All Saints, Dorval
January 19, 2020
Michelangelo, “Leah and Rachel representing the Active and Contemplative Life”
Today’s readings ask the question: What happens after you come and see?
In John’s gospel, several of Jesus’ first disciples start out as followers of John the Baptist. After Jesus’ baptism, John is deeply impressed by Jesus and tells his listeners that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Andrew and his brother (and possibly another disciple – it’s not clear from the text) are intrigued and follow Jesus to see what he’s all about. They stay with him that day, and apparently become his disciples from then on. Their response to Jesus’ “Come and see” transformed their lives.
What happens after we see Christ revealed? What happens after we are baptized? What happens after we are invited to come and see God, present and working in the world?
These are the questions that this season after Epiphany asks.
And there are many possible answers to the question “What happens after you come and see?” But I think they fall broadly into two categories, which could be described as reflection and participation.
When we have experienced something that deeply affects, moves or changes us, we can respond in one of two ways. We can either go quiet, letting this new thing sink in to our reality, giving ourselves time to be still and absorb it and reflect on how things will be different from now on. Or we can spring into action, diving in at the deep end, running after the new promise that calls us to do everything differently.
Both these approaches are valid, and indeed they complement each other. Rarely do we see a response that consists of nothing but reflection or nothing but participation.
And indeed, drawing a distinction between these two responses has a long history in the Christian tradition. From very early on, some Christians felt called to withdraw from the world and create communities dedicated to prayer, while others worked actively to help the needy and make the world a better place. The imagery of Christian art has often included symbolic depictions of the “active life” and the “contemplative life”, and they have been seen as represented by, for example, Mary and Martha of Bethany, in the story where Martha complains of Mary not helping her with her work.
So what happens after we come and see?
In the reading from Isaiah, we hear about the mysterious figure of the servant, whom God has called to glorify him by protecting and building up God’s people. The servant has heard God’s call and has been active; he says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” So in this passage he is taking a bit of a pause, gathering his resources, and tuning back into God’s voice so as to be reminded of his mission and his gifts. It is a model of action-reflection-action, in which the two responses alternate to allow the servant both to stay close to God in prayer and to respond to God’s call in deed.
Likewise, in the Psalm, we see evidence both of faithful waiting on God’s voice and of active response to it. It begins and ends with patient reflection: “I waited patiently upon the Lord,” and “let your love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.” But in between, the writer raises their voice in a joyful hymn of praise, citing all the great things that God has done for them, and promises to continue to sing of God’s faithfulness and deliverance in the great congregation. Again, action and contemplation meet and alternate, enriching each other and the life of faith.
The next reading is from I Corinthians, and one could say that all of Paul’s letters to his many correspondents are an invitation both to the active life of faith as expressed in good works, and to reflection and joyful contemplation of the free gift of God’s grace which we have done nothing at all to deserve. Paul sees holiness as being dedicated to a purpose, being a witness in word and action; and while a lot of his writing may seem to be abstract reflections on ideas, all of it is in fact deeply rooted in his own experience of the presence and calling of God.
What happens after we come and see? We do both. We reflect and absorb and contemplate; and we dive in, participate, and act.
In the gospel reading from John, after Jesus has literally invited Andrew and the others to “come and see,” they go and stay with him, and one has to conclude that there was a lot of serious thought, conversation, and reflection as they got to know each other that afternoon and evening. There is a great deal of emphasis on names; two different titles for Jesus (Rabbi and Messiah) are mentioned and helpfully translated, and then Simon son of John is given his new name Cephas, again with translation provided (Peter). The deep change into which these new disciples are being invited begins with what things are called.
But they do not stay hidden away in contemplation. As soon as the next day dawns, they are off telling their friends that they have found the Messiah; and in the coming weeks we will hear about the explosion of activity that follows, including the water becoming wine at the wedding at Cana, Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple, and numerous healings and other miracles.
What happens after we come and see? We let it all sink in; hear God’s voice, we sing God’s praise, we are named anew, and astonishing things begin to happen.
And that is what happens here, in this space, week in, week out, as the body of Christ gathers for worship and prayer.
This Sunday and the next two Sundays, we will be gathering after coffee hour for talkback sessions about worship. The worship committee realized after we sent out the survey in the fall that there was room for some learning about the nuts and bolts of worship in the Anglican tradition and why we do what we do. One of the things we saw in the survey was that there were requests both for more space for reflection as part of our worship service and for more participation. These seem like contradictory goals, but as I’ve discovered while thinking about these themes this past week, they are really complementary, and deeply connected. In all our readings today, in our worship, and in our life as Christians, both reflective contemplation of our faith, and active participation in God’s praise and work, are essential. So the question is, how can we make room for both?
What do we do after we come and see?
We gather and we worship. Praise and prayer, song and silence. We assemble as the gathered body of Christ, and we bless the bread and, as St. Augustine said, behold what we are, in order to become what we receive. We are transformed by God’s presence in both reflection and participation. We are called, and named, and sent forth.
Are you seeking more space for contemplation? Or do you long to take action to bring about God’s will in the world?
Each of us is called to both, and both are welcome here. Come and see.