Sunday Night Worship – 1/20/08

Come and See
John 1: 29-42

Several years ago I took a seminar class at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC. It was an evangelism class that I was required to take in order to be ordained. Though I’d graduated from seminary seven years previously, evangelism had not been a required class at that time and, as I was fond of saying, “Why would I take that if it weren’t required?”

I wasn’t the only one with this opinion in the class. There were several people (whom I immediately befriended) who were also taking the class solely as a requirement and with not a little trepidation. As I later found out, that single class contained the campus’s absolute most radical students in either direction. In terms of evangelism, it contained people who had come to know Christ and turned their lives around due to someone else’s witness and it also contained those who had been driven to the very edges of the church by others who “witnessed” that Jesus didn’t want them – at least not as they were.

As you may surmise, this was a class ready to blow. Thank God we had one of the best professors of my entire seminary career leading this class. He was brand spanking new, from Iowa, teaching a class that had gone unmanned and which many would have love to see remain that way. If memory serves, his background was in Wesleyan studies. Certainly related to evangelism, but not always cobbled into one professorial job description. So I’m not sure if he was even teaching what he initially came there to teach – but he had passion!

Through serendipity or studiousness or silly chance, Scott Kisker was passionate about evangelism. Most of the people I’ve met with a real burning passion for evangelism tend to speak a certain language that can sound like code to the rest of us. Before that class, most of what I’d heard described as evangelism seemed forced, formulaic, and even archaic (especially when it came to relations between different cultures around the world). But Scott Kisker didn’t come off this way to me and he walked the talk. Starting with our class assignments.

On the very first day he informed us – a group mostly intending to be ordained pastors – that each class we would spend 20 minutes at the start listening to two students give their testimonies. Immediately, half of the class was elated, knowing just what they’d say and just where the high points were, and eager to get to the sign up sheet.

Then there was my half of the class. We weren’t personally familiar with this practice and had given up on that word, “testimony.” In fact, I wasn’t even sure I knew what to include in a testimony. Because the only kind I’d ever heard always involved drug abuse and other “rock bottom” moments, I wasn’t sure I had a suitable one to give. There we were, perfectly respectable seminarians and soon-to-be-pastors who would rather be any place else than standing up in front of a group of people – even other pastors – giving our testimonies. And yes, we could see the irony in the situation.

This is where I think Scott Kisker was particularly brilliant. He absolutely insisted on this assignment and he absolutely insisted that everyone had something to say when asked to give reason for the hope within us (I Peter 3: 15). He also insisted that we were not to give our call stories. This exercise wasn’t about why we were called to be ordained but simply about why we were called in the first place.

I thought of that class again this week reading John. This is the gospel with that great opening evocative of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And though this is the gospel where we are told in chapter one, verse one, that Christ has been with God since the beginning of all beginnings, still Jesus does not actually show up until verse 29, the first verse we read today. And even then, Jesus stays on the sidelines and doesn’t say anything until verse 38 (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 528). It’s as if Jesus knows how important testimony is. John’s witness is important enough for Jesus to wait 29 verses to appear and then 9 more before he says anything. He wants John to have his say first.

There are a lot of pithy sayings meant to demonstrate the importance of evangelism, testimony, witness. “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary” is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. A more recent one says, “You may be the only Bible some people ever read.” Pithy, but they do hit on something central to the truth of Christianity: it takes a witness.

In this week’s Christian Century magazine writer Kathleen Norris tells the story of an Islamic scholar who, while she was studying in Paris, found the lives of Islamic Africans (her fellow students) to be so fascinating that she was drawn to her conversion. Though she was raised Christian, “what she witnessed” as the Africans endured daily assaults “astonished” her. They endured it all with grace and “without bitterness [and] attributed their perseverance under pressure to their Muslim faith, and that caused her to take a closer look” (The Christian Century, 1/15/08, p. 22).

Norris also describes a Benedictine monk’s exchange experience with a Japanese Buddhist: “[The Benedictine] said that after the Buddhist had been in the monastery for about a month, he had only one question. It seemed to him that the monks did not live very well. They worked hard, their food was neither good nor plentiful, and they did not get enough sleep. ‘Yet they are joyful,’ he said, ‘and I want to know: from where does this joy come?’” (Christian Century, 1/15/08, p. 22).

From where does this joy come? What is the reason for the hope within them?

Can I get a witness?

There is something mighty and powerful about seeing someone’s convictions shine through the sometimes dull moments of daily life.

That’s what I love about Jesus’ words here: “Come and see” (John 1: 39). They are not didactic or preachy or even much of an explanation. Jesus wouldn’t be picked for the debate team with these words – not enough of an argument. But aren’t they more persuasive than a treatise or a theorem or legal argument? “Come and see.”

Wouldn’t you rather receive an invitation than a critique? Aren’t you curious what you’ll see if you just come on and follow? “Come and see.” They are playful words. Hopeful words. Imaginative words.

My friend Scott McReynolds directs the Housing Development Alliance where we are volunteering during spring break. We were emailing last week about the “war on poverty” begun in Appalachia in the 1960s and how we haven’t fought that war well. Scott commented that he has come to see lack of hope as one of the biggest obstacles to conquer in this fight. He listened to a speaker recently who said that imagination and art use the same part of our brains. Scott wondered to me, “So, by cutting art education funding are we limiting our children’s ability to imagine a better future?”

Jesus was right at home in the world of imagination and hope.   Maybe that’s why he spoke so often in parable. When John’s disciples ask Jesus where he’s staying he doesn’t answer the question. He says, “Come and see.” He lets the disciples explore his life with him. Rather than answering all their questions for them, he invites them on a journey where they can discover the answers (NIB, p. 531). Maybe he knew that we just listen better – with our whole lives – to an imaginative invitation.

What is the future to which Christ beckons us? How will our lives be different in 5 years because we want to live like Christians? Come and see.

What is the reason for the hope within you? Why do you live like you do? Why do you believe what you believe? Why do you make those commitments? What peace do you know? Come and see.

And when others ask you about your life…When a Scott Kisker comes in and forces you to give your testimony…Or when you face the every day choices between living in or out of synch with your beliefs…What will you do? Will you struggle to cross every “t” and dot every “i” with explanative detail? Will you draw a diagram about your faith? Or will you welcome your brother or sister with a warm invitation: Come and see.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis 2008