“Gathering a Church”Dr. Paul A. Baxley John 1:29-42 Year A – The Second Sunday after Epiphany
When the majestic prologue of the Fourth Gospel gives way to narrative, we find ourselves reading a carefully constructed account of the very first week of Jesus’ ministry. As Charles Talbert suggested in his commentary Reading John, John 1:19-2:12 focuses on nothing less than the creation of discipleship, as we watch the beginnings of Jesus’ “picking/production of a new community.” (Charles H. Talbert, Reading John. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company 1992, p. 80) Just as John 1:1 opens with an intentional echo of the opening of Genesis, so now the Gospel describes the creation of the foundation of the church in the period of a week, just as the very first book of the Old Testament describes the creation of the world in the timeframe of seven days.
So as we hear this text, we do well to ask ourselves: “how are the first disciples brought to Jesus?” To the extent that we can describe Jesus’ disciples as the beginning of the church, what does John 1 tell us about how people become followers of Jesus? How can this text in John form our understanding of how new disciples are brought to Jesus? Of how the church is gathered and renewed?
These are always important questions, but they are particularly important for Christians early in the twenty-first century. Across denominational lines and theological traditions, participation in the life of the church is in decline. To be sure, there are visible exceptions, but the overwhelming norm is that fewer people are coming to faith in Christ and those that do seem to be increasingly scattered in their commitments to Christ. For reasons richly theological and also intensely pragmatic, church leaders are concerned about persistent decline. When that responsible concern metastasizes into anxious panic, churches are willing to try anything to attract people.
All of this makes it even more important that we watch carefully as the very first disciples come to faith in Jesus and become the foundation of the church. How does that happen? How can the very creation of the church inform our understanding of how the church is gathered and renewed?
As the Fourth Gospel tells it, the church comes to life not as the result a singular way of making disciples, but rather at the intersection of a series of distinct and faithful creative acts. When we look at the creation of the church as described in John 1, the first creative act we notice is the persistent preaching of John. Beginning in John 1:19, we see John the Baptist bearing witness to who Jesus is. When our text opens in John 1:29, John sees Jesus coming and preaches a sermon that begins: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1:35 tells us that on the very next day, John delivers the same message. People do not begin to follow Jesus after John’s first declarations in John 1:19. When John finishes his first sermon on another day, the one found in John 1:29-34, there is no recorded response. It is only after John’s next sermon begins in verse 35, on yet another day, that two men begin to follow Jesus.
We should not be surprised that the speaking of words is an essential element in the creation of the church. After all, Genesis 1 tells us that the repeated speech of God is at the heart of the creation of the entire world. God speaks the world into being. Now, through the faithful and persistent speaking of John, God calls the first disciples to Jesus and speaks the church into being.
The persistent preaching of John is therefore an unmistakable, absolutely essential component in the gathering of the first disciples for Jesus. It isn’t that John preached once and everything happened. Rather, he had to persist, not just in the act of preaching but even in the substance of his preaching. The sermon he begins in 1:35 is identical to the one he preaches in 1:29. It is only after repetition that the movement begins.
There are several interesting lessons here for those of us who are called to preach, which have important consequences for those who hear. In our most idealistic days, we preachers have the expectation that every time we preach, there will be some visible response.
The images of large evangelistic rallies, or of invitations in really large congregations, have captured the imagination of preachers and churches alike, to the point where people will say that if we preach and no one responds, we have not done our jobs. This obsession with immediate results has been exacerbated by a culture that thrives on instant information and fast response.
But John 1 makes it clear that every sermon preached by John was not greeted by a response. For John, like so many prophets before him, faithfulness was measured not in response, but rather in persistent commitment to speaking the word he received. The Fourth Gospel makes it clear; the first disciples of Jesus do not come to faith because of a single sermon. John must persist.
Beyond that, notice the focus of John’s preaching. Every time we see him, in one way or another, he is pointing people toward Jesus. There is a fair amount of repetition of words and concepts, but there is absolute repetition of his underlying message: that Jesus is the Messiah of God, the Lord’s anointed, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
For this reason, Karl Barth has suggested that John is a model for all preachers, because he sets the example of preacher as witness to Jesus. In his profound book Conversations with Barth on Preaching, William Willimon relates that Barth had a special love for Matthias Grunewald’s painting “John the Baptist.” Barth liked the painting so much that he kept a copy of it over his desk and referred to it fifty-one times in his writings.
