Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
Is life more about questions or is it more about answers? I think you know where I come down on that and I think I’ve got pretty good company. Socrates, who lived 400 or so years before Jesus, said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’m not exactly a student of philosophy but I think what he means is that as human beings we have the capacity to think and ask questions about all manner of things and that not to do so is to be less than fully human.
For Socrates the questions were a path, not to absolute answers, but to greater insight. The trouble is that greater insight will probably just lead to more questions. That could cause some to say that the unexamined life is worth living or at least that it’s more enjoyable. Eat, drink and be merry in other words, because the questions will just drive you crazy. Regarding religious faith it would seem that faith that is accepting and without questions would also be easier, less likely to keep you awake at night. I don’t know though; I have too many questions.
I don’t know if Jesus knew anything about Socrates and the examined or unexamined life, but Jesus definitely made use of what is called the Socratic method of teaching which is about asking questions that cause the learner to think and draw their own conclusions as opposed to the teacher mostly providing information and answers. It’s the method of instruction that Jesus used pretty much all the time both in his formal teaching and in more incidental interactions with people.
Speaking of interactions, the second and third Sundays after Epiphany always focus on Jesus’ initial interactions with his disciples, mostly as he calls the first disciples. We talk about aspects of Jesus’ identity being made known during this season and part of his identity is that he has disciples; he’s not a lone ranger and those who follow become part of who he is. On the Second Sunday after Epiphany which is today, the gospel reading is always from John and as we talk about Jesus’ fondness for questions, in John, Jesus’ conversations tend to be filled with questions. They’re also filled with answers that often don’t seem to have much to do with the questions, thus leading to what? More questions.
A major feature of John’s gospel is the encounters various characters have with Jesus along with the conversations that ensue; today’s reading is the first one. It starts with John the Baptist seeing Jesus and announcing to his own disciples, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” As the evangelist John writes his gospel, like the other gospel writers, he knows the end of the story. Knowing that, they all write the stories of the early part of Jesus’ ministry through the lens of his death and resurrection and from the beginning Jesus’ death was understood to have to do with forgiveness of sins. Jesus, identified as the Lamb of God, is thus connected by John to the sacrificial system that was part of Old Testament faith. Another part of Jesus’ identity is that he is connected to Old Testament tradition and forgiveness as the new Passover lamb.
At first though, John the Baptist’s announcement about Jesus as the Lamb of God gets no reaction from his disciples. It’s not until the next day when, on seeing Jesus again, he repeats the same statement. Then, two of his disciples get up and follow Jesus. It’s at this point in the narrative that the encounter of these characters with Jesus begins and note that at this point, Jesus himself hasn’t said anything. In John we don’t get Jesus’ first words until he turns and sees the two who are following and he asks them, “What are you looking for?” In John, Jesus’ first words are a question, and what a question it is suggesting as it does that Jesus is a proponent of the examined as opposed to the unexamined life.
It appears though, to be a question that the two who got up and followed Jesus were not ready for. “What are you looking for?” can be a relatively simple, straightforward question when, for example, a clerk in a store sees you looking confused and says, “May I help you?” the equivalent of “What are you looking for?” In a case like that there is a simple answer to the question.
Andrew and the other unnamed follower knew however that Jesus was not a clerk in a store and they knew that he wasn’t concerned that they had lost something that maybe he could help them find. His question went deeper and they knew it so they seem to just say what first came to mind which was “Rabbi, where are you staying?” It’s a response that appears unconnected to the question but could I do any better, could you do any better off the top of your head with what is really a pretty heavy, existential question?
If you are going to live an examined rather than an unexamined life, “What are you looking for?” is a question to wrestle with on many levels. In this case though, as asked by Jesus, directed toward these two would be followers and by extension directed to all of us, it has to do with him: “What are we looking for in Jesus?” The “Rabbi, where are you staying?” response at first does seem unrelated to the question, but maybe not as much as it first appears.
Calling Jesus “Rabbi” or “teacher” provides a clue concerning the two disciples’ first impression of him, one that is perfectly logical. As followers of John the Baptist they had probably seen him as a prophet and teacher and now they see Jesus the same way, as someone who can perhaps teach them even more and they’re right; Jesus is in fact a teacher; that is another part of his identity.
Even the “Where are you staying?” part of their answer isn’t as off the wall as it sounds, because the Greek word translated here as “staying” is the same word used in John to describe the internal relationship between the Father, Jesus and the Spirit and by extension, to describe the relationship of God with us, with believers. What this word says is that the relationship is permanent not temporary. As is often the case in John, words that might seem insignificant have to do with deeper meaning. Using this word in the disciples’ response provides a clue as to the nature of the relationship they were hoping for and also the nature of the relationship into which we are invited. It’s not just for the moment, it’s for the long haul.
When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” how you answer does make a difference. In John’s gospel many names and images are presented, but especially in Jesus’ conversational encounters we are being led to John’s answer concerning Jesus, that answer being that Jesus is the Messiah. In today’s reading that is the identity Andrew announces to his brother Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” In John, that is the right answer.
In the encounters John writes about though, starting with this one, it’s usually not anyone’s first answer. Jesus is identified as a teacher and prophet, he’s a healer, metaphorically he is the Light of the World, the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd, the Vine and the Bread of Life among other things. But John is always moving his characters and through them, moving us toward identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Again, for him that is the right answer.
Even with the right answer though, there are still questions, most notably, what does it mean to you that Jesus is the Messiah. For most of us, at least in part, we just accept Jesus as the Messiah as a matter of faith, but still from there you kind of circle back to “What are you looking for?” A friend? A good luck charm? A moral philosopher? Forgiveness? A new beginning? A ticket to heaven? A source of strength and comfort? A relationship with the divine? Is there only one right answer to “What are you looking for?” Like Socrates or Jesus, you know I’m not going to tell you.
A good place to end today is with Jesus’ answer to “Rabbi, where are you staying?” In his usual enigmatic fashion, his response is simply, “Come and see.” To me, that is an invitation to join him on the journey. It says to me that Jesus knows that answering “What are you looking for?” requires a journey, a journey that will include more questions than answers, a journey and questions that are part of an examined life.
Talking about questions and answers though, it is a Christian cliché to say that Jesus is the answer. It’s simplistic but in some important ways he is the answer. With his fondness for questions though, I don’t think Jesus himself would want that answer to be the end of the conversation. I still think he would ask, “What are you looking for?” and, however we might answer, I know he would invite us to, “Come and see.”
Rev. Warren Geier