Agnus Dei: Come and See

2nd Sunday after Epiphany
John 1:29-46                                                                       

19 January 2014

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                        

Do you know why many churches are declining instead of growing?   Because of the e-word.   Yes, evangelism.   The very word scares us, makes us uncomfortable.   We had an Evangelism Team at Peace, but so few people had the nerve to join the team, we had to re-name it Outreach – sad but true. 

People are often nervous about evangelism because they have been on the receiving end of some type of coercive or insensitive evangelist.   The overbearing co-worker who wants to know if you are saved or the visitor at your front door who wants to hand you a tract and enter your house to explain how you have to say all the right things and join the right community of faith.  People are nervous about evangelism because something so personally significant can be challenging to discuss.   People are nervous because they know that while they’ve had a meaningful encounter with God, they know that they cannot make that happen for someone else, nor can they answer all a skeptic’s doubts.   So most of us just avoid evangelism.   We know we have good news, but we are not going to share it or we are not sure how to share it with gentle integrity and respect.

The Baptism narrative from the Gospel of John might help us with our nervousness about evangelism.  This baptism story is completely different from the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   In this one, John the Baptist is looking back on what happened.   He reflects on the Baptism of Jesus and shares his thoughts with those around him.   They start following.  Jesus invites them to come and see where he is staying.  One of those was Andrew.  He reflects and shares with his brother Peter, who says yes to the invitation.   Then Jesus calls Philip and Philip shares with Nathaniel, who is not sure anything good can come from Nazareth.   Philip doesn’t argue with him.   He simply invites: Come and see.

And now I invite you into the narrative to come and see.   Come and see, the Agnus Dei.                          (
David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.)

John 1:29-46

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, 'He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me. 31 Even I didn't recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel." 32 John testified, "I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. 33 Even I didn't recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. 34 I have seen and testified that this one is God's Son." 35 The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus walking along he said, "Look! The Lamb of God!" 37 The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, "What are you looking for?" They said, "Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?" 39 He replied, "Come and see."  So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Christ). 42 He led him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter). 43 The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, "Follow me." 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph's son, from Nazareth." 46 Nathanael responded, "Can anything from Nazareth be good?" Philip said, "Come and see."   (Common English Bible)

At first it might seem strange that John says, “I didn’t even recognize him.”  How could he not recognize his own cousin, Jesus?   It is likely that John is saying that he did not fully appreciate who his cousin really was.   I did not know he was the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, that Latin translation of the Greek. 

Imagine John’s surprise as he pulled his cousin up out of the water and heard the voice from heaven.  This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  By now John has given this transforming experience some thought.  And here is his conclusion: Jesus, his cousin, the Son of God, is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He has understood that while Jesus is his younger cousin by a few months, Jesus existed long before he did.   John is not trying to recruit people to his group, but simply sharing what he has come to appreciate about Jesus.   He tells the story of his experience.   He makes proclamations about the significance of that story and acknowledges the greatness of Jesus, whom he says is God’s son.

So let’s think about what we learn about evangelism from this story.  Say what you’ve seen.  Tell what you’ve heard.   Share what you know.   Point away from yourself to Christ.   Just tell your story in a way that points to Christ, not you.   Naturally, not artificially.   You’ve probably heard someone do it unnaturally.   You know the kind of person who inserts the name of Jesus into every other sentence or who speaks of God as if he or she has God in the back pocket to pull out whenever needed for a sense of importance or authority.

I wonder what would happen if I asked you to tell the person beside you why you are at Peace, what you like about coming to worship here.   Could you do it?  Can you say in a simple sentence what draws you here?  Could you say whether you experience the presence of God most at the table, in the sermon, in the prayers, in the music, in the friendships?   Could you share why you keep coming?  I know this is an unusual thing to do in a sermon, to talk to each other, but I’m willing to do unusual things if it helps you to grow.   So please think now for a moment about your experience of the Spirit of Christ here.  Think about why you come to Peace.   I mean you have to have a pretty good reason for coming to this church – it’s not the architecture.  It’s not because the preacher is entertaining, not because five thousand other people are here.   What is it that draws you?  If this is your first or second visit, you can just say that, but if you’ve been coming for a while, tell the person beside you why you are at Peace.

