Sunday, 20 January 2008

Adding Jesus to my Friends on Facebook

By Patrick Comerford

A sermon preached in Saint Columba's College, Rathfarnham, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany:

Isaiah 49: 1-7; I Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I don’t know how many of you are on Bebo, MySpace or Facebook, or if any of you blog. I went on Bebo briefly but was told very quickly by the school-going members of the family that I was just too embarrassing.

On the other hand, I have found Facebook a great way of keeping in touch socially with family members, especially my extended family, with friends, and with colleagues in the Church of Ireland Theological College, both staff and students. And I have found blogging a good way of sharing ideas and material with other people who share my interests even if we have never met.

Whenever anyone of us sets up our own page on Bebo, MySpace or Facebook, or whenever anyone creates a profile as we start to blog, we want anyone who comes across our profiles to know immediately who we are and what they should think of us. We are very careful about the profile photograph we chose: it must be one that shows me as I want others to see me. The biographical details must be true and the ones that I know are most important: my family, my interests, my friends, my joys and pleasures, the things that interest me most, and my hope for the future. And we get some pleasure out of being introduced to other people by friends and as friends.

Our Gospel passage this morning is what it must have been like trying to set up the equivalent of a Facebook page for Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Until we come to this passage, all of Saint John’s Gospel has been by way of introduction: like an introductory page where you are invited to log in so you can join in the telling of the story.

In our passage this morning, though, we see the real live Jesus for the first time in the flesh. It’s like moving from the log-in page to actually seeing the picture of your friend on his own Bebo or Facebook page.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, though, Jesus walks onto the scene in Saint John’s Gospel for the first time. And John the Baptist identifies immediately for everyone who has logged in … he calls out to everyone: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” And then he tells us exactly what his background is: he tells us the Spirit of God is on this Jesus, and that Jesus is the Son of God.

Now, if John wanted to be boring, he could have said something like, “Hey have a look over there, here comes my distant country cousin. Do you know, his mother and my mother, Mary and Elizabeth, were cousins of some sort? I didn’t see much of him when were growing up. I was in Jerusalem, but they headed off to Egypt for some time and then moved to the backwoods of Nazareth.”

And indeed, John tells us: “I myself did not know him.”

But no, that’s the way your parents might like to introduce you. But if you wanted to introduce yourself to people who are going to matter, you’d cut out that detail and get straight to the point.

John immediately gives us a Trinitarian introduction to Jesus: he is the anointed one, he is Christ, he is the Son of God, and he cannot be seen separately without considering his relationship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

Then John tells us the two most important things about Jesus:

• He is the Son of God;

• He is the Lamb of God.

First there we have the picture of Jesus, then we have his name and a concise but precise profile.

What would you think of Jesus if you came across his Bebo or Facebook page, stopped to look at his picture, and then read on his profile that he is the Son of God? And that he is the Lamb of God?

In those days, in that part of the world, people would have been shocked.

How could God have a Son? What does John mean by the Lamb of God?

For people in those days to describe someone as “the Son of …” means that they are just like that. “The Sons of Thunder” are real loudmouths, two stormy brothers in the Gospels. They are thunder incarnate.

The title Son of God is used 23 times throughout Saint John’s Gospel. It owes as much to the Hellenistic or classical Greek way of thinking as it does to Jewish ways of thinking at the time. It means not just that Jesus is like God, but that there is a perfect relationship, a perfect union of operating, between God the Father and Jesus Christ. It means that Christ is, in fact, God born in the flesh, God incarnate.

Today I don’t think any of us would be comfortable with being described as “the Lamb of God.” But in those days, there were two immediate associations for people when the words Lamb and God were linked together.

First of all, people would have thought of the Paschal Lamb, the Lamb of the Passover. The Passover is the great Jewish festival when Jews remember not only that they were freed from slavery in Egypt in the past, but that God’s saving work then is made alive now and that we can all be saved by God from anything and everything that threatens to enslave or entrap us, that threatens to take away the freedom that allows us to have a free and open relationship with God. [Exodus 12]

And secondly, they would have thought of the image of the Servant Lamb, spoken about by the Prophet Isaiah. [Isaiah 53: 7.]

So, in describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, John the Baptist is building up our expectations about Jesus. He is going to deliver us from slavery and bring us to freedom, And the Jesus who later in Saint John’s Gospel dies on the cross at the time the Passover lamb is being sacrificed is going to be a servant, serving to work out God’s plans, and serving us so that we can be fully part of God’s plans for us.

Well after that sort of introduction, would you want to leave the Bebo or Facebook page for Jesus? Certainly not, as far as the disciples and friends of John the Baptist were concerned!

And so, after the picture and profile of Jesus, we see people coming onto his page and wanting to be his friend. The first of these are Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. Andrew wants to be on Jesus’ list of friends, but he doesn’t want to go there without his best friends too, including his brother Simon Peter.

And then when they introduce themselves to Jesus, we hear the first words Jesus speaks in Saint John’s Gospel: “What are you looking for?”

If we introduce ourselves to him and make friends with him, he will ask us what we are looking for.

What are you looking for? Your immediate concerns and ambitions may be about moving on in your education, maybe even your future career. But apart from career, what about the real you? What about the real me? Leave ambition aside for a moment … what are my real needs? My real needs can only be met in the real love of God. And only Christ can assure me of that at any stage in my life.

And as with every Facebook page, these friends, these brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter, decide to add one another to their list of friends and to introduce themselves to their new friend Jesus. He is going to become their best friend, their one true friend.

Now, Andrew and Simon Peter were not the sort of friends you would expect to have been first in the list to sign up as friends of Jesus. Andrew’s name is unusual and unique in Jewish society at the time. It’s not Jewish at all; it’s Greek, as is Simon’s nickname, Peter.

They are figures on the margins of society and on the margins of polite Jewish society. The possibility of a mixed background, and the time they spent as followers of John the Baptist don’t exactly make them the sort of people you’d expect to add to names of those who become followers of Jesus.

But isn’t that what it’s like for Christians in Ireland today?

During the weekend, the Church of Ireland had a major conference on immigration and difference in Ireland today, “A Pilgrim People” … a very appropriate conference for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We heard of the way immigration is changing the mixture of people in Irish society today, even in the Church of Ireland.

If people have strange names, or strange backgrounds, are we still be willing to listen to what they have to say about Jesus?

Would we still be willing to listen to them as they invite us to become friends with them and through their introductions to be closer friends with Jesus?

Our Gospel reading this morning opened with an introduction and ended with an invitation. You too can be on the list of friends on Jesus’ own page. You too can invite others to be his friends. And it really doesn’t matter who invites you or who you invite. He has space enough for all of us on his page; he’s happy and willing to welcome each and every one of us. But there is a warning: signing up will change your life, and will change the lives of your friends too.

And now, may all we think, say and do, be to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at Morning Prayer and Holy Communion in Saint Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Sunday 20 January 2008.