St Francis, Terriers - Epiphany 2 (15.01.2017)

Tony Dickinson

“Where are you staying?” It’s such a banal question, the sort of thing we might say to the people on the next table in the restaurant when we’re on holiday. Nothing more than small talk – except St John doesn’t do small talk, and the question that Andrew and his unnamed friend ask Jesus uses a Greek word, μενω, of which St John is particularly fond and which he uses often in his Gospel and in his letters.

Not that you would realise that from this morning’s reading. John actually uses μενω five times, twice in John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus and three times in his account of what happened when Andrew and his fellow-disciple peeled away from the group around John and went off after Jesus. You wouldn’t realise it, because in this passage the New RSV uses two different English words to translate John’s one Greek word. And it translates the same word in another four or five ways at different points in the Gospel. Most often, as here, it’s “remain” or “stay”. Occasionally it is “continue”, or “dwell” or “endure”. Sometimes it’s “abide”.

Now, that probably sounds rather like linguistic nit-picking. Maybe it is. But it is nit-picking with a very serious purpose. John’s first readers would have picked up that there’s a thread running through this Gospel (and the three letters which go with it), a thread that is to do with this cluster of ideas around μενω, ideas of remaining, abiding, dwelling. The disciples’ opening question “Rabbi, where are you staying?” is answered by Jesus’s invitation to “Come and see”. What that means, we discover much later on in John’s Gospel, and particularly in what scholars call the “farewell discourses” in chapter fourteen and fifteen. Where is Jesus staying? Where does he abide? At the climax of his teaching in chapter 15 of John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals that he abides in the Father’s love. That is the ultimate answer to the two disciples’ question. That is where Jesus is staying. How could he not? In our very first hymn at Midnight Mass, the beginning of our celebration of Christmas, we were reminded that Jesus is “of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be.”

The experience of those two disciples finds another echo in those later chapters, as Jesus talks about the mutual indwelling of Master and disciples, reinforced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In that first meeting, Andrew and his friend “remained with him that day”, from late afternoon, presumably until nightfall. When Jesus repeats his invitation at the Last Supper, it is not just to “come and see”, but to “abide in his love.” And the talk of the disciples staying “with Jesus” changes to talk of disciples abiding “in Jesus” – and him abiding in them.

In his book, “Being Disciples”, Rowan Williams points out that “what makes you a disciple is not turning up from time to time.” Indeed, he says “It’s not an intermittent state; it’s a relationship that continues… In the ancient world, being a ‘student’ [which is what the word “disciple” strictly means] – being a ‘student’ was rather more like that than it is these days. If you said to a modern prospective student that the essence of being a student was to hang on your teacher’s every word, to follow in his or her steps, to sleep outside their door in order not to miss any pearls of wisdom falling from their lips, to watch how they conduct themselves at the table, how they conduct themselves in the street, you might not get a very warm response… But in the ancient world… to be the student of a teacher was to commit yourself to living in the same atmosphere and breathing the same air; there was nothing intermittent about it.” So, as Rowan Williams continues, “if we’re going to understand what [Jesus] has to say to us about discipleship, we have to understand about abiding and sharing, this ‘non-intermittent’ quality in being a disciple.”

That doesn’t, of course, mean spending every hour God sends in church. Heaven forfend! Jesus calls disciples, not “sacristy rats”. What it does mean is being attentive to Christ’s presence in the world, really attentive, not being satisfied with what the daily paper, or broadcasters, or social media, tell us, but listening to God as he speaks to us through the words of Scripture, and in our praying. Among the things that the Church is rediscovering in our day are the vital importance of contemplative prayer and the foolishness of worshipping Jesus (that’s the easy bit) without following him (which is sometimes nothing like so easy).

Seventy-plus years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in prison in Berlin, tried to imagine what a post-war Church in Germany would be like. He hoped that it would be stripped of its privileges and its rather-too-cosy relationship with the state, a relationship which had made it easy prey for a totalitarian regime. He hoped that it would focus on what he saw as the two essential aspects of its life: prayer and righteous action. He had learned through his own experience that a solid grounding in prayer was essential to strengthen Christians through such testing times, and he had made certain that the pastors he was training in East Prussia in the years around the outbreak of war were similarly grounded. For many of them, used to living in their intellect, it was a very strange and uncomfortable existence, to begin the day with an extended time of silent meditation on a passage of Scripture, letting the words sink deep into their hearts, rather than analysing them with all the tools of modern biblical criticism.

Those trainee pastors were learning what it was to abide in the heart of Jesus instead of in their own head-space. They were learning what the Christian community in Corinth had to learn, how to let the grace of God, the free gift of God, enrich them, and shape them and strengthen them, and not to struggle to impose their own vision and values on the situation in which they found themselves. It was challenging. It still is. It always has been. Our first reading, too, is marked by the tension between confidence in God’s power to heal and transform, to be light in a dark and dangerous world – the tension between that confidence and the desire to do it all in our own way, in our own strength (even though that strength fails), as if God somehow can’t be trusted.

It’s that tension which challenges us to take up today the invitation of Jesus to “come and see” what he is doing in the world in which we live and to learn how to be disciples. It’s the same tension which turns back on us the question which John’s disciples put to Jesus and asks us “Where are you staying?”