Friday, January 17, 2014

Conversion Encounter

One of the truly rewarding things about ministry in the "digital age" (aren't we past that yet?) is that I can have a back-and-forth conversation with a colleague who lives 350 miles away about a biblical text that was written 1930 years ago. Seriously, Steve Pankey is helping me figure out how to preach with authority this Sunday, and I'm grateful for it.

His post yesterday lays out the real issue (problem) for preachers:
The standard reading of Sunday’s gospel text is: John points out Jesus, Andrew and unnamed disciple approach Jesus, Jesus invites them to come and see, they spend the day with Jesus, Andrew runs off to find Peter.  According to Evan’s reading the pattern is: John points out Jesus, Andrew and unnamed disciple approach Jesus, Jesus invites them to come and see, Andrew runs off to find Peter, they all spend the day with Jesus.  It seems like a silly point to ponder, but it really does make a difference.  Was Andrew convinced of Jesus’ messiahship by the word of John the Baptist?  Or, as I suggested yesterday and as millions of sermons will say on Sunday, was Andrew’s conviction based on his experience of Jesus?
Actually, I'm one of the "millions" of preachers who is counting on Andrew having spent the day with Jesus before he went to find his brother Simon. The alternative reading, which isn't actually mine, only came to my mind when I started wondering whether I could proclaim "Andrew experienced Jesus before he called him 'Messiah'" from the pulpit on Sunday. The problem, as Steve and I have been discussing, is that little word "first" or "before" (depending on how you translate it).
They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). (John 1:39b-41 NRSV)
I use the NRSV since that's what most of us will be preaching from this Sunday. Even though it doesn't clear it up, I will say, however, that I still like the ESV, which offers multiple, free, copyright-liberal access to a very good translation of the bible. It's also worth noting that the CEV only exacerbates the problem. Perhaps both should have been approved at General Convention, but I digress...

Even in the NRSV, I struggle with the word "first." Does the "first" go with "followed" or does the "first" go with "remained?" In an attempt to resolve this very question, Barrett cites four different forms of the word for "first" (yes, it is getting that technical) that all give different meanings. Ultimately, he thinks the best variant leads us to believe that "the text means no more than that Andrew found Simon before he did anything else." (The Gospel according to St. John. SPCK: London. 1965.) I guess that helps...sort of. It means that before he did anything else [that isn't mentioned here], Andrew went to find his brother. Still, I have my doubts.

Ultimately, I'm going to preach experience before conversion. But I am wary of doing that. Why? Because I am a slave to the Word. Why is this conversation helpful? Because preachers don't get to make the text say what they want it to say. We are shaped by the Word. We don't shape it. Even if the text ends up saying what we want it to say, we must be open to letting it shape us. In other words, we must experience the Word before we can be converted by it. It isn't a simply as a surface reading. Preachers (and all Christians) must sit with it long enough to be shaped by it before its real power can be known. Sounds a little like what I want to preach on Sunday.

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