15 November 2012

John's Gospel and Discernment

I'll be leaving Boston this afternoon to travel to New York for a fundraising dinner for the Capuchins; Friday takes me to Saugerties for a discernment weekend; Saturday means a return to Boston for Sunday duties at the parish.  In the meantime, what follows is the talk that I will present on Discernment in John's Gospel to the candidates on Saturday afternoon.  (In the meantime, please pray for us!)

John 1: 35-51 – A Model for Discernment

            This afternoon, I would like to spend some time with you reflecting upon the sixteen verses of the first chapter of John’s Gospel that we just heard.[1]  They provide for all of us – both friars and candidates – an opportunity to reflect upon the life of discipleship to which all of us are called by the Lord.

            The passage we just heard places before us a “crisis” in the strictest sense of the word: in Greek, the word “crisis” means “decision.”  This is exactly what the Gospel of John hopes to provoke in its listeners, in the community of believers who would hear this word: a crisis.  It is a crisis of faith: in other words, we are called to make a distinct and total decision for one way of life or another.  The decision, as we will see, requires a total response – it causes us to choose a fundamental way of being in the world.  This reminds me of a quote a favorite theologian of mine: “it is up to each of us to decide for himself what he is to make of himself."[2]  Throughout John’s Gospel we must decide whether or not we are going to be followers of Christ; and then, after this decision, to decide what this means.  The first question is answered through an encounter with Christ.  The second question – how we will live out this encounter – is guided by the Holy Spirit – the Paraclete (lit: the one who stands alongside).

There is no half-measure to be found here – the nature of John’s crisis point is that it runs deep – a decision must be made and a basic orientation of life is to be discerned.  This is the driving force of John’s Gospel: we see or we don’t (cf. Jn. 9), we are born from above or we are not (cf. Jn. 3), we drink of the living waters or not (cf. Jn. 4).[3]

We are a disciple of Jesus, or we are not.

Jesus of Nazareth is either “nothing good” or the Messiah.

When called, we may “come and see,” or we can choose to remain exactly where we are, living life in precisely the same manner as we did the day before.  This Gospel provokes in us a decision.  And, as we return to it time and time again in our prayer, it should provoke this same reaction. 

I would like to break up this presentation into three parts, or three days, just as the Gospel does, and then conclude with a few summary remarks, drawing some overall thoughts regarding discernment and religious life.

Day #1 (Jn. 1:35-39)
            Two of John’s disciples leave their master and go after Jesus in response to John’s comment: “Look, there is the Lamb of God.”  In response to their pursuit, Jesus turns around and asks them what any person followed by strangers might have asked, “What do you want?”  They respond not with an answer, but with another question, “Where are you staying?”  Jesus, not to be outdone, responds with an answer both so vague and powerful that it haunts us: “Come and see.” 

Come and see: Jesus is not going to be pinned down by his would-be followers.  Jesus answers questions in his own time, in his own way.  He answers to no man, woman or child.  In response to Jesus’ challenge, the would-be disciples “stayed with him that day” and saw where he lived. 

After an encounter with the Lord, we are already changed; things immediately take a turn that we could not expect.  In a sense, Jesus answers the disciples of John with an invitation so bold and so off-putting that they could not have expected it.  They go off following the Lamb of God – “to come and see.”  Just notice how things have been turned upside down: lambs are supposed to be led by shepherds; here, however, the Lamb is the leader.  Jesus, even at the beginning of his ministry, has turned things upside down, not because he doesn’t follow conventions, but because of a reason much more serious than that: he is Lamb to be followed because he is the Word made flesh, the Word who has always been, who is One with the Father.  The Kingdom of God itself is located in Jesus.[4]

I’d like to highlight here what we can call a true “meta-noia” – a change in one’s mind.  The disciples have had their entire worlds changed, just by seeing where Jesus lived, just by spending the day with him.  They have had their entire worlds rocked.  Think about it: it is not as if they had not already made a change in their life to follow John.  In a sense, they had already experienced a conversation, they had gone out into the desert with John, to be baptized, to live and pray with the wild-man who ate locusts and honey.  And yet, after an encounter with the Lamb their minds changed again.  What, I wonder, could Jesus have said or done to provoke such another more radical “meta-noia”?

This is the risk that is taken by following the Lamb.  Our minds are changed.  In experiencing this change of mind and heart, this change of one’s entire soul, we reach a crisis – a decision must be made.  Who will we follow: is it John the Baptist, the known prophet, the bold, public, theologically safe conversion characterized by outward signs, or is it the bolder, deeper, total conversion to the one who commands: “Come and see?”  We will remain in the desert, crying in the wilderness, or, will we, with Christ, travel to the heart of the world, be abandoned and crucified all for the sake of those who despise us?

