16 January 2011
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 2A (RCL)
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Wow! I find myself just saying, “Wow!” about these readings. That may be the extent of my sermon on Sunday.
For starters, the Isaiah passage starts out with military imagary — swords, polished arrows, etc. The prophet, speaking in the person of Israel, knows himself to be God’s chosen servant. God has chosen Israel for God’s purposes in the world, and those purposes, at least as far as Israel can see, are military. Israel is God’s sword, and God’s quiver full of arrows. But, says the prophet, for Israel, “I have spent my strength for nothing.” All of that military might has gotten Israel nowhere, in fact worse than nowhere — Exiled in Babylon. What can God possibly mean that Israel is God’s chosen? Well, God says to the prophet, you have misunderstood. I have chosen you, not just to restore Israel, but the whole world. And not by military might, but being a slave, and despised by the nations. Kings will look on one deeply despised and stand, and princes prostrate themselves. The prophet doesn’t spell out how that is going to work, but just states the fact. No wonder early Christians fastened on the servant imagery of Isaiah to help them understand who Jesus was.
And then, we get to John’s Gospel. The very first line here is troubling. John the Baptist says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” There is no such thing. Sin offerings involved a kid for the priest, and a bull for the people, and then a goat driven into the wilderness. The lamb is associated with Passover and other peace offerings. John (the evangelist, through the lips of John the Baptist) takes Yom Kippur and Passover and mashes them together, and makes them Jesus.
Then, John says it again, and two disciples hear him, and follow Jesus. Jesus turns around and says to them, “What do you seek?” Those are the first words of any successful evangelism. It does us no good to meet a need people don’t have, to answer a question they haven’t asked. What do you seek? And their answer is unexpected. They don’t say “eternal life” or “meaning and purpose” or anything like that. They say, “Where do you remain?” The verb “remain” occurs more often in John’s Gospel than probably any other verb than “to be”. I remain in the Father and the Father remains in me. Whoever keeps my word remains in me, and I in that one. And so on and so on. And Jesus’ reply is, “Come and see.” And they came and remained with him that day.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus replaces the Temple as the locus of God’s presence in the world. John’s community had been thrown out of the synagogue and the Temple had been destroyed. The burning question for them is, “Where do we meet God?” And the answer they gave was, “in Jesus.” And they met Jesus in the community (I remain in the Father and the Father in me, and we remain with those who keep my words, with those who love, etc.). So, Jesus replaces the Temple and the community is where we meet Jesus. So, in a sense, we are Jesus. We are the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
That would be a big stretch, if it weren’t for the way John’s Gospel ends. The disciples, after his crucifixion, are all together in the room, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, and Jesus stands among them. He breathes on them, and says, “Receive holy breath. As the Father sent me, so I send you. The sins of whoever you release, are released to them. Whoever’s sins you hold on to are held on to.” We have the power to take away the sins of the world.
So, what does that look like? Releasing or holding grudges. Judging what sins we can let go of, and which we can’t. We are sent to do that. And like the servant, not through might, but through discourse, forgiveness, communal action. In John’s Gospel, Jesus dies at the very hour of the slaughter of the passover lambs. Jesus becomes food for the passover meal. We take away the sins of the world, not by some sort of substitutionary sacrifice, but by our passover feast, our meal together. Wow.