Who Is Jesus?

St. Philip Lutheran Church
15 January 2023 + Lectionary 2a (Epiphany 2)
John 1.29-42
Rev. Josh Evans




Who is Jesus?

That was the question recently posed to me by a colleague. I admit, for someone in my line of work who should have a ready-made answer to that question, it took me by surprise … and I began to mentally fumble my way through a host of possible responses, searching for the “perfect” answer.

Who is Jesus?

It’s also the question the gospel writer puts before us today. Instead of one, neat answer, though, we get several. And in fact, the entire first chapter of John’s gospel seems to be preoccupied with answering that question.

Jesus is “the Word” who was with God and is God. Jesus is “the true light” that enlightens everyone. And perhaps most shocking of all, Jesus is not only the eternal Word who is and is with God, but this Word is also human, taking on our flesh to live among us.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that all of this precedes any appearance of Jesus himself.

And there’s still more!

As John the Baptist proclaims: “Here is the Lamb of God!”

Maybe John was thinking of the Passover lamb, slaughtered by his ancestors in ancient Egypt and whose blood was painted on their doorposts as a visible sign of protection from the tenth and final plague. Or maybe his hearers thought of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, “like a lamb that is led to slaughter,” whose life was made “an offering for sin.” Or maybe a foggy mix of both. But in either case, Jesus “the Lamb of God” is understood to be someone who will protect, provide, and even intervene for God’s people. (Working Preacher)

Then, recalling the earlier episode of Jesus’s baptism, John is bold to further assert that this Lamb of God is also the “Son of God.” John is clear that Jesus has a special relationship with God – and, indeed, as we already know from verses before, is himself God.

It is these two descriptors of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and the “Son of God” that are enough to prompt two of John’s disciples to begin following Jesus. And who can blame them? It certainly sounds intriguing, if nothing else.

Rabbi,” they call him. They want to learn from Jesus the teacher because they recognize that there might be something worth learning from him.

Interestingly, in John, it’s not Jesus who explicitly calls the first disciples. It’s another disciple, Andrew, who invites his brother Simon Peter: “We have found the Messiah.” The “anointed” one. Another answer to the question of Jesus’s identity. Is he the heir to King David who will restore and rescue the kingdom of Israel? There is great hope in Andrew’s declaration, and it’s enough to pull Simon Peter along for the ride.

Who is Jesus?

There’s really no easy answer to that question in this first chapter of John, and in fact, there are many answers, depending on who you ask: Word, Light, Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, Messiah.

Who is Jesus?

Perhaps the most profound answer to that question is another question – and an invitation – from Jesus himself, when he finally gets a chance to speak … 38 verses in:

“What are you looking for? Come and see…”

Who is Jesus?

The answer Jesus gives is not a didactic lecture, but an invitation to action. Who Jesus is lies in what Jesus is calling his disciples to do.

“You want to know who I am, where I’m staying, and what I’m up to? Come and see… Come and find out…”

Who is Jesus?

There is no easy answer here, but instead, an invitation to active participation.

***

We all know the name Martin Luther King Jr., commemorated today on our church calendar as a martyr and renewer of society. Less well-known, however, is the name Robert Graetz.

Graetz, who was born in West Virginia in 1928, graduated from what is now Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. In June of 1955 and newly ordained, Rev. Graetz was called to serve as pastor of the majority-Black Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

It was barely six months before Rosa Parks would be arrested, sparking what ultimately became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Graetz urged his congregation to fully participate in the boycott. He himself organized carpools and became a shuttle driver for as many as fifty people each day.

Most notably, Rev. Graetz was also the only White clergy person to publicly support the boycott. Despite his best efforts, he failed to rally the support of his fellow White ministers, and even the wider White population of Montgomery began to distance themselves from Graetz and his family.

Tensions came to a head the following summer, just over a year into his call, when his house was bombed … for the first time. Even after the boycott ended, a second bomb detonated on their front lawn, while Rev. Graetz, his wife, their children, and his mother were home.

Like King and the other Black Civil Rights leaders of his day, Rev. Graetz faced harassment, death threats, and violent attacks in the course of his ministry.

Still, Graetz was White. He could easily have had a comfortable life. He could have chosen, like the rest of his fellow White clergy, to stay out of it all. He could have turned down the call to Montgomery altogether.

Instead, he chose to throw aside that comfort, and to risk his own safety and security, to do what he knew was right and what had to be done. Graetz took his call as a pastor – and as a disciple of Jesus – seriously and did what the gospel demanded, no matter the cost.

As the late theologian James Cone once observed, “If you are going to worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.”

***

I hardly think Andrew, Simon Peter, and those first disciples to follow Jesus knew exactly what they were in for. Even with John the Baptist’s bold testimony, they still had only just met Jesus. They hardly knew who he was, let alone what he was about to do. They certainly could never have predicted it would lead to the cross.

“You want to know who I am? Come and see…”

Learning who Jesus is, really is, meant having to get up and get out of their comfort zones, going to places unknown, and taking risks.

As they would soon learn: Following Jesus is going to be uncomfortable. And if it feels otherwise, we’re doing it wrong.

Following Jesus means hearing the Word – and then doing it.

Today, as we remember Dr. King, Rev. Graetz, and all the Civil Rights leaders, past and present, it means more than just confessing the sin of racism in the words of our liturgy – it means actually acting on our confession by the way we live, and advocating for justice for all people, especially the most vulnerable.

Following Jesus sometimes means “joining the trouble,” Rev. Graetz later reflected, because it’s the right thing to do. “Good trouble,” as the late John Lewis famously put it.

***

Recently, I came across the “Reverse St. Francis Prayer”:

Lord, make me a channel of disturbance.

Where there is apathy, let me provoke;
where there is compliance, let me bring questioning;
where there is silence, may I be a voice.

Where there is too much comfort
and too little action, grant disruption;
where there are doors closed and hearts locked,
grant the willingness to listen.

When laws dictate and pain is overlooked,
when tradition speaks louder than need,
grant that I may seek rather to do justice than to talk about it.

Disturb us, O Lord,
to be with, as well as for, the alienated;
to love the unlovable, as well as the lovely.

Lord, make me a channel of disturbance.

That is what it means to follow Jesus.

That is what it means to “come and see.”

***

So, who is Jesus?

The answer I ultimately arrived at, when asked that question by my colleague, is that Jesus, for me, is someone who has done the hard things, challenged the status quo, and made it through on the other side, empowering us to do the same.

Because Jesus has been to the places of pain and suffering, we are compelled to go there too. Because Jesus took risks for the sake of the gospel, we can take risks for the sake of our mission too. Because Jesus caused trouble, we can join the trouble.

Because we know that Jesus has been there (wherever “there” is), and that Jesus is with us still.

And because the answer on the other side of “come and see” is full of promise: liberation, freedom, resurrection, and beloved community. As Jesus himself has promised, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Jesus invites us who are his disciples to “come and see” … to be active participants in his gospel mission.

Jesus doesn’t promise it’s going to be easy or give us all the answers.
Instead, he invites us into the mess and the trouble … and he promises to be right there with us through it all.

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