The two new disciples, as we can see, make the drastic choice: they follow the Lamb.  Yet, this isn’t even the most mysterious part of the story, because, as we will see there are greater crises to be had, larger metanoia-s to experience.

Day #2: (Jn. 40-42)

The next day, “the first thing,” Andrew, one of the two who had left John, goes forth from Jesus’ company to find his brother.  Whatever has happened since late yesterday afternoon unt has had an effect upon him.  After finding his brother, he makes the bold assertion, “We have found the Messiah.”  Simon Peter, hearing this, leaves with his brother Andrew to see this one who has been found.  Without saying a word, Peter is found out by the Lord.  Jesus looks at him and says, simply, “You are to be called Cephas” – you are the rock, you are solid, you are immovable and also, quite plainly, sometimes too rigid for your own good! 

What can we make of this episode?  First, there is the phenomenon of one bringing another into contact with Christ.  By a simple confession of the lips, “We have found the Messiah,” another person is invited into the life of Christ. 

What’s more, in meeting Christ, Peter is not re-created, but rather re-formed.  Christ takes what is there and remolds it into something extraordinary.  Peter is still the biological Peter – he is still flesh and blood, sinful, impetuous, boldly faithful and outspoken in his confession of the Lord.  However, he has become something entirely else spiritually.  Christ has renamed him and in doing so claimed him personally and permanently as something completely belonging to him.  Peter no longer belongs to Andrew, his fishing business, his parents: he now belongs completely and irrevocably to Christ. 

Our discipleship for Christ is not based on Christ creating something new, obliterating our past, eliminating our insecurities, forgetting our weaknesses: rather, we are clay in hands of God: God forms and reforms us out of the same clay.[5]  God has seen what has previously happened in our lives and has acted in such a way as to recreate us into his sons all over again.  Peter is still Peter, but he is also a new man, re-created by Christ and revealed to us as new by the Word.

Let us think about what has happened here in the light of our own searches for God’s will for our lives.  We have been invited by the Lord himself, very likely at the prompting of someone else.  Or failing that, perhaps it was our dissatisfaction with our lives – not necessarily because of sin, but because we know that there is something else out there for us.  We spent time with the Lord and shared our journey with others, because, quite frankly, being the Lord’s disciple is something that by its nature is meant to be shared.  We met the Lord and it is more than we could have expected: we find ourselves renamed.  The Lord doesn’t take away our past; he transforms us, showing us that grace works in ways we could scarcely have imagined. 

Yet in all this, we still have not reach the pinnacle of Christ’s call to discipleship; to find that we must turn to the third day – the day upon which Christ always works most abundantly.

Day 3 (Jn.1:43-51)

The next day, Jesus begins a journey to Galilee.  He meets Phillip and commands him: “follow me.”  Philip finds Nathaniel and then makes a confession and offers an invitation, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph, of Nazareth.”  Nathaniel responds bluntly: “Can anything good come of Nazareth?”  And what is Philip’s response?  He repeats same line that originally started this entire episode – now, however, it is on his lips and not those of the Lord, “come and see.”

Nathaniel follows Phillip, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of something else.  From a distance off, Jesus calls him a “true Israelite in whom there is no deception.”  Nathaniel responds: “how do you know me?”  Jesus answers simply, “I saw you under the fig tree.”  Nathaniel replies with a dual confession: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

What has happened here?  Three points jump out:

1.      “What good can come from Nazareth?” We may be tempted to make this question our own: What good can come from us?  Is that not a question that each discerning person must ask?  We attempt to bring our talents, our treasure, our good skills, our prayerfulness, our faith to put at service of the Church for the salvation of the entire world – and that is admirable.  But at the same time, we bring all of that which is sinful as well.  Indeed, whenever we approach the sacrament of Reconciliation we ask ourselves this very question: what good has come from us?  And what bad?  Yet, what is truly stupendous is that this question in the Gospel isn’t directed at us, but rather at Christ.  What good can come of this peasant, this son of Joseph, this Nazarene?  This question is filled with religious and political significance present in first century Judaism and for us now; however, it is also the core question which runs throughout of all history: what good has come from Jesus of Nazareth?  What good has the Son of Joseph, the prophet of whom Moses spoke and done?  A young German bishop, Joseph Ratzinger, still smarting from the horrors of World War II, once asked this same question: what change has Jesus brought into the world?[6]  This question, I think, is a proper one for us to ask ourselves in prayer.  Just what has Jesus done?  What has Jesus the Christ done for me?  What has he done for the world?  What is the Holy Spirit up to right now – in me and in my neighbor?  What is the Spirit’s mission?  What is my own?  Are they the same? 

