Text: John 1:29-42
One of the most famous baseball comedy acts to ever take place was the humorous exchange known as Who’s on First? between Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The skit was originally done on the radio live and the duo rarely performed it exactly the same way twice, but the general premise behind the exchange has Abbott trying to make sure Costello knows everyone’s name and position on the baseball team. Thus they began the hilarious and confusing exchange of Who’s on First.
John 1:29-42 sounds a bit like an Abbott and Costello routine. It’s hard to keep it all straight. Who is the he of whom I said? Who is the man who ranks ahead of the me person? Then there is the myself who did not know him whoever him was. It’s all a bit confusing until the end when John testifies to the fact that this “one,” “this man who ranks ahead,” “the one who I myself did not know but who sent me to baptize,” “the one whom the Spirit descends upon and remains,”—this ONE is Jesus or as John testifies: the Son of God.
John chapter 1 is all about the identity of Jesus. The chapter begins with those beautiful poetic verses, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” A few verses later John continues, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” And John concludes the first part of chapter 1 with the profound affirmation, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
In the first chapter of John, the writer is trying to answer questions from some priests and Levities from Jerusalem who want to know who this man named John the Baptizer is. The questions arise because John has been baptizing in the area and the inquirers want to know with what authority he is doing such. He confesses to them that he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet, but that he is simply “the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, making straight the way of the Lord.” He tells them that he is the one who baptizes with water but another, who baptizes with the Spirit, is coming after him. Then John launches into the part of the story we have read today trying to explain who this one is that is coming who baptizes with Holy Spirit.
It’s not easy, as we see in John, to answer the question, “Who is this Jesus person?” This week, when I met with the young adults, I asked them the question, “As you look out at the Jesus landscape, which Jesus, among all the choices out there, do you most connect with?” Their responses were enlightening. A teacher in the group said she most identified with Jesus the rabbi—the teacher who was always speaking in parables and leaving things open-ended for his students. Another teacher in the group said that her passion in teaching was helping her students learn and experience what it means to help others, to do something good and meaningful for someone else. She concluded that she felt most connected to the images of Jesus the servant. A young man in the group, who had grown up with a mother who was a Baptist minister for 23 years, felt really connected to Jesus as the Christ figure. He offered a beautiful statement about how he understands the Christ figure as an image of wholeness for his own life. Then there was an unnamed young adult youth minister in the group who said she felt most connected to the Mark 7 Jesus—the rebel, the non-conformist, very human Jesus. Another talked about Jesus in terms of the transformative Jesus—the Jesus who is always transforming our lives.
And then, at the end of this conversation, came my favorite moment. One of the young adults who had been sitting at the end of the table taking all of this in said kind of quietly and non-defensively, “I don’t really like Jesus. I don’t understand him or his story so I usually don’t have anything to say about him.” Immediately, the young man who had talked about Jesus as the Christ figure, and who was sitting directly beside this young adult turned and said, “Wow, I needed to hear that.” It was a beautiful moment of two people listening and hearing one another’s honesty about whom they understand or don’t understand Jesus to be. “Who is Jesus?” is not an easy question with one definitive answer.
As the week went along, I decided to continue this conversation about who Jesus is with the lectionary group. To them, I posed a slightly different scenario. I said to them, “If someone came up to you right now and ask you ‘Who is Jesus?’ how would you answer them in four sentences or less.” See if you connect with any of their responses:
- A historical man crucified by Pilot. From a literary perspective he is a conundrum. And what we say about him says far more about us than him.
- God is love. Jesus is the one who showed me through his actions the love of God.
- Jesus is the one who allows for the struggle that is necessary to live into God’s dream in the world.
- Jesus is my guide to explore what’s in me and my spirit and how I can reach out to form community.
- Jesus is the most compelling human being that ever lived and to ignore his story is to ignore what it means to be human. Community is the way to access this Jesus.
- Jesus is the thing that connects us to each other.
- Jesus embodies the mystery of God in creation.
- Jesus’ life and his teachings is how I want to lead my life.
- Jesus is someone who doesn’t use violence. He is not afraid to touch a leper because his way is not about safety. And his compassion is unending.
- Jesus is alive, real, and here for you whoever you are. He may not be who your church tells you he is.
- A man who was given a clear vision of who God is and how God wants to relate to us. He lived and he died because of his passion to share that vision with others. And to live into that today is a hard road to walk.
- His purpose was to show us who God is. If we want to have a relationship with God we need to do what Jesus taught us to do.
- Whether Jesus is a myth or reality, the stories told about him are important in guiding us to live a good life.
And the elder of our lectionary group said this:
- Sometimes I get to see Jesus. And sometimes I get to be Jesus.
Each of these statements testifies to how fourteen individuals see and experience Jesus. None of them are meant to be definitive statements. None of them are right or wrong. Each tells a story of how one person’s life is being shaped by the Jesus narrative—who he is perceived to be and what his life was about. They are beautiful and powerful affirmations of faith.
And that may be the larger point of this story from the Fourth Gospel—that when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, our primary job is to see and share our experiences, our affirmations, our truth.
John’s account of Jesus’ baptism, is different from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each of those writers records Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized, describes the descent of the dove, and shares the message of the heavenly voice. But the Fourth Evangelist is characteristically different. In John’s gospel we get a second-hand account from the testimony of John the Baptist. But, quite interestingly, he doesn’t actually baptize Jesus in this gospel; instead he only shares what he sees. He sees the dove descend upon Jesus and tells others what he sees. That’s it. Andrew later does the same. He tells his brother what he and John’s other disciples saw—the person they believe is the Messiah—and invites Peter to come along and see for himself. But it’s not just what John the Baptist and Andrew do. It’s also what Jesus does. When Jesus notices some of John’s disciples following him, he asks them what they are looking for. They, in turn, ask where he is staying. He doesn’t give an answer. He doesn’t question further. All he does in response is make an invitation: “Come and see.”
This weekend we celebrate the legacy of a man who issued a similar invitation. Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech was such an invitation. He had seen and experienced a vision of God’s beloved community and he said to the nation, “come and see.” He had seen and experienced through his faith a Jesus who taught about a just society—a society in which all people are created equal, communities in which people treat one another with dignity and respect and he said to the world, “come and see.” He saw something meaningful and he invited other people to come along with him and see. And his life also changed our world.
As people of faith, we don’t have to do heroic acts. We don’t have to go out and save the world. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t even have to pretend that we do. All we are asked to do is share what we see and experience and invite others to walk along the journey with us all the while knowing that they will see something about this Jesus that we haven’t seen that might just change our lives.
Why is this question of who Jesus is still being asked today by people of all walks of life? Why is the question, “Who is Jesus?” so important? For me, it is not the historical critical question that scholars make it. It’s not the doctrinal question that the church makes it. No, the question of Jesus’ identity is important because as people of faith our identity is linked to his. Who Jesus was and is says something profound about who we are as God’s beloved.
And so, it is my turn to answer the question in four sentences or less. Wherever there is love, compassion, justice, resurrection, forgiveness, grace, mercy and wholeness in the world that is Jesus. He is the Spirit within us and he is flesh that lives among us. And like Suzanne Newton, sometimes I get to see Jesus. And sometimes I get to be Jesus.
In four sentences or less, Who is your Jesus?