How is Jesus recognised as the one sent by God? How do you know? How do we establish that it is indeed Jesus, who is the one who comes to establish God’s kingdom? The one who calls together a people in his name, who reconciles that people and through them the whole of creation with God, how do you know that Jesus’ voice is the one that must be listened to, and obeyed? How do you know that Jesus is the fulfilment of the history and the promise and the destiny of Israel?
The answer to those questions, it would seem, begins in the expectation itself. It starts in the recognition that the world and we ourselves are not as they should be, that the created order is somehow out of order. We don’t have to look very far to recognise that there is much wrong in the world. Our televisions are filled with reports of death and destruction; Of war and conflict or the threat of them, of images of the world teetering on the brink of environmental catastrophe, that if it is not burning up, it is about to be washed away in a flood. We we are witness to yawning chasms of injustice and inequality. Anywhere we would care to look we could we could point to circumstances, small or large, that are not as the should be. Among ourselves, and even within ourselves we can sense that things are not right; That relationship are not as life giving as the ought to be, that at times there seems to be a hole in our lives that nothing seems to fill. It is a grim picture.
But strangely, in the midst of it all burns a light, a light which is the recognition that things do not have to be this way. The recognition that things are wrong is strangely the beginning of a realisation that they could be made right. Perhaps we are incapable ourselves of putting things right. Perhaps we cannot even restore ourselves and our relationships. But somehow we grasp, given grace and given some new power from beyond a better world and a new creation could be possible.
We could say that such a vision, of a world that is not right but one that could be made right, we could say that vision is not a bad summary of the history and mission of God’s people Israel. And the expectation that grows out of that history and mission is of someone who will rule on God’s behalf to bring about that world made new. When scholars talk about this expectation they talk about the “Messianic Hope.” It is the hope of one whom God will send to restore God’s people and to establish God’s reign on earth. This expectation, this hope, takes on a very acute and urgent form in the ministry of John the Baptist. He is the one who announces the the Kingdom of God is at hand. He is the one who declares:
After me comes one who ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.
And says that this is the one who:
Baptises with the Holy Spirit.
John promises that the one who comes after him, is the one who will provide the grace and deliver the power to bring about the transformation in the world and in ourselves we are looking for. But it is at this point that our original question reappears: How do we know? How do we know who is the one that is the answer to our longing? Rather worryingly John seems to suggest that we can’t answer that question for ourselves. Even John, the last in the great succession of prophets who have sustained the hope that there will be answer to that longing for a better world, even John admits that he didn’t know who this would be. He says:
I myself did not know him.
Even in John’s position, even with John’s mission, to prepare the way for that one who would come after, as he says of his own mission:
I came baptising with water that he might be revealed to Israel.
Even for him, who the answer to the question, who this might be? And how he would know. Even for John the answer to those questions is illusive.
True knowledge of God cannot come from anywhere but God! Knowledge of God, and therefore the answer to the questions: “Who is the one that God sends?” and, “How do you know?” can only be given directly by God. And it has been given to very few. And they are far fewer even than the ones who claimed to have received such knowledge. And John the Baptist, even as he admits his ignorance, John acknowledges that he had been promised a sign that would allow him to answer those questions. John, later, is identified by Jesus as the greatest of all who have been born to women. And the reason that this is the case is that God gave John the means to identify who Jesus is. In the first instance
John testified, of God:
The one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.”
And so it was. In the midst of his ministry of baptism Jesus came to him, just another face in the crowd, just another one among all the people who came to John seeking baptism in recognition of their desire to seek a new relationship with God. But as Jesus emerged from the water, John saw what he was looking for but had never yet seen. He says of this moment:
I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and it remained on him.
John has an answer that none of the rest of us have. He knows with certainty that Jesus is the one. And he knows how it is that he can know. God gave him a sign which he testifies to. John is able to point to Jesus and say with assurance:
“Look here is the Lamb of God!”
At this point the story changes, and a new way of knowing emerges. Nearby when John makes his announcement are two of his own disciples, Andrew, and another who remains unnamed. The change is that the one whom God sends can be identified by the testimony of trusted witnesses. Andrew and A.N.Other are followers of John. Doubtless they have spent a good deal time with him. They have listened to he speak, they have seen how he lives. They have come to know and understand him. They have come to know the content of his character. They trust him. They know that his testimony is reliable. So when John says:
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
They know it is a witness that they can and must act upon. Almost none of us can or will receive direct revelation from God as to who Jesus is. But all of us are surrounded by reliable witnesses who we know and trust. Andrew and A.N.Other act on what they have heard John say. They follow Jesus. After a short distance of course it would be clear to anyone what they are doing, so Jesus turns to them and asks:
What are you looking for?