Grunewald depicts John the Baptist “holding an open Bible, pointing an incredibly long and bony index finger toward the horribly crucified, dead Christ strung up before him on the cross.” (Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, p. 6). Willimon explains: “The Baptist’s forefinger—exaggeratedly elongated—is pointing away from himself, drawing no attention to himself, gesturing imperatively toward Christ….Barth likes the painting because it commends Christ and does not draw attention to himself.”
If we take the very first chapter of the Fourth Gospel seriously, we cannot avoid the conclusion that persistent preaching is an absolutely necessary element in the creating, gathering and ongoing renewal of the church. We preachers must faithfully, passionately, persistently, point to Jesus. Our calling is not to draw attention to ourselves, to help people know us better, or even to advance our own opinions. Rather, we are called to point people to Christ and set everything else under the authority of Christ.
As important as the preaching of John the Baptist is in the formation of the very first church, the Fourth Evangelist tells us that there were other kinds of creative acts as well. One of Jesus’ very first disciples is Andrew. Andrew is so overwhelmed by his experience with Jesus in response to John’s preaching that he personally invites his brother Simon to come and meet Jesus. He goes to his brother and says: “We have found the Messiah.” Andrew doesn’t stop with that personal declaration; he physically brings Simon into the presence of Jesus.
Disciples are brought to Jesus, therefore, not only through persistent preaching, but also through personal invitation. Simon has not heard John preach, as far as we can tell. He has not met Jesus previously. He comes to meet Jesus because of Andrew’s invitation, because of Andrew’s personal faithfulness, his personal determination to bring someone else into relationship with Christ.
I’m wondering how much that happens in our world today. In our increasingly pluralistic world, more and more of us want to relegate faith to a private and personal sphere, and there is great pressure to abide by a covenant that none of us will ever impose our faith on anyone else. While I fully believe in religious liberty and believe that the government should absolutely refrain from setting policy in matters of faith and church, I also believe that devoted Christians must be in the business of inviting others to meet Jesus.
Today’s Gospel text plants within us the truth that when we have really encountered Jesus we should have a fierce desire to help others meet Jesus as well. Here the concern is not institutional. Neither Andrew, nor John the Baptist, nor Jesus for that matter, can be at all concerned about buildings and budgets and attendance numbers. None of that existed. The relentless concern here is out of faith and for faith. Andrew has seen someone, experienced someone, discovered someone and wants others to do the same.
If we are to take the witness of this text seriously, we all need to ask ourselves: who, in our lives, do we need to invite to meet Jesus? Are there people in our families, among our close friends, at work, at school, at the YMCA, or in other places who we see every day who we want to bring to a place they can know Jesus? My growing suspicion is that in a world that is oversaturated with all kinds of messaging and marketing, Andrew’s approach to evangelism, to sharing faith, will be increasingly vital and powerful. In a world where so much is depersonalized, personal, verbal invitation would be even more powerful.
Yes, churches are gathered and renewed when preachers preach persistently. But they are also gathered and renewed where there is a robust commitment to personal invitation. Will we give ourselves to that commitment? Will we encourage one another to follow Andrew’s example?
There’s one other kind of creative act at work in this provocative text in John’s gospel. Notice that when Andrew and the other disciple first come to Jesus, there is an exchange of questions.
Jesus asks them: “What are you looking for?” His question can also be translated: “What do you seek?” They respond: “Where are you staying?” Those questions are freighted with theological meaning in this Gospel, far beyond our capacity to fully explore at this time.
For now, it is enough to notice that both questions (the one from Jesus and the one to Jesus) reflect that these two disciples are seeking. Jesus, who, as we find out as the Gospel unfolds, has the capacity to peer into the hearts and minds of people and see completely, discerns that these first disciples are seeking. They are searching. They are looking.
That they respond with a question proves the point, even if the meaning of the question is not entirely evident. They are asking and searching. They are taking initiative. In other words, they have a desire. That desire prods them to leave John and follow Jesus. That desire gives them the courage to speak. That desire is probably what inspires Andrew to go find Simon. There is an unmistakable, faithful desire.
