When I was a child I had two kinds of friends. There were what you might call my “lunchroom buddies,” whom I would horse around with at recess or in the school cafeteria. And then there were that small number with whom I enjoyed something more intimate. The thing that seemed to make the biggest difference, that set these friends apart from the lunchroom crowd, was that they had come over to my house, and I had been over to theirs.
We lived out in the country growing up, on rural roads where the homes were few, and we took the bus to school. So going over to someone else’s house, or having someone over to mine, was not a casual matter. It involved forethought, and planning and effort. And once it had happened, and you’d seen what your friend’s bedroom looked like, and met his parents and his pets, and knew how his house smelled, and what he ate for dinner, you could never look at him quite the same way again. You’d run into him at school the next day, along with the rest of the lunchroom buddies, but the air of casual indifference that there used to be between you would feel strained all of a sudden, because you knew who that person really was.
That could be exciting, especially where girls were concerned. In eighth grade I had a girlfriend named Trish, and in the spring I would leave home an hour early and ride my bike across the highway and over the mountain, and go past the school, another half mile to Trish’s house, so I could help her feed her horse, and then ride back to school with her. It could also be too much. I remember a time when I was about fourteen and my mom had a dinner party at our house for the members of a volunteer board she served on. One of them had a daughter named Cheryl who was in my High School class, and who came along to the party. I spent the entire evening upstairs in my room, and never came down even to say hello. I liked Cheryl okay, I guess, but I wasn’t ready to be more than lunchroom buddies.
Jesus is not so shy. In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he moves in swift decisive strokes from place to place, and incident to incident, carrying out his mission like one who has a lot to do and not a lot of time. But John builds his story around a relatively small handful of episodes and the conversations that Jesus has with the people he meets along the way. John’s Jesus has time to go to weddings, and to hang around at wells. He seems to want to get to know people, so that they get to know him and begin to understand who he is.
Take the story of his baptism. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is no sooner baptized than he heads out alone, across the Jordan, for forty days of fasting and testing in the desert. But in John’s version Jesus doesn’t hurry off anywhere. He hangs around at the Jordan for a while, where John the Baptist keeps seeing him walk by. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus comes upon his disciples out of the blue work and calls them to drop everything and follow him. In John, the first disciples follow Jesus on their own initiative, because John the Baptist has referred them to him. Jesus turns and asks them what they are looking for, and they ask if they can come over to the place where he is staying.
This verb, “to stay,” which elsewhere is translated as “rest,” “remain,” “dwell,” or “abide,” appears again and again in the Gospel of John. It conveys not just the physical residence of Jesus, but the inner abode of his spirit, the continual, intimate, loving availability to God in which he is centered. Jesus abides in God and God abides in him, and this is what gives him his grace and glory and power. This is what the two disciples of John the Baptist are looking for. This is what Jesus invites them to come and see. They do come and they do see, and they remain (that word again) with him for the rest of the day. And their first impulse when they go away again is to invite others to come to get to know Jesus for themselves.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to his own dwelling, to the place where he remains in intimate, loving relationship with God. And from that place he sends them out as he himself has been sent, with an open invitation to anyone who wants to come and see. This depiction of discipleship has implications for you and me. We, who gather on Sunday in the name of St. John, have to consider the real possibility that each one of us has been called here to see the place where Jesus dwells, to have our own direct personal experience of communion with Christ. And it is just as likely that we are not only called, we are also sent, to invite others to do the same.
Of course, sometimes the best we can do in that regard is to invite them to church; which is not necessarily the same thing. We might believe with all our hearts that Christ is in our midst when we gather, and that he is truly present in the Word of scripture, and in the sacramental Bread and Wine. But these are statements about God’s faithfulness in answering our prayer for Christ’s presence, not about our power to reliably produce it. So what about our friends and neighbors who are not so sure? If they respond to our invitation to come and see, will they find Jesus abiding here?
The answer to that question is beyond our control, which makes the whole business of inviting risky. And as much we might like to think that we can tip the scales in our favor by the warmth of our welcome, or the quality of our printed materials, or the catchiness of our music, or the charisma of our clergy, we know that none of this really makes a difference. These things might induce our guests to like us, or appreciate our taste, or admire our talents. But they won’t help them see Jesus abiding with us. According to the Collect of the Day, the prayer I said for us at the very beginning of this service, the only thing that can really do that, is for us to light up in response to the things we do here.
“Grant that your people,” says the prayer, “illumined (lit up) by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” But this lighting up is not something that can be forced. We can’t make ourselves shine, no matter how broadly we smile or how cheerfully we sing. It can only come as a spontaneous response of our whole being in recognition of the presence of Christ. It can only begin with our own need, our own desire to see for ourselves where Jesus is staying.
So it’s risky to invite other to come and see, because we can’t guarantee that we’ll have anything to show them but ourselves. And being illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments doesn’t make us better-looking than we were before. Our teeth don’t get straighter or whiter, the wrinkles in our faces aren’t miraculously smoothed away; our blemishes don’t fade. If anything, we appear more clearly visible than ever in that light, more openly and transparently human. The light of the world, the glory of God, does not dazzle or embellish or entrance. It lights people up from within, with the light that is their own truth, their own way to the place where Christ dwells, unseen.
And we cannot see ourselves in this light, except in the mirror that is our neighbor. But when we do see it, when we look at the person next to us in the pew, or on the bus, or in the line at the grocery store and see the light that is them as they truly are, as God’s beloved, we can be pretty sure that we are also shining. When we see them that way, then we too are revealed as those in whom Christ abides, ministering love, and life, and light, and the forgiveness of sins to the world.