Today, we begin to follow the ministry of Jesus—a ministry that commenced when his true identity was revealed at his baptism by John in the Jordan River. In a short while, our story will be interrupted by the Lenten fast, the Passion, and Easter, but it’ll continue on after our celebration of Pentecost. It makes sense to begin the story of Jesus’s ministry as teacher—rabbi—with his acceptance of his first disciples. After all, a teacher cannot be a teacher without students, nor can a master be a master without disciples. As we consider the story from the point of view of John the Evangelist, we’re presented first of all with two disciples of John the Baptist: Andrew, and an unnamed disciple who we may assume to have been John the Evangelist himself. This immediately tells us something: these two were seekers from the outset. They’d already left their homes and communities to follow and learn from the Baptist.
We know that the Baptist had disciples. It was they who took John’s body for burial from Herod’s prison, and it was John’s disciples who were spreading the rumor that John was the Messiah long after his death. But here, in our gospel passage, we see John bearing witness to Jesus in the presence of his disciples. The Baptist is quoted as saying, “Behold the Lamb of God,” which is a reference to the Passover lamb whose blood saved the people of Israel from the angel of death. So, from the beginning, John, the last of the prophets, identified the goal of Jesus’s ministry—his suffering, death, and resurrection.
Certainly, the two disciples didn’t comprehend all that was behind John’s declaration, but they understood enough to realize that John was indicating a master greater than he. It’s no wonder that the two left John and started walking after Jesus. The lesson for us in their actions is that we might become aware that, regardless of how self-assured we may be that we’re doing the will of the Father, we mustn’t ever become self-satisfied or complacent. The will of God can call us to go in a different direction at any time. We need to be willing and able to shift our perspectives and our plans as our understanding of God’s will for us deepens and broadens. We can never rest from being spiritual seekers. The will of God is changeless, but we only get to see it unfold a little at a time.
When they’d set out to follow Jesus, did the two disciples have any concept of where the road would take them? I can’t imagine that they did. However, it was the boldness of their faith that led them to walk away from someone as well-known and popular as John the Baptist to follow Jesus—a relatively unknown rabbi. Yet, because of their willingness to step out of their comfort zone, they were rewarded. Jesus asked them, “What are you looking for?” This is perhaps the most profound question in the gospel. Let’s say that you’ve set out to follow Jesus, and he turns to you and asks, “What are you looking for?” And, to what lengths are you willing to go to get it? For Andrew and John, it was about gaining an intimacy with Jesus. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Knowing nothing about Jesus except what the Baptist had said about him, they were already willing to give him a try. Becoming a rabbi’s disciple was no small commitment.
The next lesson that today’s gospel has in store for us can be found in Jesus’s response. Think about what people—and perhaps we ourselves—have had to go through to choose a university. Before making that big a commitment of time and energy, wouldn’t we want to research the school to see what we’d be getting ourselves into? What are the courses of study? Are they the right ones for us? What does it cost? What are the admission standards and, even more importantly, what are the graduation requirements? Yet where was the due diligence on the part of the disciples? Notice that Jesus didn’t market himself or his course of study. He didn’t go into a long, detailed explanation of his expectations to set the minds of these new disciples at ease. No. He simply said, “Come and you will see.” He says the same to us. There’s only one way to discover what becoming a disciple of Jesus entails, and that’s simply by becoming a disciple of Jesus. He says the same thing to anyone who considers becoming his disciple—“Come and you will see.”
Later, probably the next day, Andrew went out looking for his brother, Simon. When he saw him, he told him, “We have found the Messiah.” There’s no hint that Andrew was proselytizing. All he did was share his experience and, of course, his excitement. This, again, can be a lesson to us. If our faith truly means something, it will show in how we behave, how we speak, and even how we think. It’s not about explanations and it’s certainly not about advertising. The witness that we bear to Jesus is simply how we live our faith, loving God and one another. That’s eloquent enough. Our attitudes—our peace and our joy—may be the only Bible some people will ever read.
Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. He didn’t drag him. He didn’t pull him along. He knew where Jesus stayed because he had stayed with him. When Simon wanted to find the Messiah for himself, Andrew knew the way. And when Simon came into Jesus’s presence, something remarkable happened. From the first, Jesus knew who Simon was. “You are Simon, son of John,” Jesus told him, using the name his parents had given him. For the Semitic peoples, the name and the thing that is named are one and the same. Jesus knew Simon’s name—therefore, he knew Simon. When we approach Jesus, he knows our names as well and he knows us—who we are—without façade or pretense, and he accepts us just that way.
There’s one final step in the process of becoming a disciple. Jesus said to Simon, “You will be called Cephas,” which is the Aramaic word for rock. To understand what happened at that moment, we have to go back to the Book of Genesis where we read, “So Yahweh God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.” [Genesis 2:19] The power to give a name is the power to bestow an identity. In the same way, Jesus, the rabbi, gave his disciple, Simon, a new name and a new identity. In other words, becoming a disciple creates a transformation.
You’re aware that the sacrament—the sign—we call Confirmation is the completion of our Baptism. It’s through our Confirmation that we reaffirm our baptismal commitment to join in the death and resurrection of Jesus and we receive the fulfillment of the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying-on of hands and the anointing. Do you remember what happened when you approached the bishop at your Confirmation? We, too, like Simon, were given a new name—a new identity. What was yours?
Today’s gospel spells out in detail the path to discipleship in seven stages. One, we are invited to “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two, in our curiosity, we pursue him. Three, he asks us, “What are you looking for?” Four, seeking intimacy with him we respond, “Where are you staying” that we might stay with you? Five, he invites us to “Come and see.” Six, we become signs to others of what we’ve experienced—“We have found the Messiah.” And, seven, we’re transformed—given a new name and a new identity. Discipleship is far more than learning doctrine or even studying the Scriptures. Discipleship means walking in the footsteps of the Master, even to Calvary and beyond.