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What do you seek?

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Epiphany 2A: John 1:29-42 (& Isaiah 49:1-7)

The Lamb of God

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The First Disciples of Jesus

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Today in our reading from John, we get to follow Jesus into a house. It’s not often perhaps that we imagine Jesus in a house. He famously said: “foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. But clearly he was staying somewhere in this passage, from John 1.

I did a fair bit of pastoral visiting when I was priest in Whitchurch and especially if there was a problem or someone was in trouble, or if there was some conflict. After the visit I always came away thinking: “Now I understand what is going on, where that person is coming from, what life is really like for them”, because in someone’s house you get a much more complete picture of that person than meeting them in a public space, like a church.

Whenever you go inside someone’s house, your relationship goes to another level. I don’t know if you’ve ever imagined Jesus as being indoors; we are perhaps more likely to think of him wandering outdoors, through fields, on dusty tracks, talking about what he sees around him: wheat, seeds, the way, the birds of the air.

So how do you imagine this event where two of John’s disciples follow Jesus into the house where he’s staying? And as we’re still in Epiphany, another question might be: why is this reading set, coming as it does in the Lectionary after the journey of the Magi and the baptism of Christ?

It could be that it has something to do with the continued revealing of the light of Christ, which is the main theme of Epiphany – the uncovering of the Light.

So here we have this encounter where John’s disciples, (and we know that one of them was Andrew) turn away from John and start to follow Jesus We read that the day before the ‘home visit’, John had testified to Jesus being ‘the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world’, a phrase deeply embedded in our Eucharist. On mentioning the Lamb of God the next day too, the disciples of John take the hint and start following Jesus, literally walking along behind him.

And then Jesus turns. If you are able to use your imagination when you read Scripture, there are a lot of directional things going on in this part of John’s gospel. People are coming and going and criss-crossing. John the Baptist and Jesus are at different tipping points of their ministries: John’s is coming to a close; Jesus’s is just beginning. The two are linked. John is circling Jesus, getting closer and closer, signposting his disciples to Jesus, and away from himself..

So two of John’s followers literally start walking behind Jesus. He turns, sees them and asks a question. It could perhaps describe what happens for us in prayer. We are trying to follow Jesus. We want to be in his company. He turns towards us, sees us and asks a question.

I wonder if that’s anything like your experience of prayer?

When Jesus turns and sees us, we can know that something significant is going on in that moment. It appears to be the template for many of his encounters with people. When he turns towards us, he’s making himself wholly available. When he sees us, we can know that we are fully known, and loved. To be known and not loved, is uncomfortable. To be loved but not really known is… sentimental. But to be known AND loved; that’s what we all crave.

But I wonder how do you like being asked a question by Jesus? Because he turns, sees the disciples following, and asks, literally, ‘what do you seek?’ It’s a well-known emphasis in Ignatian prayer; the pray-er is asked: what do you seek? Much as I am a fan of intercessory prayer, it was years before I met with the idea that prayer is getting in touch with your inner desire, what you seek. Desire was not a word I readily associated with what I saw as the self-denial of being a Christian.

I’m sure that Andrew and the other un-named disciple had no clue at this stage what they were seeking, but they were about to find out, as they followed Jesus back to the house. To the question ‘what do you seek?’ they simply say, ‘where are you staying?’ It’s the most obvious thing to ask. You meet someone, you get chatting; the next thing is you say, ‘where do you live?’ They’re trying to place Jesus. And the idea that Jesus is staying in a house is intriguing. They’re invited to ‘come and see’ where he is: ‘They came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day.’ Wouldn’t we love to know what they talked about?

I was at Greenbelt one year, when it was still at Cheltenham Racecourse, and took part (in the lovely upstairs viewing area) in an Ignatian reflection on this very passage, led by someone from Loyola Hall, the one time Jesuit retreat centre. We were invited to imagine ourselves following Jesus and approaching the house where he was staying, and then to see what happened. In those days I was nervous of this sort of free-fall approach to prayer; I think I worried I might ‘get it wrong’. Imagination can be a very powerful thing.

But I plunged in. In my imagination, Jesus was already in the house and standing at the kitchen sink with his head turned towards the open back door as I approached from his left. In the moment when he looked at me, I felt unable to enter the house. There was a step at the back door, and I looked into the room, but didn’t get further than that. I just looked into the kitchen where he was, and he looked at me, but for some reason I could not enter and I didn’t particularly feel that he was welcoming me – he was just still.

It was so powerful I knew I hadn’t forced the imaginative moment, but rather that it revealed something important about my state then. In good Ignatian fashion, we were asked to reflect on the experience of meeting Jesus in this passage of scripture. ‘What was going on for you?’ was the question.

