One could make a case that every episode in the Gospels is an epiphany. That is especially true of the Fourth Gospel; John the evangelist lays all his cards on the table in each episode. This is obviously true of his famous prologue (“And the Word became flesh … ”), but every scene in the Fourth Gospel is a window on the full identity of Jesus and what it means to live in the light of that truth. What the Synoptic writers unfold at some leisure, John often gathers into one vivid scene. Even the brief segment we read for this Second Sunday of the year illustrates that phenomenon.
It takes the full length of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to gradually reveal that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God; and the Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that the disciples really didn't “get it” until the dawning of Easter and the gift of the Spirit of Pentecost. But John, writing even more boldly than the other evangelists in the hindsight of the Easter illumination can spell out the progress of Christian discipleship in a single scene. In the second half of John 1 (John 1:25), the erstwhile followers of the Baptist are introduced to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (a title whose meaning will become clear only after the crucifixion and resurrection), and then, in the space of sixteen verses, they proceed to acknowledge him successively as rabbi, Messiah, the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Son of God, King of Israel, and Son of Man. The insights represented by this set of titles represent a summary of realizations that likely took a longer time.
In the part we read this Sunday, they move from seeing Jesus as rabbi to announcing him as Messiah. That step, made by every Christian ever since, is told in the kind of deceptively simple poetry that we have come to expect from John. The Baptist sends two of his disciples to Jesus, announcing, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The disciples hear what he says and follow Jesus. Jesus sees them and says, “What are you looking for?” These words, note well, are the very first spoken by Jesus in this Gospel, and they are not meant to sound like the annoyed remark of a pedestrian suddenly aware that he is being followed. In this context, they form the question addressed by the eternal Word made flesh to the heart of anyone meaning to take Jesus seriously: what, really, are you looking for in this brief life?
Their answer—“Where are you staying?”—may on the surface sound like a reference to place of residence. But in this Gospel, the thematic word translated “staying" (menein, often used for the mutual indwelling of Father, Son, and Christian person) gives the question a meaning more like, “Where are you rooted? What is the source of your being and significance?” Or, as we sometimes put it in our vernacular, “Where are you coming from?”Understood that way, Jesus’ response, “Come, and you will see,” begins to take on the depth surely intended by the author. For the deepest kind of “seeing” in this Gospel is the seeing of faith. And one gets to see in this way by accepting Jesus as the “one sent” from the Father and by being born “from above” and moving from the blindness of non-belief to the vision that sees Jesus as the light of the world.
“What do you want?”
“Where do you live?”
“Come and see.”
In that brief exchange lies the story of our Christian lives.