Monday, January 21, 2013

SERMON: Jesus Gives Simon a New Name

Text: John 1:29-42
Date: 20 January 2013
At: Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

I grew up watching Batman, specifically reruns of Adam West’s 1970’s camp-fest. It had red phones and bad puns and lots of running in place in front of projected backdrops. Delightful. But, in 1992, everything changed: Batman: The Animated Series began its three-year run. The Animated Series was dark. It was gritty. The stories where sometimes campy, sure - it’s Batman after all - but, they had a depth to them that made them popular with people well outside their target demographic. Part of this was the voice talent of Kevin Conroy who voiced Batman and Bruce Wayne. Conroy brought something profound to the role. When asked what the key to the character was, he replied: Batman isn’t the mask. He’s the real person. Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman hides behind. Whenever you caught a glimpse of the batsuit tucked beneath Bruce’s business suit, peaking out was the real person, not the mask. When things got interesting or strange, Batman’s true self emerged onto the stage, the hero in black.

In our Gospel lesson this evening, things have certainly gotten interesting and strange, but Simon has not emerged. Lots of things have been happening on the banks of the Jordan, but Simon just isn’t there. John the Baptizer, full of fire and smoke, proclaims a baptism of repentance. A leather belt holds his camel-hair chasuble in place. It is rumoured that he eats locusts and wild honey. He calls out Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. He makes enemies and baptizes the multitudes. His preaching seems to draw the whole of Judea to the Jordan River, but Simon isn’t there.

On top of that, the world is changing. John the Baptizer sees the carpenter Jesus walking to him and proclaims, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ Not only that, but John sees the Spirit descend on Jesus. He knows and proclaims that this Jesus is the one who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit. He proclaims, ‘And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ The world is changing. John proclaims Jesus the Messiah, the chosen one of God who will reconcile Israel and finally bring peace. It is the long-awaited hope. The world is changing, but Simon isn’t there.

Even Simon’s friends and family are there. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus. He takes them to where he is staying, and they sit with him, chatting, talking, learning, their hearts growing heavy and light with the excitement of it all. It dawns on them as they talk, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ The River Jordan is brimming with people, the world is changing, and Simon’s friends and family get to see it. But Simon isn’t there.

Six years ago, I attended a large, Christian student conference. It focused on mission, and this year in particular it showcased the International Justice Mission, a group who, according to their website, ‘is a human rights agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.’ They get lawyers to leave their well-paid jobs to go do something spectacular, even heroic, in the world.

U2’s lead singer Bono addressed the conference. He talked about how he used to pray that God would bless his work. He would pray and pray and pray, but things wouldn’t happen. Then, he realized that he was doing it wrong. He needed to stop asking God to bless his work, and he needed to find the places that God was already blessing and go there.

But this is counter-cultural advice. We get told that the heroic thing is to find our passion, or to follow our hearts. We look deeply inside of ourselves to find meaning, to find hope. We pray that God will bless us, that God will do something to us, not realizing that we, like Simon, might just be in the wrong place. We might not be where the River Jordan is overflowing and the world is changing. We might just not be there.

We keep looking inside of ourselves hoping to find an answer. It’s almost like we’re looking through our buttons trying to find the bat-suit, something that might make us heroic, something inside that might validate our existence. But, all we find there is flesh. The real us is the mask. John the Baptizer is baptizing the multitudes in the wilderness, but we aren’t there.

One of the two who followed Jesus is Andrew, Simon’s brother. They heard John’s cry ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ and they start following Jesus. After a bit, Jesus catches on. He turns to them and asks, ‘What are you looking for?’ The sputter, ‘Rabbi,’ which means Teacher, ‘where are you staying?’

Jesus’ reply isn’t a treatise. It certainly isn’t theological. It is elegantly simple: ‘Come and see.’

They join Jesus for the day and at about 4:00 in the afternoon, their hearts heavy and light at the same time, something dawns on Andrew. Simon, his brother, isn’t there. How can he be missing this? He gets up and finds Simon. He tells him, out of breath, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ And instead of getting into an argument with Simon about it, he makes him come and see, just like Jesus did.

As Andrew and Simon approach the place Jesus is staying, the sun is setting. Jesus looks up and stares at Simon. There is something there in Jesus’ face, a knowing. Without introduction, Jesus says to him, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas.’

Andrew stifles a laugh. Cephas means ‘rock,’ and Simon is certainly not that. He has a tendency to prevaricate under pressure. Sometimes he even just lies. He wasn’t there at the Jordan to see the world changing, and now Jesus names Simon something he is not. Jesus gives Simon a new name.

We keep looking inside ourselves to find the answer, but Jesus’ tactic is slightly different. He gives us a new name, a name that names us something we are not yet.

But first there is an invitation. ‘Come and see,’ Jesus told Andrew and his companion. Stop looking inward to find yourself. You won’t find a bat-suit there. You’re not now a hero. ‘Come and see’ is an invitation to a journey. The journey makes us stop asking God to bless the work we’re already doing, and it causes us to look ahead to the work that God will have us do, to get up off of our seats and follow Jesus into that place that God is already blessing, into that work which is bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

There is something that is often not understood about the Christian life: our pursuit of self-actualisation is not a pursuit to uncover something already within us. It is a pursuit to uncover that which is put ahead of us. Simon, that prevaricating loser, was called ‘the Rock’ by Jesus. In the story, he goes on to be anything but a rock, culminating in those three treacherous denials on the night of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t pointing to something that was true about Peter. He was pointing to something that would be true if Peter set out on this journey after Jesus, if he came and saw in response to Jesus’ invitation.

There is something of the ontological about this in Christian thought. St. Paul says, ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3:3). The self that you know now is the mask. It covers what you really are. But, what you really are is out ahead of you. You are on the way to meeting yourself. The Apostle continues, ‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory’ (Col 3:4).

This understanding animates much of Christian moral teaching, especially the Christian understanding of virtue. We train ourselves now into the future life of the Kingdom of God, precisely because we are on the way to becoming who we really are. We can’t rely on our feelings sometimes. We have to ‘fake it until we make it.’ But, the good news is this: Jesus gives us a new name. He points to us, knows us, and says, ‘You are mine, and because you are mine, you are the Father’s. Come and see what I have for you.’

In our Old Testament lesson today, the boy Samuel is advised to say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ What if we took that prayer for our own? What if we, in moments of quiet or moments of doubt, started repeating this short prayer? ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ We would be putting ourselves in a position to hear Jesus’ voice, to hear him calling us by a new name, to hear him saying, ‘Come and see.’ ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

And though we sometimes poke through our shirt to see if we can find the mark of a hero underneath, the Christian story says that there is a different path. As we follow Jesus on his way, the Way of the Cross, we find it none other than the way of life and peace. We can be heroes, but only if we follow the one who saves us and loves us, only if we give up looking within and look to Jesus, who is the author and perfecter of our faith. In so doing, we will become saints. In so doing, we will become like Christ, the hero we all long to be.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

**Image from Wikipedia, accessed 21 January, 2013.