'scaping the goats

Week of Sunday January 19 - Epiphany 2
Gospel: John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

This week interrupts Matthew's story and focusses again on the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The baptismal event  is not recounted, only its significance. John refers to it as something he has done; some suggest this is to lessen the problems with the senior figure being baptised by his junior.

There is clearly a controversy about who was senior: Jesus or John. (1:8, 1:15*, 1:19-20*, 1:24, 1:26*, 1:30*, 1:31*, 1:33*, 1:34*, 1:36*) We are told at least 10 time, depending how you separate the events, that John is not the One, but that Jesus is. The author tells us, it is put into the mouths of the Priests and Levites from Jerusalem, and John says it himself some 8 times.

The message to the disciples of John is that Jesus is the One, not John.

John points us to the Messiah. Brian Stoffregen says "This gospel itself is a "sign" to point us to the Messiah, who is a "sign" who points us to God." We might ask ourselves how much we have followed the signs and how much we have been looking in other directions.

Andrew brought Peter to Jesus, but the initiative is all Jesus'. "'You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter)". To be clear to we English speakers, the word for rock in Aramaic is kepha, which in Greek is petra.

Simon Peter is referred to five times in just two verses.  He is identified, first, as Andrew's brother with the name Simon Peter.  Next, "Simon Peter" is reduced to the elemental "Simon."  After Jesus "looked upon him," Jesus calls him "Simon, son of John," who is then called "Cephas," then "Peter."  Jesus refers to him first in terms of his familial association, that most basic old world connection, then refers to him in terms of his new name, Cephas, symbolic of his being made a new person. (John Petty)

John is not the One. Jesus is. Peter was there at the beginning. Jesus chose him. He is the rock; if you are going to stay (Greek meneis remain or abide) with Jesus, Peter is your guide.

Already we have heard that Jesus is the true light and that in him the word has become flesh. John's testimony now adds to this.

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (1:29)
‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ (1:36)

Bill Loader alerts us to the multifaceted nature of the image of the lamb. What we understand about the lamb

depends what [we] had for breakfast, so to speak.

[1.]  If [we] have been feeding on traditional ideas of messiahship (and they have been on the table since 1:19 in many shapes and sizes …) then [we] might most naturally think of the image of the lamb or sometimes, the ram, who will emerge victorious over God’s enemies and drive out sin. The Book of Revelation assumes such associations when it hails Jesus as the lamb, even as the slain lamb (5:6,12). John’s gospel uses messianic imagery to underline its message that the Father sent the Son to overcome evil and darkness with light and truth.

[2.]  Someone coming from thoughts about Jewish sacrifices and feasts might think of the Passover lamb. Those hearing the fourth gospel many times would remember that it alone portrays Jesus as dying at the time when the Passover lambs were killed (18:28; 19:31) and describes his dying in terms which echo Passover imagery (19:29,36). The link would be that Jesus brings an act of deliverance.

[3.]  Others might think of the daily sacrifice or generally of sacrifices, which increasingly came to be interpreted as dealing with sin, though most had other functions originally.

[4.] Or the ram caught in the thicket might come to mind from Gen 22 and thus provide a link between God’s beloved son and Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac.

Finally, as Stoffregen notes

[5.]  It could be the suffering servant who is "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent" and who "bore the sin of many" (Isaiah 53:7, 12).

Bill's own conclusion is:

If we can guess at the author’s intent, I think it was more likely to have been the messianic imagery given what we have heard so far, but perhaps with a hint of the Passover.

 If we simply adopt one image as "the meaning" we short-change ourselves and miss the richness of who Jesus is.

In our time it would be unusual not to have some sense of sacrifice when we hear that this is the Lamb of God; indeed, in many traditions, this is the ruling metaphor about Jesus. We are so familiar with the image that we miss its subtlety.

Moloney … notes that this Lamb is "of God." He is not our lamb. He is not our offering. Moloney concludes: "Jesus is not a cultic victim but the one through whom God enters the human story, offering it reconciliation with him. As so often in the fourth Gospel, an old symbol is being used in a new way" [p. 59]. Francis Moloney (The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina)

These words are quoted by Stoffregen, although I have added the emphasis. They are another angle on one implication of Jesus' baptism which I noted last week:

It means, as Petty says, that

God's reign will not be about John's fiery images of judgment for sinners, but rather God's "full immersion" into the trials and tribulations of his people.  

Full immersion is not some distant holiness or act of divine power. It is being with people in all the mess of life, even mess we find offensive, disgraceful, or irredeemable. 

This immersion has a solidarity which is truly stunning when we apply it to the image of sacrifice. This becomes evident when we look at the role of the scapegoat.

Sacrifice is an appalling image and act, which we might even feel is unworthy of God! God forbids child sacrifice. (See for example Deuteronomy 18: 10 – "There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering…") How then is it that God sends his son as a sacrifice?!

The Jews have a point when they say this looks like reversing the Abrahamic move. Abraham moved from the sacrifice of his son to something less troubling. They say, 'You Christians look like you're going in the other direction: you see God sacrificing his Son.'

This comes from notes on the work of Gil Bailie, which are reported at the Girardian Lectionary. The notes go on to say

A sacrificial reading would be: 'God is in his heaven, and he demands that someone pay the bill. Jesus pays the bill, and the rest of us are off.' That's the sacrificial reading, and therefore he's the "Lamb of God."