To be like John and Jesus, to be like Andrew and Philip, all you have to do is reflect on your experience genuinely, share it, and invite people saying “come and see.”  It’s really not that difficult when you think about it this way.   You tell people about other things that you appreciate and care about.

So why not the church of Jesus Christ?  Don’t let evangelism be defined by those who do it poorly.   Reclaim evangelism by doing it well, doing it gently, authentically, with honest invitation and enthusiasm, rather than coercion and manipulation.   You are just one person telling other people where they can enjoy life, build trusted friendships, find meaningful experiences.

After all, you are sharing the best and most liberating news you can give someone who doesn’t know it – that Jesus, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world.  Anything that separates us from God, anything that disappoints God,  anything that willfully dehumanizes another person is sin.  Christ bridges the chasms we create between one another and God.  Christ heals the brokenness that makes it difficult to forgive one another.  Christ restores to health that which is sick.

I feel certain that Jesus as the Lamb of God was much easier for 1st century people, especially 1st century Jews to understand.   They had this practice of sacrificing what was best, the best lamb, in order to make up for their failings, to show God how sorry they were, how much they wanted to sacrifice to restore the relationship.

Into that context comes God in human flesh, determined to make things right in our relationship.  Sin has consequences.   We can see that.   It is not difficult to see how sin damages relationships.  So God comes and makes the ultimate sacrifice – God’s own self in the person of Jesus Christ.  God says, “I want this relationship restored so much I will sacrifice my very own life, my freedom in order to restore yours.” Christ leads us by example into the life-giving value of sacrificial love.   How else would we be drawn to do anything other than preserve and protect ourselves at all cost to others?

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi… Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
   

One of the most profound ironies of this narrative and of all the stories in the Gospels where Jesus is calling people to be his disciples is this:   He says, “Come and see.”  He says, “Follow me.”   We think we have to see first, believe first.   Then we’ll go, then we’ll join in.   No, in the Gospel stories, they always follow first, then they begin to be amazed and believe, and they invite someone else.

Martin Luther King once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.”  He also said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  We cannot be silent about Christ’s sacrificial love.  Nor can we silent about the dehumanization of people whom Christ loves.  King said, “Every {person} must decide whether he or she will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”   Christ showed us perfect altruism – selflessness for the benefit of others.  Evangelism and social justice are two sides of the same coin of sacrificial love.

When poet Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871) was 46 years old, an elderly man approached her at a dinner party and asked if she was a Christian. She considered him rude and unkind, and that his question was inappropriate. After the man walked away, Charlotte could not get his question out of her mind so she went to find the man to talk to him again.  That night she came to a new appreciation of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Soon thereafter she wrote Just As I Am as a testimony to her newfound faith, and as a tribute to the man who had told her that she could come to Christ, 'just as she was'.   This hymn, written in 1835, did not become popular until the mid-twentieth century, when it became the invitational hymn at many Billy Graham crusades.  Kids, if you’ve never heard of the Baptist minister Billy Graham, he’s a ninety-something year old man who lives in Montreat who was great at telling the story of Jesus in such a way that the many people who filled auditoriums and football stadiums to hear him in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, could often appreciate for the first time or in a new way, how much they were loved by God – just as they were, and how they were called to respond to that love. 

We will not have an altar call, but I will challenge to you think about how Christ, the Lamb of God, loves you – just as you are.  He lived and died and was raised to restore all of your brokenness to wholeness, to invite you to a life of making others whole by sharing your God stories, telling the good news of Christ’s love, and living by the power and fruit of the Holy Spirit.   The Spirit is working in you to remind you of the transcendent value of your humanity, to refresh you in the fountain of baptismal life, to assure you that you belong to Christ, the Lamb of God, who says “Come and see.”