In the season of Advent we started a new year in the Church calendar. It was a season, of course, of anticipation and waiting—waiting not just for Christmastide when we celebrate the Incarnation coming into the world, but also the waiting with anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And the readings throughout that season reflected this with the accounts of John the Baptist and his ministry as the one who prepared the way for the Messiah.
Now we have entered into the season of Epiphany—that in-between season which doesn’t get as much attention as Advent and Lent, but is all the same an important season. This is because in Epiphany we bear witness to the fact that Jesus did works which were signs of God’s Presence made manifest in the world. And in these signs, Jesus enlightened the dark world, and drew to himself those who would carry his witness into the whole world.
So it’s no surprise that the theme of today’s Gospel reading is one which transitions us from the precursory ministry of John the Baptist to the messianic ministry of Jesus Christ.
The backdrop to this passage is hard to place, however, we can gather from the reaction and proclamation of John the Baptist to Jesus approaching that John has a crowd around him once again. When John sees Jesus, he immediately confesses that Jesus is the one of whom he had been speaking. And while the baptism of Jesus isn’t recorded in this particular Gospel, John the Baptist recounts it. John even says that his reason for baptizing with water was that Jesus might be revealed to Israel.
Now we all know that this was John’s job—he was supposed to be the one who prepared the way for the messiah, but was never meant to keep all of the glory for himself. What we may forget, however, is that John was a popular preacher. In fact, as we continue through the passage, we see that he even had his own disciples. We get a small glimpse of it here, but once again later on in the Acts of the Apostles.
We’re told that the following day, John was with two of his disciples. Once again, Jesus approaches, and this time John confesses him as the Lamb of God—once again pointing beyond himself to Jesus.
What follows is an extended call narrative in which the twelve disciples are gathered together, beginning with these two disciples of John—however our reading ends with the re-naming of Simon. This is also something which is quite significant, but I’ll come back to that later.Right now, our focus is on this transition from the Precursor, John the Baptist, whose entire ministry was a witness which pointed to the coming of Jesus.
We know that he had a pretty successful ministry—not only did he make enough of a stir to make the Pharisees and Sadducees angry with him, but he made the people love him enough that the religious authority feared what might happen if they spoke out against him. Of course, we also can’t forget the impression that he had on Herod, and that while he had John arrested really didn’t want him dead because he somehow respected John.
So, even though we don’t see all of it here, we should be clear that when John subordinates himself to Jesus, it really is a big deal. All the same, as I’ve already mentioned, we know this was his purpose from the very beginning.
For those of you who were able to make it here on Christmas day, you will remember Fr. Mark Robinson’s sermon about how John was called to make himself like a pane of glass—a window through which the Light could shine into the world. He went on to remind us that this is also our own call as Christians, that we do our best not to get in the way of Jesus being seen, and that whatever we do, it should always point back to Jesus Christ.
So, now in this season of Epiphany, we are reminded of our call to reflect the Light of Christ, manifested not only in the Incarnation, but also in and through us, the Church, his Body.
But there is still more in this reading that I think needs to be explored—because the reading doesn’t end with John’s confession, it ends with the re-naming of Simon. I told you I was coming back to this…
The significance of this naming is to remind us of those moments in the Old Testament when God would give someone a new name. For example Abram is renamed Abraham, Jacob is called Israel, and each time these new names mark a deeper relationship with God. It marks a new life, and purpose.
Jesus does this here with Simon, in giving him a new name he gives him a new purpose in life. It just so happens that this purpose is to be the foundation for the Church.
To be honest Peter doesn’t have the best track record as a good disciple—I mean he’s not even really a person you might put in the running for second or third best. We know him to be impetuous, and quick to do foolish things, like cut off a guy’s ear when they try to arrest Jesus. All the same, at the end of today’s reading we have Jesus giving him a new name, one which means “Rock,” even though at this stage in the Gospel, it seems almost impossible to see “rock-like” qualities in Peter. But the important thing is what Jesus sees is who Peter will become—especially after the Resurrection. Most importantly, who Peter thinks he should be continually gets in his way, and who he really is—the person Jesus knows him to be—doesn’t come through until he’s followed Jesus to the end.
What I think we have in this passage as a whole is an almost perfect metaphor for this transitional time between Advent—and even through Epiphany, and on into the Season after Pentecost. Because what we see here are two of the most important things that the Church is supposed to be. We’re called to make Christ visible by becoming like windows which allow his light to shine through us, and we’re also called to be a foundation upon which the Church can continue to grow.
When I look around this parish I see people who I’ve come to know as faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. It’s not hard to see your “window nature,” and Christ’s light is quite clear in your lives. There is very little—if any—pretense to the lives of faith I see lived out here. And like John the Baptist, you seem to have no trouble pointing toward Jesus. This is a good thing—except for one piece—John the Baptist’s ministry ended with the appearance of Jesus. And whether you think your work is done or not, I can tell you it most certainly has JUST BEGUN.
In these two years, we’ve begun to see new people join the parish and start to become involved. We’ve initiated a relationship with Agape’ Campus Ministries which is not only an ecumenical and diocesan college ministry, but also belongs to us and should be counted as one of our ministries. This is not to mention what possibilities we have yet to try out, in this coming year—because I can only imagine what ministries have yet to emerge for us.
The fact is that we are no longer the St. Alban’s from the years of the original building, when there were people and programs and even a school—and we can’t live in the shadow of that. But we’re also not victimized underdogs—that’s an illusion we’ve bought into for too long. Because like Simon; we’ve been given something like a new name. We’ve been given a new purpose, a new life to mark a deeper relationship with God. We may not fully understand where God is leading, but if we’re willing to work hard together, we can trust that God will not be stingy in helping us get there.
Now it could also be said that like Peter we also don’t have too many people who would bet on us. Perhaps not all of our best “rock-like” qualities are evident right now, and we could choose to allow that to discourage us from ever stepping out and taking chances. On the other hand, we could trust that whatever it is that Jesus knows us to be is what will emerge if can begin to trust, and work toward a common goal.
We have approximately 7 months left together, and the countdown has already begun. What will we make of these last months together? Will we begin to lay the stones upon which this parish and the Church can grow? Or will we wait idly in fear to see what the bishop wants to do here? Personally, I believe that God has some really big dreams for this place, and even now we don’t lack a single thing but motivation to make those dreams come to reality.
So here at the beginning of the Epiphany season, I call all of us to work together to truly discern who we will be, and where God might take us. I don’t mean that only a few people offer some modest ideas that get no follow-through. I am asking for a commitment to common mission, to common dreaming so that not only can we grow into the lively parish God has called us to be, but also become a parish who works in the hope that Christ could be revealed.
As we prepare ourselves then for our Annual Meeting, that time when we take council together and discern the direction for our parish, I ask all of you to truly be present. I ask that we all allow our hearts to be opened in this Eucharist, and that our minds would be inspired to move forward with vigor and strength. I have no illusions that this work will be difficult, and tiring, but if we are willing to be true to what we believe, we can’t fail—we can only learn more lessons for our growth.
Now is the time to search our hearts—will we remain only passive windows, or can we trust that who we are will be revealed if we can trust and follow Jesus to the end.