The non-sacrificial reading of John's Gospel[?] Jesus, the Lamb of God, comes from the Father and returns to the Father; he is the lamb that God is offering to the sacrificial monster. Who is the sacrificial monster? Humanity. It is humanity's sacrificial predilections that are being exposed and deconstructed in the passion story, so that we can no longer blame it on God. We can no longer say God wanted that sacrifice. This is the Lamb of God: not the lamb of the human community given to God, but the Lamb of God given to the sacrificial human community…

The true light has entered the world, but where does the sacrifice start?

Who is it that demands the sacrifice? Is it God? Is it God who has his fist in the air, shouting, "Crucify him!"? Who demands that Jesus die? The crowd. The mob. Us. God only asks that he remain faithful through it all. (Ibid)

Our repugnance at sacrifice is correct, but the problem is not God, but us. Surely God is greater than to demand the sacrifice of his child, we cry. He provided a way out for Abraham! (Genesis 22) And he did for us too. If we would only have remained/stayed with/abided in Jesus there would have been no death. But we demanded a death, a sacrifice.

It is here that the image of scapegoat is helpful.

All archaic religions existed to take away the sins of the world. How did they do it? Every once in a while they dumped all these sins on someone and ran them out, or strung them up -- and felt righteous about it. (Ibid)

This is what Australia did to Lindy Chamberlain. The night her conviction for murder I was packing shelves in the Alice Springs Coles, not long before heading to theological college. People burst into cheers of approval as the newsreader made the announcement. Feeling righteous was hardly an adequate description of the hatred which was heaped upon her. Aboriginal stories and any common sense observation of the behaviour of dogs, let alone dingoes, knew that the taking of a baby was a most plausible event. But we needed a scapegoat.

Once again, you have this connection between myth and gospel. The gospel says, "He died to take away the sins of the world." And myth says, "We took away the sins of the world when that one died." So all religion exists to take away the sins of the world. The question is whether or not the cross is a different way. The old way is to load up all the sins on the scapegoat and run them out of town. (Ibid)

The difference about the Lamb is that he takes away the sin of the world, not the sins; the text is clear. 

What are "sins"? All the things that spin out of envy, rivalry, jealousy, pettiness, covetousness, greed, hatred…

When we choose the hapless scapegoat

something magical happens. …  it's all turned into righteous rectitude, without anyone ever feeling the first moral misgivings. It's the little machine for turning sinfulness into righteousness, without anyone having to realize his or her own sin.

We're ready for defining the distinction: "sins" of the world are all those little things …. [but the]  machine itself is the "Sin" of the world. It's the thing which makes all cultural worlds possible. We look back and it all has a rosy glow… Jesus comes to take away the Sin of the world. (Ibid)

God comes to us in the flesh and allows god-self to be a scapegoat. God is in solidarity with us, immersed in our pain, even when we are being made the object of other people's rage; that is, when we are used to justify their sins.

But how does this all work in our lives?

The two disciples of John say to Jesus, where are you staying? It's a pun. The old King James says where do you dwell? Where will we discover your essence, who you are, where you abide? And the answer is: come and see. (John 1:37-39) It says they went and stayed with him. They dwelt with him, or remained with him. The Greek word has  the same root to remain in each case.

The world has its sin taken away when it remains with Jesus. Its life, our lives, are fundamentally altered when we come and see, and stay with him. The murder of Jesus did nothing; we are saved when we stay with him. He did not have to die. And even though we killed him, and would kill him again, abiding with him still saves us. It turns us around.

I finish here with words from Nathan Nettleton. In the draft of a sermon title "Repenting like Jesus" (Posted on PRCL-L) he said

… think about the orientation of this new self in the new life that we now live in Jesus. Our good friend Michael Hardin points out that the Greek word for repentance is metanoia, and he argues that the linguistic opposite of metanoia is paranoia. Or in other words, the self that resists repentance turns in on itself, fearfully protecting itself from a multitude of perceived threats. But the self that has been surrendered to death in baptism into Jesus has nothing to fear and nothing to protect, since it has already died. Reborn to unquenchable life in Jesus, it is free to give itself away with extravagant openness and generosity; the same extravagant openness and generosity that so clearly characterised the life and ministry of the one who, in baptism, gave us our new selves.

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to find churches that seem to have a paranoid stance towards the world around them. They are always perceiving new enemies and new threats and talking about how their values are being threatened and eroded and how we have to fight to protect the Christian way. But we don’t seem to see any of that disposition in Jesus himself, do we? Where does he ever shows signs of acting fearfully or defensively? And since everybody was out to get him, he could have easily defended paranoia on the grounds that in his situation, it was just good sense! But instead his whole life, and even his death, are characterised by the most radical openness and generosity and self-giving. 

I have a higher than average  MMPI paranoia rating due to childhood abuse (not my family.) The words of Nettleton and Hardin shine in neon lights for me. True, true, true! Abiding in Jesus certainly saves me. Each time I leave metanoia aka abiding in Jesus and turn in on myself, I head back in the direction of sickness. The machine regains its power over me.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

I have been much helped by Bill Loader, John Petty, Brian Stoffregen, Nathan Nettleton, and the Girardian Lectionary in preparing this post. I have previously commented on John 1:29ff at John 1:29-42 - Beholding the Lamb of God and John 1:29-42 The Sermon Draft: Behold the Lamb of God



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