I normally don’t speak from notes, but I do know that if I get up in front of a group to speak, my natural duration is the lecture, and at 45 to 50 minutes, that just won’t do for a sermon at chapel. To prevent an over-long talk, I took the time to write things down, and edit it to an appropriate length. Now that I have it, I may as well share the text here.
Welcome to this new semester! Happy New Year!
A new year and a new semester is a time for reorientation. As a recent migrant to Scotland from the southern hemisphere, my life over the past year and half, has been filled with reorientation. I am still getting used to a different calendar where the Christmas break is in winter and it’s the short break between semesters, so I find myself having to reorient – especially when, after celebrating Christmas and the New Year, I look over at the calendar and notice that I’m meant to be back in the classroom on January 16! (My body still expects that I should be sweltering in the heat and watching the cricket for weeks on end.)
But even before I moved here, a new semester was always a time when I would ask myself that difficult question: “what am I doing?” That question can mean many things. Most often, especially in the busy rush between semesters: It’s a very specific question, like: “Have I finished all my marking?” (Yes!) Or “Have I caught up on all my end-of semester administration and emails?” (No!) “When are my lectures for this new semester?” (They’re in my calendar.) “Where are my lectures.” (Just across the road in the Buchanan Theatre.) “Have I prepared my lectures?” (Mostly.)
Among all those prosaic reorientation questions, I sometimes have time to reorient at a deeper level, too. How is my teaching going? What about my research? Where would it be good for me to spend my time and attention? Then sometimes my questions reach further: I think of my ageing Dad, back home in Australia, and I wonder how I can best care for him. Or my thoughts turn to my own son, in his twenties, and I think of the challenges facing young people, starting to make their way in a world gone strange, with a looming climate crisis and rising global inequality. How are we to live in this desperately needy world?
You might be asking reorientation questions of your own, too. University is a place and a time for asking lots of questions, for learning, for experimenting, for shaping your character, your habits, your mind – before launching out into whatever the next phase of your life might bring.
So, it was with those questions echoing in my mind – questions about how we might orient ourselves into the new semester and the new year – that I read the lectionary readings set for today, and in the Gospel reading, which recounts the beginning of what was to be a three-year intensive curriculum for Jesus’ disciples, I found a new way to think about those important questions. So let me share what I found with you.
I’ll pick up the story from the Gospel reading half way through: John (the Baptist) has been preaching and baptising in the wilderness at the River Jordan, outside Jerusalem, and as he baptises Jesus (which we see only in a flashback description, we don’t see it the main narrative) the Baptist comes to the realisation that yes, Jesus is the coming Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John has been the wild man, out in the desert, ranting against the rulers and authorities, saying that something has to change, that things are no good as they are, that everyone should get ready for the new world that is coming, and in a flash, he sees that Jesus is that coming change. According to John the Baptist, Jesus is God’s agent of the new era, not only for his own Jewish people, but for the whole world.
The story cuts to the next day: John is standing with two of his own disciples and he sees Jesus walking by. (The two disciples are not yet named, but we later learn that one of them is Andrew, after whom this University is named.) In excitement, John yells: Look! Here is the Lamb of God! He invites his own disciples to see what he had seen.
As a teacher, I find something very touching about this: John has had an exciting realisation of his own, and he wants to share that with his students. He does this, not by locking the students up in a room or making them focus on him as a teacher, but he invites them to look for themselves. John comes to realise that his students won’t be his students forever, and he encourages them to go on their own journeys to encounter Jesus, to look and to learn on their own. John’s excitement points outward, not to himself as the centre of attention. He is pointing to what – or in this case who – he has found, and he invites his students to point their attention there, too.
From this short passage, we see that John’s enthusiasm paid off. These two students went, and started to follow Jesus.
When Jesus turns back and sees the two coming up behind him, he asks them: what are you looking for?
I love that Jesus’ first words as recorded in the Gospel of John are not a statement, but a question. It’s an important question too, because what you are looking for will shape what what you find.
So, what are these two looking for?
As the other two lectionary readings – Isaiah 49, and Psalm 40 remind us – the Jewish people in this period do not have it easy, and it’s likely that this is not a simple question for the disciples to answer.
What do they want? They are faithful Jews living under Roman occupation in Palestine. Many wealthier Jews collaborate with the occupiers to get by, and the temple elites are seen as complicit with the Romans who have invaded and control Palestine. The “Make Judah Great Again” sect of Pharisees want everyone to obey the laws so explicitly and fervently that things go back to like they were in the good old days, and God will save nation. The Zealots are trying to to foment a violent revolution. And the poor, the lame, the sick, and those who the Gospel writers describe as “demon possessed” are bearing the brunt of it all. The people of Palestine have the rough end of Pax Romana. Their world is, if anything, even more tense and desperate than ours.
That’s a description of first century Palestine at a social level. There is also the individual matter of the psychic stress of longing for change, and of hopes being thwarted. We see this described in Psalm 40. This is the cry of an individual faithful believer waiting patiently for the Lord, waiting to be lifted up from the pit of depression.
So who knows what these two potential students want? What are they looking for? Maybe they don’t know, exactly. At least, if they do know, they don’t really come out and say it. They are polite, calling Jesus “Rabbi” – addressing him as a respected teacher – and they ask him where he is staying. This is a doubly polite way of asking to spend time with him, without imposing themselves. At the very least, they are following up on their teacher John’s admonition to look: they want to spend time with Jesus, and they ask, obliquely: where are you staying?
Jesus takes the bait and invites them in, saying: come and see.
