Around the time that the architect Edmund Thomas Blackett was designing the beautiful building in which we worship today, another architect, George Edmund Street was overseeing the building of the Church of Saint Phillip and Saint James in the North of the City of Oxford in England. Of similar proportions and beauty, the Church of Saint Phillip and Saint James fell into disuse and was de-consecrated as a church building in the 1980s and was then converted into a centre for the study of world mission. Before I was ordained I worked in that building, where my office was under a large and stunning rose window depicting Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s painting of the Adoration of the Lamb.
In the original painting, and in that rose window that depicts it, a lamb stands on an altar surrounded by angels and worshippers. A dove symbolising the Holy Spirit hovers above the scene. That painting and the rose window that was constructed at the Church in Oxford was inspired by the Gospel readings that we heard last weekend and today which point us to the revelation, the manifestation of Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, the one who will be betrayed and killed, and who through his dying and living will open up for us a new relationship between us and his Father, our Creator. In the afternoons the sun blazed through the window high above me in that office and lit up the light in the most extraordinary and colourful way as I sat at my desk.
One Saturday afternoon, whilst I was quietly catching up on some work below it, a stone came hurtling through the window quickly followed by fragments of broken glass. I ran outside to see what was going on. A group of young boys began to make a quick getaway so I pursued them. As I turned the corner at the end of the street, I realised to my horror that they had stopped running and instead had turned to face me. And in a rather strange turning of the tables they started to chase me, as I ran back to where I had come from and locked myself safely in the church building. I hope that you can imagine the scene: a beautiful window broken, me pursuing them, but then them pursuing me!
Both of those images, of the lamb being adored upon the altar, and of pursuing and being pursued, have been uppermost in my mind as I have been reflecting on this Gospel encounter over the last few days.
“Look!” says John the Baptist in our Gospel reading, “there’s God’s lamb, the one who takes away the sins of the world. When I baptised him I saw the Spirit of God, like a dove coming down from heaven and resting on him, and the one who is anointed in this way is surely the Son of God.” Just as John has been preparing the way for Jesus, now he continues to point people towards him. In a nutshell we hear John the Baptist’s rationale for believing that Jesus is the one who has been awaited for so long. There have been no miracles, there has been no great preaching, no one has yet seen the integrity with which Jesus lives his life.
In the one experience of his baptism, as we heard last weekend, Jesus is confirmed as God’s beloved and anointed son, this is the lamb of God. Familiar words to us, because we remember them each time we gather together at the Eucharist, when we pray “Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.” And on the following day, according to the writers of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist again sees Jesus and he points him out to two of his own followers, and the two men immediately set off to pursue Jesus. Jesus, conscious that they are following him, turns and asks the two, “what are you looking for?” And they answer him with a question: “teacher, where are you staying?” or to put it another way, “how can we be with you? how can we find you?” And Jesus says to them, “come and see.”
Immediately there is a kind of ripple effect, a chain reaction: Andrew, one of the two who are in the conversation, goes to find his brother Peter, and brings him along to meet Jesus – so already there are three. Three who have responded to the invitation; because although Jesus calls us individually, he does not call us simply into a relationship with him, he calls us into a relationship with each other. In Jesus’ call we find not only a new way of personal living, we find also a new way of communal living. Jesus calls us to him, and he calls us to be together in his community, in his Church. Later in the Gospel, as John recounts how others are called by Jesus, we hear again and again how simple, and how natural and how normal this invitation to follow Jesus is. People hear that Jesus is the promised one, and they stop doing what they have been doing, and they follow him. And then they bring others to follow him as well.
In this short glimpse into the calling of the first disciples of Jesus we are given a pattern for our own Christian living and believing. There is a moment, a decisive moment for all of us when we have to make a decision about whether we believe that this Jesus is the Lamb of God or not. We cannot wait for a certain proof to be given to us, and although we can be informed in our decision-making as we reflect on our lives and as we read and explore the Christian tradition, none of this can settle the question with certainty for us. In the end, like the first disciples of Jesus we need to step out in faith, and faith is always believing and hoping, it is never certainty or it would not be faith. As we step out in faith we make a personal decision to believe that this is true, and to live like we believe it supported within the life of God’s Church.
That may be a decision that we make just once, or it may be a decision that we make and reaffirm regularly during our life times. But the most important thing to remember about it, is that – whatever it may feel like – we are not the only one who is making a decision. We may feel sometimes like it is us who has pursued God, and made a decision to follow Jesus. But rather like those young boys who turned around and pursued me all those years ago, we must always remember that whilst we are striving to faithfully find God, he is pursuing us as well.
Reflect on the story that we have just heard today carefully. John points Jesus out to two of his disciples. They follow Jesus wanting to believe that all that John has said is true. But do they call Jesus to be their Lord? Is it ultimately their decision alone. No, he calls them to be his disciples. There is a two-way process going on. Again and again the writers of the Psalms echo this good news, that there is nowhere that we can go to hide from God’s presence, nowhere that we can be that God cannot find us.
Andrew and Simon Peter think that they are looking for the Messiah. What they don’t realise is that the Messiah is looking for them. Andrew and Simon Peter are looking for the Messiah and they think that they have found him. Jesus is looking for followers, who will share in his work of loving and saving the world and when he finds Andrew and Simon Peter he gives them a new vocation, a new way of living filled with meaning and purpose.
What is true for them is true for us as well. We are not required to live this Christian life in our own strength. We are not expected to live as disciples of Jesus simply by our own resolve. This is the faith that we cling on to: before it ever occurred to us to search for God, he was, in his great love, already pursuing us.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, happy are we who are called to his supper. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.