A reflection on Epiphany II John 1:29-42 by The Very Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, M.Div., MSW
I spent most of my sixteenth summer in Michigan with a friend and her family. Every year this family rented a spacious cottage in a resort community. All summer various family members would come from around the region and find respite for a few days or weeks. This community rested on a small private inlet lake which connected to a beach on Lake Michigan.
One day we all went to the beach on Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful warm day, with small but vigorous waves. The usual freezing lake water had warmed over the summer to a perfect temperature for swimming. After lounging in the sun, on the pristine white sand, I decided to go for a dip in the lake. The water was a clear blue. I waded out into the deeper water and then, after awhile, walked back toward the shore. I was standing in water, about waist high, when something knocked me off balance and I fell into the water. I felt myself being pulled under the water by a force stronger than myself. I managed to stand up, only to be knocked over again and pulled under. It took me a few minutes to understand that I had been caught by an undertow; each time I surfaced I was further from shore.
After several rounds of falling, standing, pulling under, and falling again, one of our companions noticed my distress. He waded into the water and was able to pull me to shore. It was only when we were finally sitting on our towels in the sand that I fully realized how helpless I had been, and the power of that undercurrent.
There are many occasions in life when I cause my own undertow. It happens whenever I feel vulnerable. It also happens whenever I feel like I have been less than I should have been. Less compassionate than I think I should have been. Less intelligent. Less organized. Less prepared. Whatever the situation, it occasions a time for those “tapes” in my head to play out. “Not good enough!” they shout. Or, “just wait until they know the real you, the flawed one…” These occasions require me to do some internal work in order to get past the impression that I need to be perfect.
First I have to recognize that these old tapes are playing again. These are recorded impressions of myself gleamed from childhood struggles to integrate who am with a complex world. It takes time to unpack what is true about the tape in each situation, for there is often a glimmer of truth. It’s the hint of truth that gives the tape its potential power over me. To retrieve myself from the pull of the message I also need to recognize what is not true. If I succumb to that part I will end up compromised to self-doubt and insecurity.
It seems to me that women are particularly subject to interior messages about our worthiness. Serving on discernment weekends, listening to men and women articulate their sense of call to Holy Orders, I have found that women struggle with a sense of “unworthiness” in a way men do not. No doubt that men have their own tapes and issues, but generally they are not about “worthiness.”
The reflections offered on this blog over these few weeks have taken us into some wonderful discussions on the power and impact of narrative theology and our sense of identity. We have reflected on what it means to have no control over certain aspects of our being, for example: when and where we were born, the color of our skin, our gender, or our sexual orientation. We have little control over the social constructs of our identity that are built up around those aspects of our birth. What we can have control over is how we “remember” the story of who we are and then how we tell that story.
The undercurrent of our identity, the way we remember our self-story, can limit or expand how we live. The tapes that play through our minds, consciously or unconsciously, can influence how we feel about ourselves and the decisions we make. Like the undertow that caught me in the relatively shallow waters of Lake Michigan, the undercurrents of our story can catch us off guard and deceive us.
For some, even connecting their identity in the imago Dei can be conflicted. Told through the lens of a judgmental God we can affirm our unworthiness. But told another way we are invited into the light, into the love of God. Told one way we hear a white Anglo-Saxon Christian story that changes the tone and texture of the characters in the story. We hear a story where women are often silent or unnamed. Told another way we hear that the longest conversation Jesus has about faith is with the “enemy,” a Samaritan woman at the well. This fabulous story in the fourth chapter of John hints at the significance of women in early church leadership, even as she is unnamed. Thankfully our tradition invites us into the story, invites to see where we are in the plot.
So, that’s where we land in our readings for Epiphany II, in the place where we are invited into the story. Our Christian faith grounds our identity as a people of God, as God’s beloved. This identity is given to us in and through the incarnation, an assurance that God loves us in our full humanity. This identity is given to us in our baptism when we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Of course it begs the question: what does it mean to be “marked” as Christ’s own forever?
The synoptic Gospels tell the story of Jesus grounded in his humanity. We hear about his birth, and who he is related too, we hear about his ministry of healing, how he frees people from the demons that possess them. But the Gospel of John begins the story of Jesus from a different place. In this Gospel the identity of Jesus begins with who he was before the incarnation. In John, Jesus is the Word.
The Gospel of John tells us that the Word has been around with God since before creation itself. In fact the Word is God. The Word is the source of all creation. The Word brings light into the world. In this mysterious pre-creation realm with God the Word is a non-gendered non-personal being. Then, in the course of human history God decides to come into the world in a new way, as a human. The Word is made flesh in the person, the man, the human, Jesus. He is born, he lives a faithful life, he dies a horrible death, and he is born again. Eventually he ascends to heaven, where once again the Word and God are restored to the relationship that has existed since before time. Our salvation history story tells us that Word becomes a gendered being. But this time as a human is just a chapter in a longer narrative. For most of history the Word is with God in that realm of mystery where God resides. And, it is from this realm of unified Being, God and Word, that the Holy Spirit proceeds to lead and guide us.
Time and again in human history Christians have struggled to understand the nature of Christ and the balance between Christ’s humanity and divinity. The battles over the Nicene Creed did not settle this issue once and for all. This is true even as many of our churches proclaim our faith in this creed every Sunday.
Who is this Jesus? Who is he to us? And how does the identity of Jesus inform us of our identity? The readings for Epiphany II are pointed, they both direct us and they ask for a response. Jesus asks the people, “What are you looking for?” This seemingly simple question is really a spiritual question meant to prod us at the deepest level of our being.
What is the story we know about ourselves? How is that story fleshed out when told through the reality of the incarnate Word? And, how might that story help us find new meaning and value to our lives? How are we beloved and worthy of God’s love? How might the reality of God’s love reframe the tapes in our heads, reminding us that we good enough? Again the gospel offers a connection.
The disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying.” This is another spiritual question. John Shea, in his book, “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” suggests that this is code for “who are we really? What is the structure of our being?”
The gospel suggests that we find our selves, and the meaning of our lives, in and through the Word made flesh. In taking on human form the Word enters the world of human relationships in a new, real, physical sense. That the Word becomes gendered makes the Word personal, real, human. But we need to be careful not to presume that this also defines the full identity of the incarnate One. This is true even as we believe that the incarnate Word expresses the fullest sense of God’s love into the world. True because, as a human, Jesus shows us how to live in relationship with one another, with God, and with ourselves. When the Word becomes flesh we are shown how to love. This love that God offers is not bound by the limitations we humans might impose. It is a boundless love able to love us just as we are. But it is also a relational love, it requires a response.
In calling the disciples, and in their response, we learn that it is not enough to have an individual personal sense of faith; we need a community with whom to be in relationship. We need others who will help us tell our stories and help us remember details we have forgotten or misunderstood. We need others to prod us along when we feel stuck. And sometimes we need others to pull us out of the undertow and save us from ourselves.
The Very Rev. Terri C. Pilarski is currently the rector of St. Hilary's Episcopal Church in Prospect Heights, IL. She holds a dual degree: Masters of Social Work from Loyola University in Chicago and an M.Div. from Seabury-Western. She also serves as regional dean for the Elgin Deanery in the Diocese of Chicago and she is the Episcopal Migration Ministry Refugee Program Diocesan Liaison for the Diocese of Chicago working with the local affiliate, Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries in resettling refugee families.