1/19/20: Assessment and Credentialing: The Simplicity of Christianity

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2 Epiphany
19 January 2020 A
from the Rev. Clarence E. Butler

 

Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Jn. 1:29

There is this game [that] I have played both in my youth as well as in my adulthood; perhaps you [have] as well.  The game is called charades.  It is not the game itself that I call today to your attention.  Rather, I wonder how you would act out the word “assessment” if you pulled the card with that word. That is such a ‘loaded,’ multipurpose word, to use the vernacular, that word ‘assessment’.

Do you think of property taxes?  Do you think of weighing two options of actions before you when, for example, the sky is overcast, whether you take along an umbrella?  Do you think of an annual personnel review in the workplace?  Do you think of the word “assessment” when you meet someone for the first time, how he/she is dressed, how firm his/her handshake is, how tall/short/slender/corpulent he/she may be? Whether you detect an accent, perhaps from another country, another region of the United States, even from another neighborhood in the Boston area?   Where did he/she receive his/her formal education?

The word “assessment” may not be a word [that] is part of your daily vocabulary, and you may not be aware consciously of engaging in an assessment, but the word is certainly used many times and in many diverse situations in your daily activities.  Assessment is the step taken in assigning a credential, about evaluating a situation or person.

In its basic form, stripped of all else, today’s gospel is about assessing and credentialing. Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?  The other gospels, with the exception perhaps of Luke, trace heritage, for those who care about such things.  Namely, who begot whom, who is the son of whom?  John, in his assessment or credentialing, lays aside the long list provided us, for example, in the Book of the Chronicles.  Rather, John the Gospeler simplifies matters and states “For he was of the house and lineage of David.”  John the Baptist is even less concern with the ancient Book of Chronicles with its list of who begot whom.  Instead, John the Baptist proclaims “here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  No further assessment is needed to establish the credentials of Jesus.

One sure way then, as is still today the case, to boost a prophet’s or leader’s standing or, conversely, to discredit a person, was to raise the question of his parents, who they were, what status they had in the community.  There was a stigma attached to the lower class, the untouchables, and, most assuredly, if the child could not produce both mother and father who were married.  And worst yet, of no fault of his or her own, a child born out of wedlock was condemned to atone for the indiscretion of his parents.  Illegitimacy carried a life-long sentence, which no display of genius could erase.

It is for that reason that all the gospels, in one form or other, deal with the lineage and parentage of the earthly Jesus.  However, in the Gospel according to John, via the words of John the Baptist, a new standard is put forth.  We skip all that in John’s gospel, for what was most essential to know about Jesus, is that he was the Messiah of God, and not one in competition with John.  John’s ministry was mere preparation for the greater good, not unlike the stand-in act, prior to the billed performer.

And should scripture be correct, John the Baptist and Jesus had never met.  “I myself”, says John the Baptist, “did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  This one observed action was assessment enough for John the Baptist.  Being in communion with God, or getting right with God, to use a Pentecostal phrase, was more important, according the John’s gospel, than all the rubrics, liturgical regulations, and trapping [that] human rules had devised to declare and define membership and standing in the community.

Now, if you have been following my argument, this is where things become interesting.  If we look closely at what has been preserved for us in John’s gospel, we, who call ourselves Christians, are in for a great surprise and may discover, even, that we have not been true to the gospel.  After John the Baptist has acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus walked by, and two of John’s disciples, desiring to learn more, followed Jesus.  Jesus was curious about this turn of events and so he acknowledged them with a simple question: “What are you looking for?”

Now, if I had been he, I might also have been suspicious that those two were connected to the dirty tricks committee of the John the Baptist campaign, or that they were John’s musclemen who might try to do me harm when my security detail was no longer around.  Interestingly enough, the two disciples from John do not answer the question, but instead pose their own question: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Again, had I been Jesus, knowing what I know about religious politics, my suspicions would have been heightened.  Now I would say to myself, ‘My, but are they indeed bold.  They want to come to my headquarters, beat me up, and ransack my headquarters, and make off with valuable information.’

However, to our great surprise, Jesus gives a simple response that is laden with trust and acceptance: “Come and see.”  This invitation illustrates not only trust, but something else in the ministry of Jesus which is replicated again and again.  We Christians, misinterpreting Christ’s call to spread the gospel, have dishonored that simple, trusting invitation: Come and see.  There was no attempt here, nor recorded in any of the other gospels, on the part of Jesus to force people to accept him, to bully them to join.  There was then, and ought to be now, the simple invitation to come and share.  Jesus seems to say, “If you want to learn more about my mission, if you wish to learn from me, if you wish to see what the kingdom of God is about, come and see how I live and, if you like what you see, stay with me and accompany me on this journey.”

For us Moderns, there is no need to go out in a contemporary version of the Medieval Crusades; no need for witch hunts; no need for Joe McCarthy-like stance among us Christians as to who is more Christian; no need to excommunicate, to declare it is our way or Hell’s way!

You see, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, there was, and is, nothing doctrinal about this invitation by Christ: Come and see.  It is as simple as that.  Everything else has been attached to please our own aesthetic sensibilities.  There was no litmus test save one: put God first and neighbor as self.  We most certainly do have the charge to tell and to spread the good news.  That is the great commission given to and accepted by all who would call themselves Christian.  However, it is the “how,” the method of the disseminating that Good News, that has marred the message and causes us today to have less and less clout among the nonbelievers.  The message, though, is simple: come and see.

I do fear, as I read in our denominational papers, in the secular press, and as I listen to the rants of potentates, our bishops and archbishops, that we have forgotten just how non-doctrinal Christ’s message truly is.  That is why I must smile with pride when I hear our presiding bishop remind us quite courageously that there are far greater concerns affecting the day-to-day existence of our fellow human beings on this earth than our disputes regarding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  While we quarrel among ourselves for doctrinal supremacy, God’s earthly kingdom is being neglected, woefully.  And that is a sin.  We have neglected the charge that God gave us humans in that first divine covenant that set us as caretakers over the created order, that gave us responsibility for this place called earth.

It was, so I suggest to you, this simple urgency which drove Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who followed him.  Come and see what Jesus has outlined for our interaction with and among each other.  Therefore, I offer an illustration that just may help in our own struggle with the gospel message.  Think of each encounter with another human as a four-sided one:

  1. A) You should be you, and I shall be I.
  2. B) You stand on one side. You have information that is known only to you, information [that] you may or may not share with me, depending on your own inclination. I, on my side, standing opposite you, have information that is known only to me, information [that] I may or may not share with you, depending on my own inclination.
  3. C) Then both of us, in our interaction, have information that is known to both of us and which we share.
  4. D) But there is that fourth side, or fourth dimension, to every relationship: There are those things not know to either of us but [that] can and will affect how we relate to one another. That is true revelation.

That revelation, that epiphany, may just become our “four o’clock in the afternoon” wake-up call, when you will see in me, or I will see in you, that which neither saw in ourselves.  Just as Simon most certainly did not see or could know what Jesus saw in him.  Yet, Jesus, having the advantage of the large and larger view, sees greater potential than we can ever imagine.  And out of that insight may come a new name for us, just as one came for Simon: Cephas (which is translated Peter).

That is the confidence that Jesus placed in the two disciples of John who came to learn more.  That is the trust in a power that passes all understanding.  And that is why our every reaction to questions of faith should be: Come and see, for our questioner may be the hand of the Divine keeping us honest and opening for us potentials that will pass all understanding, for we know not whither the Spirit will lead us.

AMEN

 

(Image: A courtroom scene with a judge, a pregnant woman, a guilty looking man and an angry wife. Artist Thomas Cook, after Hogarth.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
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