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Politics of Scripture

Beginning Where Jesus Is

The trouble in American Evangelicalism and in Christianity more broadly, is that standing face-to-face with our Messiah, we find ourselves at a loss of how to serve. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What, beyond the instinctive sense that we are to follow Christ, does it mean to follow? What are we looking for?

John 1:29-42

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward 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.” 35The 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).

Late last month Mark Galli’s editorial in Christianity Today describing President Trump’s political actions under consideration in the impeachment process as “profoundly immoral” spawned a whirlwind of media attention to what has become a rather unpublicized and apolitical term:  morality.[1] More specifically, Galli’s break with what has appeared in recent politics to be a close political alliance between American Evangelicalism and the sitting president has sparked controversy around the place and importance of morality in politics as well as American Evangelicalism’s, and more broadly, Christianity’s, commitment to it.

On one side, the stake is planted that in an imperfect world in which all politicians and, indeed, if we’re being honest, all people fail to live up to higher moral standards, Christ’s church ought to settle for a celebration of an immoral person passing moral laws (though the morality of many of Trump’s policies and appointments remains hotly debated within the Christian Church at large). On the other side, there are both those who agree or disagree with the morality of some of Trump’s more conservative stances (for example, his anti-abortion agenda) while holding to the conviction that character still matters as well. Galli falls into the former camp, asking, “Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”[2]

While I myself align politically with the latter camp, deeply concerned both about the morality of the president’s character and many of his policies, agendas, and appointments, I am grateful to Galli for bringing this conversation to the fore. Specifically, Galli’s editorial holds Christians accountable to answer the very question Jesus poses to his would-be followers near the end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel account. Galli counsels his readers, “Remember who you are and whom you serve.”[3] Jesus asks his would-be followers, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38)

Commentators have remarked on the mundanity of this exchange. Two of John’s disciples, presumably having heard John’s testimony about him, approach Jesus and begin to follow him. Jesus, noticing their attention, rather than praising their discipleship or inviting them to join him in fishing for men, as the synoptic accounts condition us to expect, inquires rather neutrally about their interest. “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). And the disciples, for their part, do not heap upon Jesus accolades of devotion or even pronounce a faith in him as God’s messiah. Instead, they refer to him with the respectful, though reserved, title “Rabbi,” which John tells us, “translated means teacher,” and ask him, “Where are you staying?” (John 1:38).

With all the attention, both serious and humorous, given in popular Christian circles to the trope of what one might say upon actually meeting Jesus, this exchange feels to my contemporary ears like a missed opportunity. It is likely that these two disciples of John have heard all that John has to say about the one who would come after him, have heard him even proclaim Jesus to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). It is possible that with John, at Jesus’ baptism, they may have seen God’s own spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove (John 1:32). These were not religious outsiders, fishers at a shore who may or may not have heard rumors of what Jesus had done in other towns or who he might be. John’s disciples knew there was more than just something a little special about Jesus. Presumably, this is why they were following him. But finally, when they get the chance to speak to the Son of God (John 1:34) face-to-face, it would seem that these disciples freeze.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks.

“Teacher,” the disciples begin… and as the evangelist pauses for both clarification and what serves as a dramatic break, the possibilities remain limitless. In true messianic faith, they might have replied, “The redemption of Israel.” Or, perhaps, remembering John’s words, pleaded, “Forgive us our sins,” as Jesus later teaches his disciples to pray. These two faithful men could have literally asked for the world. But, perhaps, with these and other possibilities bubbling at the tips of their tongues, they answer the teacher’s question with a question of their own, “Teacher…where are you staying?” (John 1:38).

The trouble in American Evangelicalism and, I would posit, in Christianity more broadly, is not as Gallin suggests, that we may have forgotten whose we are and whom we serve. Rather, it is that standing face-to-face with our Messiah, we find ourselves at a loss of how to serve. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What, beyond the instinctive sense that we are to follow Christ, does it mean to follow? What are we looking for?

And this, I believe, is where these two unnamed disciples are instructive. As mundane as their exchange may seem, they do not simply choke up. Faced with uncertainty about what the “right” answer would be, they don’t run away chided. Face-to-face with the disorder of a world they want so deeply to be neat and ordered, with a Messiah who doesn’t act at all as a Messiah should act, a teacher who has vowed his allegiance to another, and competing claims of what is “right” and “moral” all around, even within their own religious point of view, these disciples don’t give up. They don’t retreat to the disorder of the world. Nor do they retreat to an imagined order of religion. They double down. They ask Jesus where he is staying. Faced with uncertainty, possibly even shaken faith, they don’t turn away. They ask about and follow Jesus into the place where he is staying. They go to the place where Jesus is.

In a world in which it is easy to label the “sins” of others, it is worth remembering that John does not say that Jesus has come to announce the sins of those who follow the path of the world. In fact, in this passage, John doesn’t even say that Jesus has come to take away the sins of the world. Instead, John identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). It’s easy to miss, since in English it’s just one single letter, but John declares Jesus as one who will remove the sin (singular) of the world, not each person’s or even structure’s individual sin.

In Greek, this feminine singular noun is used in combination with the word cosmos, which literally means the ordered universe, in a Jewish conception, the creation which God has so carefully and meticulously brought into being. The sin of the world, therefore, cannot be our individual or even societal acts of immorality, however grave they may be. It is, rather, in a deeper sense, the disorder that has come to pervade God’s orderly creation.

Jesus comes into the world to remove this sin. Through his life and love, indeed, through his staying in the world, Jesus restores beauty and order for those who stand speechless in a whirlwind, wondering which way to turn. When we know whose we are and whose we serve—indeed, when we know the One God of all to whom the whole creation belongs—the next question remains, “What are we looking for?” What is moral and what is immoral? What is right and what is wrong? What is the beauty and the order toward which the God of Israel is calling us to work?

However you answer those questions personally for yourself, I would commend to those who profess Christ as teacher and kurios, that the answer must always begin, as it does for John, with where Jesus is. If we go to the places where Jesus resides, to the people with and in whom Jesus promises to embody himself, if we stop shouting our confessions of faith long enough to live into them, into the mundanity and so the profundity of serving Christ, then even if we do not have all the answers, we will have a start.

[1] Mark Galli, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” Christianity Today 19 December 2019 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html last accessed 5 January 2020

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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