2.      The more important question, however, for our purposes, is the question asked by Nathanial to Jesus: “How do you know me?”  Here we find Nathaniel blinded in a sense – he does not know Jesus and he doesn’t know how Jesus could possibly know him.  Thought of in this way, Jesus’ response is staggering: “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”  Nathaniel’s response shows just how quickly he comes to sight.  In this confession of faith, we can almost hear Nathaniel’s unspoken and initial reaction: “You do know me!”  Yes, indeed, the Christ does know us.  We may not think it, but the Lord of all not only knows us but desires to prove it to us.  In the intimacy of prayer – the encounter with the living Christ – we find out more about ourselves than we ever could on our own.

3.      Perhaps the most shocking element of this encounter, however, is Nathaniel’s final response to the Lord.  It is two-fold: “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.  This dual response not only acknowledges as God, but also asserts that Jesus is the culmination of all for which we may hope.  Jesus is not only Son of God, but also the Ruler of God’s Dominion.  As I noted earlier: if you seek the Kingdom, seek Christ.


I would like to conclude by noting four points we have covered this afternoon and briefly point out how they apply to our discernment.
1.      Discernment provokes a decision.
a.       Discernment forces us to make a particular decision for or against some other thing.  It is in and of itself a crisis, an invitation to provide a resounding yes or no that we make in the view of the entire community. 
b.      At the same time, becoming a disciple is itself a process, an entire series of yes-es and no-s.  Clarity of vision is a work of the Spirit that is not earned, but received through openness to the holy operation of the Spirit in our prayers.  This is a great Franciscan insight, given to us by our Holy Father Francis himself.  It is no accident that Francis’ first prayer, asks for “sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out your holy and true command.”[7]  At his wits’ end, Francis threw himself before the Crucifix and asked for clarity of vision.  The question for us becomes: do we have the courage to do the same?
2.      Our discernment is necessarily an encounter with both God and the friars.  It is an experience that brings us into contact with all sorts of people.  However, the key figure in the discernment, our key conversation partner is the Christ.  As a spiritual director said to me in college, “Matt, spiritual direction won’t do a thing if you don’t pray.” 
3.      Discernment is communal.  Just as Phillip brought Nathaniel to Christ, so we can and must look for those people and places in our life that bring us into contact with Christ.  As a corollary: if people in your discernment move you away from Christ, there may be a problem.  At the same time, Phillip decided to tap Nathaniel on the shoulder.  There is a reason why discernment is two-parted: you are discerning us, just as we are discerning you.    
4.      Finally, I’d like to come back to Nathaniel’s confession, because I think it is the most important part of the entire story. 
-          We hear, “You are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.”
-          Jesus is the Son of God.  He is the Lord.  This is the most basic belief of the believing Christian.  All of us here believe that.  It is the fundamental confession of the Christ. 
-          However, to declare Jesus the King of Israel means that Jesus is King and Ruler of the City – of God’s city.  And, to make such a claim means that Jesus is the Lord over all that we do.  It is a complete and radical consecration to his purposes, to his plans.  To declare Jesus as the Son of God – and act accordingly – is to be a Christian. 
-          To make Him, however, the King of Israel means that all that we have, all that we may offer, belongs to Him.  All are called to discipleship.  This not necessarily “discernment” – it is a basic expectation.  Christian prayer and charity are not options for the person who calls himself a Christian.  However, when we think about what Christ’s kingship means, we come to a full crisis point, a moment of decision.  This is the decision to be discerned.  Will I get married?  Will I enter religious life? 
-          Friends, let’s not fool ourselves with the idea that the man who discerns marriage as his call from God is taking an easy way out.  When my mother was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, a period of suffering for both my parents was set in motion.  Their devotion to each other mirrored – made obvious – the love that they had for each other, precisely because Christ had loved them first (1 Jn. 4:19).  In the same way, religious life is not to be taken lightly.  It is a particular way – a specific gift – that God gives to us. 

-          This Gospel, I think, allows us to focus something other than whether or not we will be Christians.  This decision has, I think, already been made.  No, the question placed before us is to how we will be Christians.

-            The Capuchin cannot just give part of himself – he cannot just give the best of what he has to God.  No, instead, there must be a total and complete commitment from which nothing is held back, nothing is held for one’s own.  To declare Jesus as the King means that he takes our very self – we are poor, chaste and obedient precisely because there is nothing that will belong to us any longer.

You are all here because you are already disciples: the question now becomes, can you, along with Nathaniel, decide for yourselves that Jesus is the King?

And if we answer that question affirmatively, the next answer becomes much clearer because it is given from God the Father: “this is my beloved Son, listen to him!”[8]

[1] Quotes from John’s Gospel are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.
[2] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, 240.
[3] The “crisis” provoked by John’s Gospel is a theme raised by the late Raymond E. Brown, S.S. 
[4] Origen is the first exegete to develop this theme.  For further reading, cf. Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, of Benedict XVI, 49-50.
[5] Jeremiah 18:4
[6] Joseph Ratzinger, What It Means to be a Christian
[7] Prayer before the Crucifix.
[8] Mark 7:9

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