Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, I Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
The New Testament offers us four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Scholars debate which one came first, but I take the traditional view that Matthew was written first, and John last, and John was written with the assumption that you already knew Matthew but also that there was more to say.
St. John’s Gospel is full of dialogues and long soliloquies. I compare it to Shakespeare’s historical plays, like Richard III or Henry V. Shakespeare assumes your prior knowledge of the story, and his drama unfolds its meanings. Just so St. John does not depict the baptism of Jesus, which you already know from Matthew, but rather assumes it and unfolds it in the dialogue of his characters.
Let’s stage it in our imaginations. It’s the day after the baptism, and stage left stands John the Baptist, upstage center is a small crowd, and stage right enters Jesus. John points to him, and says to the crowd, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is he before whose coming I had been speaking of.” Then John turns towards us, the audience, and he breaks the fourth wall, and testifies to us: “I had not known him, but when I baptized him I saw the Spirit descending like a dove upon him, by which I knew he is the Son of God.” The scene ends, they all exit.
Next scene, the next morning. Stage left, enters John, with two disciples, Andrew and Philip. Stage right, enters Jesus. John points. “Behold the lamb of God.” Exit John the Baptist, and his disciples cross the stage to Jesus. Jesus turns to them, and he says his very first lines in John’s Gospel: “What are you looking for?” They say, “Rabbi, where are you abiding?” (The word “abiding” is an important word all through the Gospel of John.) Jesus says, “Come and see.” Jesus turns up stage, they follow him, and on a carpet there he sits down, and they do too, and they talk.
The lighting changes, it’s late afternoon, Jesus is still there, but with Philip only. Stage right are Andrew and his brother, and Andrew says to him, “We have found the Messiah.” He leads his brother over to Jesus, but Jesus speaks first: “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas.”
That’s our little drama for today. Let me unfold it by asking questions.
How did Jesus know Simon’s name? Was it super-power or ordinary recognition? Why did he give him that nickname? Cephas means Peter, and they both mean Rocky. Did “Rocky” suggest what it does now? Was it a compliment? Did Simon have a reputation? Or was Jesus being prophetic? “Who does Jesus think he is to tell me who I really am? I prefer to define myself. Or does my baptism tell me who I am?”
What did they talk about that afternoon? The Romans? Taxes? Fishing? The Kingdom of God? Or, “Why did John call you the lamb of God, and how do you plan to take away the sin of the world?”
“O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world.” “Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi.” It’s now a part of the Christian liturgy, and John the Baptist said it first, and how did he come up with it? Since when was the Messiah supposed to be a lamb?
He was supposed to be the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. A lamb is meek and mild and not too bright, but good eating, and fit for sacrifice. Was it because his metaphor of the lamb unfolds the meaning of the dove that John the Baptist had seen come down?
In the Torah, a dove is the poor person’s substitute for a lamb, and the lamb was sacrificed to take away the sin of Israel. Of Israel. Not the world. Why did John the Baptist say, “the sin of the world?” when the Messiah was for Israel? This new combination of Biblical metaphors and expectations would give Andrew and Philip and Jesus lots to talk about that afternoon.
When Jesus said his very first words to Andrew and Phillip, What are you looking for, why didn’t they tell him? Why didn’t they say, “We’re looking for the Messiah?” Why did they redirect his question, to ask him where he was staying?
And, if they thought he could be the Messiah, why did they call him Rabbi? Since when did any prophet say that the Messiah would be a rabbi? Were they holding back and curbing their enthusiasm? Did they fear that some political informer might report them to Herod? Or where they just being smart, not showing their cards too quickly?
When somebody asks you directly, What are you looking for, do you take it as an invitation or a challenge? “Why should I tell you? Who are you that I should tell you?” Or maybe: “I don’t know, I wish I knew.” You who came here today, what are you looking for? Do you have to know, or can you be uncertain, open: “Tell me what I am looking for!”
Is that what baptism is, the absolute gift that tells you what you’re looking for? The absolute welcome that’s also a challenge? The absolute gift of belonging that also keeps you looking? We give it to children as an absolute gift of God and work of God that for our whole lives long is both a challenge and an invitation, What are you looking for? When you ask this of yourself and testify, and you listen to others asking the same and testifying too, and you even look together, then you have the Christian community, the fellowship of Jesus.
St. John unfolds the fellowship of Jesus. Is that what we’re supposed to have? In the last verse of our reading from First Corinthians St. Paul says that you have that fellowship. But how can you have the fellowship of someone who is so distant from you in time and space?
You know of him from history, and from the language of the church, you pray to him and sing to him, and you accept at the center of your religion this strange combination of a human being and God, but he is distant, and how shall you have fellowship with him?
It can’t be like it was for Andrew and Philip. The Lord Jesus is not going to be your best friend. So do not think, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel Jesus close to me like that?” There is nothing wrong with your Christian experience if you do not feel like you have Jesus up close or in your heart. He came to do a job, in his Incarnation, and he did it. He came to teach and to reveal and in his sacrifice to take away the sin of the world, and he did it, and his job was not to stay on to be your special friend and junior God. But there are two ways you do have fellowship with him: as absolutely human and as absolutely God.
First, in terms of his being absolutely human, you have your friendly fellowship with him by means of your fellowship in the Christian communion. When you all sit down together, and talk about what you’re looking for, and listen to each other, you are having your appropriate personal fellowship with Jesus. He is among you not as a separate character but in the body of your community itself. The Holy Spirit makes him present in, with, and under your very human interaction and conversation with each other, and also as you serve the needy and the poor.
I am inviting you to believe that when, in fellowship with each other, you discuss these stories about him and his miracles and metaphors of doves and lambs and water into wine he is among you, and that even though you cannot actually distinguish him from your own experience, you can believe that he is with you by means of the community to strengthen and enrich you in every way.
You also have fellowship with Jesus as he is absolutely God, when you relate to him as God, the One God. Jesus as God is not other to you than the whole God, the very God of very God. When St. Paul says that you call on the name of Jesus Christ, he means that when you name Jesus Christ as the center of your faith, that Jesus does his job and makes himself the medium, the means, and the way for you to have that fellowship with God that is appropriate to the Almighty and Eternal God.
The form of your fellowship with God is worship, praise, and love. You love God not as some friend, but as God, who though distant to your sense experience is present to your imagination and your soul. You do not have any direct sensation of God, but I am inviting you to believe that the Holy Spirit comes into-and-under your self-enclosed experience, so that what you imagine might be true really is true, that you are having direct fellowship with this almighty and invisible God.
Not because you achieve it but because God comes to you to have fellowship with you. God is the lamb who comes into the world. I invite you to believe that God is the dove, God is the dove who comes upon little Spiro Alzos-Benke, and on you, that God is the dove because God is love.
Copyright © 2020, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.