Jesus strikes into the heart of our longing. He touches that place that is empty that there seems nothing can fill. He points to the world and asks, do you know this is wrong? Do you want this to be made better? “What are you looking for?”
The question carries all the weight of our existence. It offers an answer to all the centuries of longing for Israel and for the world. It is a weight that is too great for one human being to bear on one instance. Andrew falls into the mundane and the immediate. The only stammered answer he can offer, to the one who might be the answer to all his questions is:
Rabbi, where are you staying?
All the while inside he’s kicking himself, “Stupid! Rabbi? If this is who John says he is, that title of respect is so faint that its an insult! And for goodness sake, ‘Where are you staying?, Is that the best I could do? Stupid”
Jesus though answers his own question, just for once, more or less directly
“Come and see.”
Andrew and A.N.Other follow Jesus to his nearby lodgings and spend the rest of the day with him. Except of course Jesus’ answer is also the answer to all the other questions Andrew might have asked had he not been made so tongue tied by the moment: How made the world be made better? Come and see! How can I be transformed and my emptiness filled? Come and see! Are you the one? Come and see!
From John to Andrew, and from Andrew to Peter, the chain of reliable, trusted witnesses begins. Direct from leaving Jesus, Andrew goes, with A.N.Other still in tow, to find his brother Simon. Andrew makes the convert’s proclamation of the Good News:
We have found the Messiah.
Somewhere between hearing John speaking and leaving Jesus’ lodgings, Andrew has found his answer. This is the one. Jesus is the one sent by God in answer to all those longings and expectations. And unspoken Andrew repeats Jesus’ invitation: “come and see.” For Peter responding to that invitation leads to an encounter which immediately changes who he is. Jesus says to him:
You are Simon son of John, you are to be called Cephas.
The Bible helpfully offers a translation: Peter. Which is less helpful than it might be, since we don’t necessarily know what the Greek Petros means any more than we know what the Aramaic Cephas means. Jesus says to him: “You are Simon Johnson, you are to be called Rocky”
Nicknames, even more than names given at birth, reflect the character of those who bear them. In his encounter with Jesus, Peter begins to become a different person. The impulsive, or even careless, and sometimes unreliable man that he is, will become the rock on which Jesus will build his church. That chain of reliable trustworthy witnesses beginning with John and passing on through Andrew continues down to us through the one who became known as Rocky. Bringing with it the promise of the same sort of transformation that Simon experienced.
At the end of the story we only have a partial answer to our original question. And we have been left with a couple of significant blanks. First is the identity of A.N.Other, the unnamed disciple. We don’t know who this is. And nearly two thousand years of speculating hasn’t and can’t answer that question with certainty. Except that it is his or her point of view that we share in the story. We see these events through their eyes. Only A.N.Other is witness to all that we have seen here. Which has led some to conclude that A.N.Other is the author of the Gospel. So perhaps A.N.Other should be called John. He is the reliable trustworthy witness, who offers us a more complete answer to our questions, in everything else he writes. After all, later he says:
These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you have life in his name.
But the decision to remain anonymous is perhaps quite deliberate. A.N.Other could be anyone, could be everyone. It is an invitation to place ourselves in the story and see what A.N.Other has seen. And come to believe as A.N.Other has come to believe. The other significant blank is what transpired in Andrew and A.N.Other’s meeting with Jesus. What did they talk about that afternoon? What was said that led Andrew to rush to his brother Simon with the Good News? Again the blank is probably quite deliberate. A.N.Other invites us to go after Jesus and see, but we must see for ourselves. For each of us that encounter with Jesus is and must be unique. As important as the testimony of reliable trusted witnesses must be, on it is own it is never enough. Such testimony is necessary but not sufficient. We cannot and do not, in the end, believe in Jesus second hand. The testimony which we receive must lead us into some encounter with Jesus. Where he can ask us: “What are you looking for?” And offer us the invitation: “Come and See!” Only then will we know that Jesus is the one whom God has sent in answer to our longings for the world and ourselves. At which point our original question of how we know will have ceased to matter.
Filling in the Blanks with Ourselves by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0