Friday, January 17, 2014

January 19, Second after Epiphany: Behold the Lamb of God

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

The New Testament offers us four different gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s a big question which one was written first, and which depended on the others. The traditional answer is that they were written in the order they appear in our Bibles. So Matthew was written first, and then Mark, and then Luke made use of both Matthew and Mark, and then John was written last, and differently than the others, but assuming the story the others had told.

To my mind, John’s Gospel is a lot like Shakespeare’s plays. Not his tragedies or comedies, but his histories, like Richard III or Henry V. Shakespeare assumes your prior knowledge of the story, and in his drama he unfolds its meaning. Just so, the story already given, say, in Matthew, gets unfolded in John’s dramatic dialogues and long soliloquies. But the difference with Shakespeare is that the author of this drama was a participant in the story. It’s as if Richard III had been written thirty years afterward by the king’s best friend. The author was an eyewitness.

John never depicts the actual baptism of the Lord Jesus. Matthew did already, as we saw last week. John assumes it and unfolds it in the interaction of his characters. Let’s lay it out. It’s the day after the baptism happened, and John the Baptist is standing there, stage left, and upstage center is a small crowd. Stage right Jesus enters, and walks in. John points to him, and says to the crowd, “Behold the lamb of God, that taketh 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 closes, exeunt.

Next scene, the next morning. Stage left, enter John the Baptist, now with two of his disciples, Andrew and Philip. Stage right, Jesus enters and walks in. John points. “Behold the lamb of God.” This time, his disciples leave him and cross the stage to walk behind Jesus. Jesus turns to them, and he says his very first lines in John’s Gospel: “What do you seek?” They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And he says, “Come and see.” Jesus turns up stage, they follow him, and we see a small table and a rug, and he sits down and they do too, and John the Baptist exits.

Time passes. It’s late afternoon. Jesus is still there, but only with Philip. Off to the right we see Andrew and his brother, Simon, and Andrew says in a stage whisper, “We have found the Messiah.” He leads Simon over to Jesus, but Jesus speaks first: “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas.”

How did Jesus know his name? Was it supernatural knowledge, or normal recognition? Why did he give him that nickname? Cephas is translated as Peter, and they both mean Rocky. Was it a compliment? Did “Rocky” have the same associations it does now? Did Simon have a reputation? Or was Jesus being prophetic?

Why did Andrew and Phillip address Jesus as Rabbi if they thought he was the Messiah? Since when was the Messiah supposed to be a Rabbi? That was never in the prophecies. Were they holding back a little, curbing their enthusiasm? They had reason to be careful, because the government was not too keen on the chance of a Messiah.

What did they talk about that afternoon? Fishing? Sports? Taxes? The Romans? The Kingdom of God? Did they ask him about the Lamb of God thing? Like, “Why did John the Baptist call you the Lamb of God, and how do you plan to take away the sin of the world?”

“O Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” “Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi.” “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” It’s become important in Christian liturgy, but John the Baptist said it first, right here, 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 the metaphor of the lamb unfolds the meaning of the dove which John the Baptist had seen come down? In the Torah, a dove is the poor person’s substitute for the lamb, and the lamb was sacrificed to take away the sin of Israel. Of Israel. Not the world. The Messiah was for Israel. Why did John the Baptist say, “the sin of the world?” These new combinations of Biblical expectations would give Andrew and Philip and Jesus lots to talk about that afternoon.

What John unfolds, more than the other gospels, is people having fellowship with Jesus. Is that what we’re supposed to have? St. Paul in the last verse of our second reading says that you have that fellowship. But how can you have the fellowship of someone who is so distant? Is Jesus not distant from you? Yes, you know of him from history, and from the language of the church, and you pray to him and sing to him, and you know that this strange character, sometimes man, sometimes God, is at the center of your religion, which is fine and as it should be, but he is distant, and how shall you have fellowship with him?

Well, despite the suggestions of so much evangelical Christianity, it’s not going to be like it was for Andrew and Philip. The Lord Jesus is not going to be your best friend, nor will he walk with you and talk with you and tell you that you are his own. So do not think, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel Jesus close to me like that?”

It’s no wonder that Muslims think we Christians have two gods: the Father God in heaven and the Junior God with us here somehow. Even St. Paul’s language can suggest we have two gods, the Father and the Son, and the second one is the one that we have fellowship with. So let me issue this corrective: There is nothing wrong with your Christian experience if you don’t 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 that, and then he ascended into heaven, and his job was not to stay on to be your special friend and junior God.

You have fellowship with him in two ways: in terms of his being absolutely human and his being absolutely God, not some sort of mixture in between.

First, in terms of his being absolutely human you have your up close and friendly fellowship with him by means of your fellowship with other believers. If not Andrew and Philip, then Tom, Dick, and Harry and Sally, Nancy, and Beth. When you sit down together, and speak to each other about your spiritual and ethical lives you are having your appropriate personal fellowship with Jesus. He is among you not as a separate character but as your community itself. (John's Gospel lays this out in chapters 14-17,)

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, and that although you cannot actually distinguish him from your own experience, to believe that he is with you 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 in our epistle 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 which is appropriate to the Almighty and Eternal God.

The form of your fellowship is worship, praise, and adoration, 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 Spirit behind the universe whom we call 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 who comes to you in love.

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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