Gospel for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 January 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (John 1:35-42 – NRSV)
“It is often said that the ‘call’ of the disciples in these verses cannot be reconciled with the Synoptic accounts (Mt. 4:18–22; 9:9; Mk. 1:16–20; 2:13–14; Lk. 5:1–11, 27–28). Traditional harmonization, which postulates that John’s account is a preliminary ‘call’, ratified by the later one reported in the Synoptic Gospels, is ruled out of court on the ground that John leaves no room for a second call. But strictly speaking Jesus does not ‘call’ his disciples at all in these verses (except possibly Philip: cf. notes on v. 43). They attach themselves to him because of the witness of the Baptist, and then because of the witness of the Baptist’s followers. Nor is this a representative abandonment of ‘other religions’ (Barrett, p. 179, referring to the work of E. Schweizer) in favour of Jesus: the first disciples are presented as rightly adhering to what the witness of John the Baptist means, not as abandoning him in favour of a new, ‘Christian’ religion. Indeed, the promptness with which the disciples, according to the Synoptic tradition, abandon their livelihood (whether the fishing business or a tax office) in response to Jesus’ explicit call, is psychologically and historically more plausible if that was not their first exposure to him or their first demonstration of fealty toward him. At this point in John, however, these fledgling disciples are still at the ‘Come and you will see’ (v. 39) stage, the ‘You shall see greater things than that’ (v. 50) stage.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 153-154.)
two of his disciples: One of those disciples, we are told, is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. Who is the other one? The simple answer is that we do not know. However, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the unidentified disciple is the writer of the Gospel – John himself. Given that John the Baptist saw himself quite explicitly as someone preparing the way for the Messiah, it seems entirely logical for these two disciples to go and have a closer look at the one John calls the Lamb of God. “In the Fourth Gospel, the verb ‘to follow’ often means ‘to follow as a disciple’ (e.g. 1:43; 8:12; 12:26; 21:19, 20, 22). But this is not invariably the case: sometimes the verb is quite neutral (e.g. 11:31). It is possible the Evangelist is playing with both meanings: at one level, these two men were ‘following’ Jesus in the most mundane of senses, but at another they were taking the first steps of genuine discipleship.” (D A Carson, op cit, 154.)
what are you looking for?: This question has an obvious and almost trivial meaning, such as, “Can I help you?”. The question probably carries a much more profound meaning however, implying vocation. Jesus – implicitly and explicitly – asks this question of all his disciples: “What do you really want?” It is the sort of question a good teacher would ask, to get the student/disciple thinking at depth about what he/she is doing, inviting a more free commitment.
where are you staying?: This question also has massive implications, though it is hard to accept that the disciples would have had any but a slight inkling of those deeper implications. The verb menō – abide, remain, stay, reside, live, rest, continue etc – gains momentum, as it were, as the Gospel story unfolds. Menō is a most significant word for John. The word has already been used twice by John. In 1:32 and 33 he has spoken of the Holy Spirit coming down to “rest” on Jesus and “remain” with him. In 15:1-17 – the image of the true vine – the same verb is used no fewer than eleven times. But, perhaps the best known use of the verb is found in 8:31-32 – “If you abide (meinēte) in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (NKJV) And so the disciples, in the beginning of the Gospel, saw where he was “staying” and they “remained” with him . . .
come and see: Again, the implications are profound, though we do not have to assume the disciples were aware of those implications at that time. “Seeing” and “light” imply faith and the mutual abiding that Jesus promises later. Like the question – “What are you looking for?” – the invitation to “come and see” opens the possibility of the listener entering into the journey of true discipleship. The essential mark of discipleship is the desire to learn – to reflect and grow in awareness, to seek and be enlightened.
(Andrew) brought Simon to Jesus: The text is operating at different levels. Andrew is set in motion by the Baptist – “Look, there is the Lamb of God” – then by Jesus – “Come and see”. Then he brings his brother, Simon, to meet Jesus. We should not take this to mean that Andrew has fully grasped the significance of Jesus as Messiah. Francis Moloney writes: “Once Andrew led Simon to Jesus he looked at him and spoke to him (emblepsas autǭ ho Iēsous eipen). The initiative is entirely with Jesus. He tells Simon who he is, where he comes from (son of John) and who he will be in the future (Cephas). Again the narrator adds a note, indicating a future that the reader of the Gospel may know came true: the man once called Simon son of John will become Cephas, Peter. The words to Simon are an indication to the disciples that there is more to a proper understanding of Jesus than finding in this rabbi the fulfillment of their messianic expectations” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 55).
The words of Jesus here – taking the initiative in a prophetic way with regard to Peter and the direction of his life – mark the beginning of the master-disciple relationship between Jesus and Peter. There are a number of other distinct moments in John’s Gospel signalling Peter’s ongoing journey of discipleship. Each of them is worth extended reflection. I suggest for example, five such moments:
- in the Eucharistic narrative of Chapter 6: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:67-69);
- in two moments in the Last Supper narrative in Chapter 13 – the washing of the feet and Peter’s protestations of fidelity: “(Jesus) came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand’. Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet’. Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’. Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” (John 13:6-9) and then “Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward’. Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you’. Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times’” (John 13:36-38);
- in the moment of Jesus’ arrest: “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’” (John 18:10-11);
- in the post-resurrection appearance in which Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him: “Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me’. …. Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’” (John 21:17-22).
Recall once again the words of Pope Benedict: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus caritas est, #1). We have a beautiful example of precisely that in today’s Gospel – John 1:35-42. John the Baptist points Jesus out to his two disciples. They encounter Jesus. One of those two, Simon, brings his brother to also encounter Jesus: “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’”. For Simon and his brother, Peter, this “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Jesus Christ is the centre. He gives direction, energy, form and shape to the Christian life. The Christian life is not something we earn or master or come to through a logical argument. It is “the result of the encounter with an event, a person”. It always remains, “the result of the encounter with an event, a person”. Its growth and deepening will always depend on our daily, moment by moment, openness to that encounter – again and again.
The Christian life is a life of communion with God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. To live the Christian life is to grow more and more into union with Jesus Christ – He lives in us and through us, we live in Him and through Him. This is first and foremost a matter of being. We are “born from above” Jesus tells Nicodemus (John 3:3). Too easily – too often perhaps? – we allow ourselves to be “born from below”. Thus, our identity owes more to our own fears and wishes and the various social and cultural influences that surround us. The Christian knows in his or her bones, that Infinite Love has made a home within – see John 15:1-17. This is what we call the mystical heart of our faith. Without it the faith is empty.
The greatest enemy of the Christian life is not found “out there” in the many people who might oppose us or the laws that might be passed to restrict or oppress us or the harsh experiences that life might hurl at us. Our greatest enemy is found in forgetfulness. When we forget that the Christian life is the result of an encounter with Jesus, that living the Christian life is communion with the Father, in the Son through the Holy Spirit, that growing in the Christian life is identifying with Jesus, we forget what it means to be Christian. Piety and devotion, conformity to religious orthodoxy and laws, self-mastery and ascetical practice, are no substitute.
Too often over the centuries, moral injunctions and legal requirements, petty squabbles over orthodoxy and human selfishness fed by power and privilege, have caused us to forget what it means to be a Christian. In our own age, this forgetfulness has led to a tragic inability of the Church to respond well to the needs of the times.