I cannot help but notice that the second thing Jesus says in this Gospel is an invitation. First, a question: What do you want? Then, an invitation: Come and see. The Gospel writer is setting things up to make the case that our deepest desires are met in following Jesus, but that this is not an immediate thing – it’s an ongoing process of learning, of exploration, of engagement, of following Jesus and having your world turned upside down … but that’s a story for the rest of the Gospel.
So far, this is the beginning of their new phase of life, they’re now following Jesus. We are told nothing yet about what they do that afternoon, what they talked about, or what they have understood, except that they’re keen to learn more, and one of the two (this is when we learn that he’s Andrew, our University’s namesake) is so excited that he finds his brother Simon, and tells him that they’ve found the Messiah, the one through whom God is going to set things right.
So, maybe the next day, Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus. Jesus looks at Simon and gives him a new name: Cephas (the Rock), who we know as Peter. Matthew’s Gospel describes this re-naming differently, but here, we get a hint that this new curriculum of following Jesus is going to be lifechanging for Simon Peter. He has a new name. He will be totally changed. As the story goes, he will be the first among the disciples: the one to jump out of the boat (and make a fool of himself) when Jesus walks on water; he will promise to defend Jesus when the crucifixion is imminent, only to deny him three times. He will be chastened and restored, and find himself the leader of the new Christian community. He becomes the one through whom Gentiles are first brought into that community, before, as tradition has it, he is crucified, like the Rabbi who gave him his new name. It’s an incredible journey, and it’s a journey that is only just beginning here, when Jesus calls Simon, Peter.
What do these budding disciples want? The way the Gospel of John sets up the story, Jesus’ followers are wanting God to come and set things right in Israel. For the Messiah, God’s anointed ruler, to come and take charge, to do away with sin and corruption.
Did these new disciples get what they wanted? Here I’m going to show my cards as a philosopher, and say that the best answer is yes and no: or in this case, a little bit of a no, and a lot of a yes. Here’s why: we learn later, from Luke’s gospel (see Luke 7:18-30) that when John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod for criticising the regime, John questioned his earlier thoughts about Jesus, and sent messengers to him, asking “are you really the one we should be waiting for, or should we be waiting for another?” His disillusionment is understandable (he’s in prison, and would be executed soon after), but John wasn’t calling Jesus into question just because he was having a bad day. Jesus was not doing what John, or anyone else, expected of a Messiah who was going to take the throne and Make Israel Great Again. No-one was expecting that the Messiah who was going to save Israel — and the world — was going to do it by healing the sick, hanging out with sinners, and dying on a cross, rather than overthrowing the Roman occupiers and restoring Israel to its past glories. None of them could have seen that this was where their hopes and dreams were heading.
All that John, Andrew, Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene and the many other followers of Jesus knew was that Jesus’ call was compelling – they had the sense that God was working in a special way in Jesus – and they had the desire for things to be better, the curiosity to investigate, and the commitment and patience to stay on the journey, as they learned from him, and in the process, their minds and hearts and lives were transformed, and eventually, the world was turned upside down. The little community of followers of Jesus grew, and outlived the Roman Empire. These first disciples followed the initial call to come and see, and what they ended up seeing was so much more than they could ever have hoped for. They got what they wanted, but it was nothing like their initial expectations.
So, with that story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and that example of the how the new disciples were gently reoriented toward following Jesus, what have I learned? How does that inform how I reorient myself into this new semester and the new year in this needy world? I’m struck by three things, and since I was raised a good Baptist, I’ve given them three words, each which start with the same letter.
Curiosity: The disciples are humble, and curious. They want to know more, and they want to be a part of making things right, and that’s what sets them off on their journey. In my Christian tradition, any desire for what is true, or what is good, or what is beautiful will lead, ultimately, to God, because all truth, goodness and beauty have their source in God and point back to God. It’s my role as a teacher (and as a student) to be curious, and to foster and support that curiosity in my students, as they each search for truth, goodness and beauty in their own way. If God is anything like the God depicted in this Gospel story, he will honour this curiosity, meeting the curious where they are, leading them into deeper understanding. Jesus reassured his disciples, saying “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7; Luke 11:9). You may not always get what you ask for in the form that you asked it, but Jesus reassures his disciples that honest seeking will always be rewarded.
Community: The new disciples went off on their adventure, not as isolated individuals, but together. John the Baptist pointed his own disciples to Jesus. Andrew went to find Simon, and on it continued. Our knowledge, or insight is to be shared, and we learn best when we learn from each other. In a community we can encourage each other, learn from each other, and support each other.
Change: As Jesus gives Simon his new name, he underlined the fact that this adventure is lifechanging. No-one ends the journey the same person that started it. We must be prepared to change, and even, at times, to have our illusions shattered and expectations dashed, on the way to having our hopes ultimately fulfilled. The disciples were looking for liberation for themselves and their community, and they got it, but not in the form that they had expected. If we embark on a journey of discovery, the path will lead through unexpected places and we’ll have to unlearn some things while we learn others.
These three themes have inspired me as I have prepared to teach and to learn in this new semester. I offer them to you in the same spirit, with the prayer that as you venture out into a new semester, your curiosity about what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful is fostered, and you get some taste of what you are looking for; that you have a supportive community around you to encourage you, and people you can support as you journey together; and that you have the stamina and patience to face the struggles and the change that will be a part of the journey ahead.
May God go with us all in this journey, as we embark on this new semester.
This presentation was a sermon preached at the University of St Andrews at the 11am Service at St Salvator’s Chapel, on January 15, 2023.
Here is the order of service for the event.
I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. ¶ I am the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. ¶ I like thinking about – and helping other people think about – logic and philosophy and the many different ways they can inform each other.
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