We’ve just heard the very first words spoken by Jesus in St John’s Gospel. When two followers of John the Baptist approach Jesus to ask ‘where are you staying’, Jesus asks them “What are you looking for?” St John says nothing about Jesus’ birth or infancy, as Matthew and Luke do. So why, of all the things Jesus did say on earth, did John select this question – “what are you looking for?” to be the Lord’s first recorded words? A better translation of what Jesus means is: what is it in this short life that you are searching for; what are you seeking, what do you want out of life?
The two disciples respond to Jesus’ question by asking: “Where are you staying?” At first this sounds like they just want to know where Jesus is living or, perhaps, temporarily staying on his travels. But for St John their answer means more than this. Their reply is better translated as: “as for what we want out of life, we’d like to know more about you, what you have to offer, what you believe in, what you are about or where you are coming from.”
Jesus responds to them by saying: “Come and see”. This phrase – ‘come and see’ – crops up frequently in the Gospel of John. It has hidden depth. It’s the direct invitation Jesus issues to enquiring people to spend time in his company so that they will ‘see’ or understand who he is and what he is about. In this case the dialogue ends with the two disciples of John the Baptist moving from seeing Jesus at first just as another rabbi to eventually seeing him as the Messiah. And, crucially, this leads them to go and tell others about their discovery.
This pattern of encounter with Jesus is repeated frequently in John’s Gospel. It’s the classic pattern of what the Church calls ‘evangelisation’. It comes from the Latin ‘evangelium’ (a word written on one of the panels below on this Lectern). It means Gospel or Good News – the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In response to this encounter with Jesus, the two disciples go on to tell others about him. This is how faith in Jesus in the Gospel is spread: people meet Jesus, come to faith in him and then tell others about their experience. The first people to be evangelized, like them, speak about Jesus to relatives, friends, and even to strangers who, in turn, spread the News to others.
But it all started with these people not just hearing about Jesus (or being taught about him) but they having a personal encounter with him. Now I know that phrase ‘personal encounter with Jesus’ sends some Catholics running for the hills. We Catholics don’t use such language and we are uncomfortable with it. However, it may be the case that while many of us know about the Church and its laws, we might never have had a personal encounter with the Lord.
In his The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis appeals to us to have what he calls a “renewed personal encounter” with Jesus: I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord” The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. 
We find it easier to talk about God in general than we do about Jesus. Even though we can go through the motions of taking part in Mass, saying our prayers and trying to do all the Church asks of us, we still might not have that day-to-day conversational, personal relationship with him which Pope Francis advocates. We might not know about Jesus – but not know or feel known by him. Pope Francis is reminding us that Christian faith is not a theory, a philosophy or an idea. It is an encounter with the person of Jesus, and he wants more of us to have it.
The late Mgr Kevin Nichols wrote about this experience when he was terminally ill. He looks back on his earlier years as a priest when there was certainty and even rigidity in the Church’s and his own presentation of our faith. Faith was a system and he was a cog in preaching it. But now ‘at the edge of death’s confusion’ he describes about his experience of moving from being a teacher of ‘the economy of salvation’ to becoming a pupil at the feet of Christ, learning of the true meaning of his cross and grace.
KEVIN NICHOLS 1929-2006
Being young he spoke of atonement, drew
In exact and confidant graphs
The economy of salvation.
Preaching this seamless order he left
No crevice, no escape; it was this
Or it was Judas’ step into the dark.
Grown old now, God, he perseveres,
Student of the geography of your grace,
Found coded in the chaos of love
And even at the edge of death’s confusion.
You are here, God says, to repent
Those sermons; you are here to sit
Mute in the cruciform shadow
Of a love ample as daylight.
Holy Name, Jesmond
17 January 2021