Psalm 40:1-11, John 1:29-42
John’s Gospel begins with a prologue (1:1-18) almost certainly added in a later part of the development of that gospel, where Jesus is seen as one pre-existent with God, the one through whom creation came into being, and in whom it still holds together. That chapter at the beginning of John’s Gospel represents the high point within the Scriptures of what the theologians call Christological speculation (thought concerning just who Christ is). It represents a later part of this gospel tradition as thought on just whom Jesus might be over time reached ever greater depths. The passage we have read today would have probably followed that which would have originally commenced the gospel, the account of John the Baptist..
Now John’s Gospel introduces us for the first time to Jesus who comes out to where John is baptising. The synoptic gospels have Jesus being baptised by John with an increasing embarrassment as time goes on. By the time we get to John’s Gospel the level of embarrassment in the church with Jesus having submitted himself to John in baptism is such that no actual baptism by John’s hand takes place. John on seeing Jesus approach, immediately understands his significance and proclaims ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ While in the synoptic gospels John the Baptist has doubts as to Jesus right to the end of his life, in John’s Gospel the Baptist is presented as one who from the beginning has no such questions regarding Jesus and the subservient role he himself is to play beside him. As such the writer of the gospel turns John from being historically a forerunner of Jesus and one in all probability Jesus followed for time, into being the first Christian follower of Jesus. Indeed this gospel turns the concept of predecessor around. Rather than John preceding Jesus we have Jesus preceding John. Thus, ’a man is coming after me, but he is greater than I am, because he existed before I was born.’ The Baptist as such is presented as having the very faith into which the gospel writer wants to call those who are reading his account. All our gospels, but in particular John’s Gospel are not histories meant to tell you what historically happened but rather are stories told as gospel (good news) to change you! That is how they are to be read. Once you understand that all falls into place.
We then read of Jesus’ baptism as understood in this gospel. Unlike the synoptics where Jesus is baptised by John, here he is not physically baptised as such but is metaphorically baptised by the Holy Spirit descending upon him. Jesus, baptised by the Spirit, will in turn baptise by the Spirit rather than the water of John the Baptist’s baptism. This opening of the waters and descent of the Spirit is of course a parallel to both the waters opening long ago at the Jordan and the entry into the promised land with Joshua, the Hebraic form of the name Jesus, and also the descent of the Spirit over the waters at the beginning of creation. John, like Matthew as we saw last week, is telling us that here in Jesus nothing less than a new nation and even a whole new creation is beginning!
Next Jesus like John before him begins to call disciples. Indeed the first two that follow Jesus come from John’s disciples. They repeat the words said by John earlier, calling Jesus the ‘lamb of God.’ Later in John’s gospel the time of Jesus’ execution will be set differently from that in the synoptic gospels so that he dies at the time when the actual lambs are being slaughtered in the temple for the Passover feast. The central image in John’s Gospel for Jesus is this one, the ‘lamb of God.’ John’s Gospel is picking up on a theme in the Hebrew Scriptures found in the ‘servant songs’ where the Messiah is understood not as one of power and might but as a suffering servant ‘like a lamb about to be slaughtered, like a sheep about to be sheared, he never said a word. He was sentenced, arrested and led off to die’ (Isaiah 53:7-8).
Jesus now turns and sees two men following and asks ‘what are you looking for?’ The gospel writer is telling us that in our following like those two men we find the true one to follow in Jesus. In our ‘looking for’ we find the one for whom we are looking in Jesus. He then takes those who look and follow to his abode, his home. We are being told that as followers of Jesus he invites us to make our abode in him. We are then introduced not to both but only to one of the two, Andrew, and even he is only introduced it seems because he is Simon’s brother. Simon now enters the story and immediately upon meeting him Jesus recognises something in this man that causes him to call this man not by his name but to change it to Cephas, meaning rock. Names as we know all have meanings. The ancients of course took this far more seriously than we do. This changing of Simon’s name to Cephas is then significant. In the Hebrew Scriptures the change of name means a change of role that a person is to play in the history of salvation. Thus Abram and Sarai, have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah and Jacob becomes Israel. Later, in the Christian story of course Saul will become Paul. John here of course is pushing the line that the church has its founder, its rock in Peter.
This story then is packed with meaning. We are to learn from it and be challenged by it. In Jesus is nothing less than a new nation and indeed a whole new creation. The gospel writer is telling us that while John in his baptism at the Jordan is enacting a new exodus for a new nation, Jesus in that place of baptism with the descent of the Spirit over the waters is presenting something far more extensive, a whole new creation, something universal in its application. Those that follow Jesus are to be those who live in as people of a new creation. John’s Gospel has what theologians call a ‘realised eschatology.’ Eschatology is to do with the final things and what John is saying is that in Jesus those final things to do with God’s reign; justice, love, peace and harmony, are already present. That finality is already to be present in the community of Jesus’ followers. That is why John calls the community of Jesus so often to be the community of love.
That community of Jesus is to be centred on Jesus. Like Andrew, and the other un-named disciple, like Simon Peter, and then the other disciples who will be named in the gospel immediately following our reading today, we are to seek out and follow Jesus. He leads us to his abode which as his home is our home. That radical nature of change in being called to be a disciple of Jesus is picked up in the change of name which Simon Peter undergoes. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be totally changed and to live in a radically different manner. The way of Jesus the suffering ‘lamb of God’ still presents such a challenge to our world today. As a community prepared to suffer rather than assert our rights we truly become that community, described in John’s Gospel as the community of love.
What a challenge this would present to our world. A new nation, a new creation centred on Jesus. How would we speak to the issues of our nation and world? How would we act? If we truly saw ourselves as a new people following the way of Jesus I would hazard a guess, we would be a very different people to what we so often are. In that is our challenge. As our Psalmist says he has ‘made our steps secure, put a new song in our mouth, a song of praise to our God.’