to the world of Satan and demonic spirits.  Various forms of addictions, severe depressions, or abusively dysfunctional relationships are part of the world of malevolent spirits as well.  Such existence is not part of God’s plan. Many of us have probably inhabited such worlds, and if not, we certainly know of those who have. We follow Jesus when we focus that compassionate beacon of Christ’s light on those living in today’s hell.   

And finally, contrary to how outside parties may portray us, or indeed, how we cause ourselves to be portrayed, cynicism, fear, and miserliness are not Christian virtues.  As St. Ireneaus reminds us, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  We are to carry within us the fullness of life of the one we follow, and that is the joy of the Incarnation, the hope of the Passion, and the glory of the Resurrection.  In both good times and bad, the Christian must be the lodestone for the joy of divine salvation.

I doubt any of us could pick out a Christian standing on a corner with the ease that I was able to detect Sir John Gielgud on Broadway and 65th.  And I certainly would not want to inquire of the crowd.  Where I come from, people who ask strangers whether or not they are Christian usually are either trying to sell you a Bible or send you to hell.  No, there must be a better way to pick out Christ’s disciples.

We, this motley crew of Christians, over 2 billion strong at last count, are marching in a two-thousand year old line of pilgrims.  Much as our young choristers and the rest of the procession led us into today’s service, and then as we follow each other to communion, we follow those, who have followed those, who have followed those, who have followed those first disciples, who followed Christ.  In that lengthy procession is our unity.  The road might be arduous and certainly cacophonous, but let it be animated by the splendid brilliance of the love of the Triune God, reaching out to those stumbling in the ditches, illuminating the path for all those lost in the dark detours, and echoing with the joy and laughter of the grace-filled universe, so that when we pass, the rest of the world can say, “Look, there go the Christians after the Lamb of God! Come, let us join them”.