I wonder how many of us began our journeys to faith in Jesus with a question. In a much earlier lifetime, I used to teach classes for children in church. I was amazed by their questions. They would ask: “Where did God come from?” “Why was Jesus baptized?” and a whole host of other questions. They exhibited a desire.
That desire wasn’t limited to young children. I also spent a number of years in ministry focused with youth and college students. In adolescence and young adulthood, I also noticed a deeper kind of desire as we would study the Scriptures, serve in mission projects, and seek to form faithful communities of youth and students. At key moments in their lives, almost all of those young people showed evidence of holy desire. They would ask profound questions. They would challenge churches to be more faithful. They gave evidence of a hunger and thirst for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Yes, they were seeking. There was a holy desire.
For the church to come to life there needs to be a genuine desire to know Jesus more. The witness of John 1 is that this searching, this desire is critical. The very first disciples of Jesus weren’t people who were apathetic. They were actively searching. So today disciples of Jesus need to cultivate a holy desire. This desire has to express itself in the taking of risks, the changing of directions, the asking of questions, and the pursuit of new relationships.
We need to desperately want to please Jesus more, to draw closer to others whose lives are marked with the same desire. Surely that means that local congregations have to be places that model an openness to searching, a willingness to hear questions that make no sense because they are symptoms of a holy searching that makes abundant sense. We need to do that by following Jesus’ example and asking questions that make space for other questions. There is no replacing the need for a genuine desire to know Jesus and know others who know him.
When John tells the creation story of the church, he tells us that the first disciples of Jesus come to faith at the intersection of persistent preaching, personal invitation and holy desire. If we are serious about being involved in the continued creation of church, and even its renewal in our time, we need to give ourselves to those same kinds of faithful actions.
I can’t help but thinking today of a sermon I once heard Cecil Sherman preach at River Road Church, Baptist in Richmond, Virginia. Ironically, he was dealing with a very similar focus that day as I have been in this sermon. As I remember, his sermon was entitled: “Strengthening the Church.” He suggested that if the church was to be strengthened, people needed to join the church, come to church, give to the church and participate actively in its life.
At the end of that sermon, he looked out over the congregation which consisted of highly educated and accomplished Christians. As I remember it, he said: “I know you people are thinking: ‘that doesn’t sound very sophisticated or intellectual.’ It is not. It is really rather elementary. But it is more than most of us are doing.”
If we are serious about the renewal of the church, we need to give ourselves anew to persistent preaching, personal invitation and a recovery of desire. I don’t know whether or not it is elementary. And I wouldn’t dare say how much or many of us are doing any of it. But I do know this. Ever since the first week of the church, this is how church has come to life. Amen.
About the writer:
Dr. Paul A. Baxley has served as Senior Minister of First Baptist Church since June 2010. He is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Previously, he served as Senior Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina (2004-2010), as Director of Congregational Relationships for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2002-2004), as Campus Minister at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina (1999-2002) and as Associate Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson (1992-1999). He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A. Religion), Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (D. Min.)
Currently, Paul serves as moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia’s Coordinating Council. He also serves on the Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. He has previously served as chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He serves as a member of the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. While serving in Henderson, North Carolina, he was the chair of the local Ministers Community Partnership, which included area clergy from different denominational and racial backgrounds. In 2012, Paul was one of the presenters at the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation and delivered the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Paul is married to Jennifer Hoerning Baxley, a Physical Therapist who works for St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. They have four children (a 12 year old daughter Olivia, a 6 year old daughter Maria, and twin three year-olds Matthew and Caroline).
Scripture and Music
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
O Zion, Haste
I Love to Tell the Story
Lead On, O King Eternal
Rescue the Perishing
Ye Servants of God
Jesus, Priceless Treasure
Baptized in Water
Spirit of the Living God
Sing Unto God (Handel)
Redeemer of Israel (Wilberg)
Recollection of Joy (Butler)
Lamb of God, What Wondrous Love (Faure)
I Waited for the Lord (Mendelssohn)
The Lamb (Nygard)
The Lord Is My Light (Allitsen)
O Rest in the Lord (Mendelssohn)
Lamb of God (Paris)
He Who Began A Good Work in You (Mohr)