As I tried to untangle why I didn’t feel able to enter fully in to be with Jesus, the conversations with fellow priests from earlier in the day wafted back into my mind. So I did an Examen. There was definitely a feeling of desolation there, a feeling of heaviness, of not being known and loved. I recalled that I was struggling with issues of identity as an ordained woman, and I had felt left out when I found myself in conversation with two or three male priests who would refer to each other as ‘Father’. It was that simple. ‘What did I seek?’ To be fully included. What did I feel? I felt excluded because I wasn’t ‘Father’.

How would Jesus deal with this (if you like) chip on my shoulder? Well, Jesus took my feelings seriously. He did not force the issue; he simply waited for me to be fully honest. He gave me space to notice what was going on. He didn’t judge; he waited for me to discover my desire – which was to feel fully included in the Church as a female priest.

So being with Jesus is one (perhaps the best?) definition of prayer and it is a living encounter. But how do we achieve it? I think most of the teaching I received on prayer failed to deal with what to do physically when you pray – what to do with your actual body – how it can help or hinder. My teaching on prayer was too ‘spiritual’, and generally not practical enough.

So if we want to emulate the disciples and be with Jesus, how do we do it? Here are a few things I’ve found helpful. And after that we’ll look at why we do it.

Place

Where you pray matters. If you can find the same place each day it helps because if you’ve got a notebook or bible nearby it’s just a hassle to keep moving them as you find yourself in a different place. And you get into a rhythm, knowing you’ll be there the next day and the next day. The Russian Orthodox have the concept of ‘poustinia’ – or desert – a special place where you’re going to meet God each day. It will become a holy place. I am presuming you are sitting down to pray for a few minutes every day, at least once a day. If you don’t know how long to sit, and can’t keep at it, do what I did 7 years ago and buy a ten minute egg timer. Don’t move till the sand runs through.

Comfort

You’ve got to be at least basically comfortable as you settle to pray in your special place – you’ve got to feel relaxed as well as open to being challenged – but generally I find bed is not the best place, a sofa is better – but if my head lolls back I’m likely to fall asleep (especially if praying in the late afternoon) so the advice I’ve found helpful is to sit straight up but in a relaxed manner with your feet firmly on the floor.

Breathing

It might sound odd but breathing is really important in prayer. You can use the most natural human rhythm – the rhythm of the heart – to help you pray. I’m thinking here of wordless prayer, or at least prayer that is just you waiting before God with no agenda. Praying for others can come at some other time – this is being before God in silence kind of prayer. Breathing in and out can be combined with saying or thinking the name of Jesus, or a short phrase like Jesus Christ, or Lord Jesus, and your breathing in and out the name of Jesus centres you and helps you to bring your whole being in prayer.

Distracting Thoughts

It is 100% certain that as soon as you start doing this, your mind will go off on one – on the automatic film roll of what just happened a few hours ago: how annoying so-and-so was; why didn’t I say anything? Why did I say that thing? We’ve run out of milk; I haven’t done my tax return… how am I going to finish the sermon in time? etc. etc. (you’ll have your own inner monologue and it’ll be tailored just to your own head, and as soon as you start to pray it’ll kick off). The practice of centring is that we notice we’ve switched to internal monologue and we come back to Jesus with our attention. Attention is a like a muscle – if you exercise it regularly it will become stronger. You are not your thoughts; you are something else besides (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to observe yourself looking at your thoughts). What you really are is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ and that real you is what is being called forth in prayer.

This way, little by little, as we practice, and harness the body in prayer, like the disciples we are being with Jesus.

But finally, what is the result of being with Jesus? What is the point of it?

Andrew is our clue. After being with Jesus for one afternoon, he is convinced. He gets it! Jesus is it!! His very first, completely unconsidered and spontaneous reaction is to go and tell someone else about him. He brings his brother to Jesus and Simon receives his calling to be Peter, the rock on which the Church is built.

Our great temptation as a people who love the Church is to look inward and forget our calling to be salt and light in the community. What are we called to do and to be for Newtown?

As with prayer, so with mission. We find it harder to talk about the practical details of outreach. What shall we do? What is the plan? These are big questions and only discerned together. We grow in contemplative practice in order to spill out into action, but this balance of contemplation and action is the hardest to achieve. But we can be sure that when we have truly met Jesus in prayer, there will be a calling. Focus on Jesus and look outwards might be a good motto. What are the doors that Jesus will open that are currently waiting to be opened? What are the things he wants us to notice in Newtown? Who are the people he wants us to notice? Have you recently walked round Newtown pondering this? Have you ever walked round the community, praying and listening?

And, finally, if you live in Newtown, when can you invite me to your house?

Amen.