Choral Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Epiphany
The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
Isaiah 49.1-7;1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42
The Dean of Southwark's sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2023.
Isn't it strange how when you’re a child it can appear that your parents are always telling you off for doing things that seem to come naturally.
'Don't point', my mum used to say, 'it's rude to point'. It’s true of course, it is rude to point, to point at people, which is what she was meaning - but nevertheless it seemed strange at the same time. Such an ordinary, natural thing to do and yet there I was being told not to do it.
Before I came down to Southwark I was in Leeds. One of the churches in my parish there had a really beautiful chancel screen with a tremendous rood above it, with a cross and figures of Our Lady and St John that reached almost to top of the high barrel roof. It was a wonderful sight.
In the niches along the front of the screen were statues of a number of saints and over the gateway into the choir was set the figure of St John the Baptist - and you know - my mum wouldn't like it but it’s true - he was pointing. The wood carver had made him so that he pointed upwards and if your eye followed in the direction in which he was pointing it was straight to Jesus on the cross, straight to the Holy Rood above the screen.
'Look, here is the Lamb of God'
says John to his disciples in today's Gospel reading. We can't imagine him saying that with his hands in his pockets. 'Look' he says emphatically and points to the man in the crowds, the man who has come to him for baptism, the man who has come to us from God.
John points - not out of rudeness but because that is what he was called, chosen, set apart to do. John was chosen by God in his mother’s womb to be the one who would point to Jesus.
Even before his birth he was doing it. You’ll remember the wonderful account of the visitation that St Luke records for us - how Mary and Elizabeth meet and the recognition that there is between the unborn children. The baby leaps in Elizabeth's womb as John recognises the unborn presence of his Lord and Saviour.
'As the sound of your greeting came to my ears' says Elizabeth 'the babe in my womb leapt for joy'.
John is the pointer, he was born to be the one who would recognise Jesus and would lead others to him.
And when Jesus comes to him in the Judean wilderness John knows that the time has come for him to fade into the background. 'He must increase, but I must decrease' says John a few chapters later than the reading from St John that we have had today. I’m always staggered and challenged by this most remarkable act of humility. What a wonderful way it is of pointing to the one who really matters – by actually being prepared to stand back.
The same can be said of Andrew who brought his brother to Jesus, the same can be said of Paul who in all he writes points only to Jesus.
The same can be said of those Christians throughout the ages who in their words and their actions, in their lives and their intentions have pointed only to Jesus.
When we accepted the call to be followers of Jesus, we accepted him as our Lord and Saviour. We knew him as the one who made a difference, a huge difference to our lives and we accepted his commission to us to go out and make disciples. That means in practice doing just what Andrew did - bringing our brother, our sister, our friend, our neighbour, to Jesus.
That can be easier said than done and especially if we don't act as pointers - or at least not pointers to Jesus.
This is the second week in the Season of Lay Ministries that we are keeping along with the diocese. We’re celebrating everything that we do as the people of God and especially everything done by those called, not to ordained ministry, but ministry in its full diversity.
Part of that ministry though, for all of us, is to be the pointers to Jesus wherever we are. In ways that are at times counter-cultural when people seem to be asking that we look at them, focus in on them, hear their truth, concentrate on their needs, feel their pain, hear their story, we point to another and, like John, have the humility to fade into the background.
All ministry, lay and ordained, has at it’s heart the desire to tell God’s truth, to focus on the divine, to point to the cross, the place of divine suffering for our peace, to tell the story that is the deepest reality, to be the truth-tellers and the peace-makers wherever we find ourselves. It’s the ministry of John, that diminishing ministry that allows the fullness of Jesus to be seen.
And when we misuse the ministry of the church, because ministry of any kind can very easily be misused, distorted, when we misuse the calling that each of us has received, we are failing to point to Jesus and we are standing in the way of his light. We have to look carefully at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it, we have to constantly examine our motives - and if we have to change in any way, so be it.
Because when we’re not pointing we’re not proclaiming - and when we’re not proclaiming we’re not making disciples.
John had it so right. He was watching for Jesus and as soon as he appeared John pointed him out, picked him out of the crowd, didn't waste a moment in shifting his friend’s attention from him to Jesus. That takes real grace. But that same grace has been given to each of us as St Paul so clearly says in our second reading:
'I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus'.
That grace is given to us again in this as in every Eucharist. The Lamb of God is among us, the one who takes our sins away, the Lamb of God who gives us peace.
As the priest holds the broken bread of the Eucharist before us, the presence of the Lamb is proclaimed and Jesus is pointed to. The words of John are echoed
‘This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to his supper’.
The bread, the wine, the body, the blood, the Lamb, the Saviour - Jesus. This Eucharist is for us this morning a moment of divine encounter - the same moment of divine encounter in which John and his disciples shared, the same experience of God that was life transforming, direction-changing then and is life transforming, direction-changing now. God is in the midst of us, the Word made flesh is among us - and we recognise him in the broken bread and wine outpoured. This is the miracle moment, the moment of recognition from which grace flows.
As we make our communion this morning we simply ask for the grace, the courage, to stand aside, to let the light shine, to seek nothing for ourselves, but all for him, all for Jesus and simply to point with our lives to the one who saves us, Jesus the Lord, the Lamb, our God.