Behold the lamb of God

15 January 2017
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Epiphany 2A

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

This bit of John’s Gospel comes in the midst of the first piece of narrative in the Gospel. John (the Evangelist, not the Baptist) signals the scope of his theological project in this passage (the prologue has set the table for that project). When John (the Baptist) says, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the cosmos,” we should be shocked. John (the Evangelist) is introducing a brand new theological category. Throughout the Old Testament, we encounter plenty of lambs, and many even that are sacrificed. The one that comes most readily to mind is the Passover lamb . . . but it does not take away sin.

The only sacrifice in the Old Testament that takes away sin (rather than impurity — there is a difference) is the goat on the Great Day of Atonement . . . and that goat is not killed, but sent to Azazel. And it only takes away the sin of the people, not the cosmos. So the Evangelist’s hearers would be startled at this bold new idea; the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the cosmos. With this shock ringing in our ears, we should read the rest of the Gospel to find out what the Evangelist means by this idea.

The next day, John (the Baptist) repeats part of this phrase, and two of his disciples follow Jesus. When Jesus turns and sees them following, he says his first words in John’s Gospel. First words are always a hint to what the author is going to have the main character do. Jesus’ first words are, “What do you seek?” This, again, should stay with us as we read the Gospel. It should be a question we are asking of each character or set of characters we encounter in the Gospel: what do they seek?

The two respond, “Rabbi, where do you remain?” The verb for ‘remain’ in Greek is meno. Already, in this passage, the Evangelist uses that word five times. John says twice that he saw the spirit descend and remain on Jesus. These two disciples ask Jesus where he remains, and then they come and see where he remains and remain with him that day. A quick look at a concordance (in Greek) shows that this word will be a theme throughout the Gospel.

Jesus replies to the two, “Come and see.” One of the disciples of John is named (Andrew, a good Greek name) and the other remains nameless (the Beloved Disciple?). That nameless disciple is always the Evangelist’s way of inviting the reader into the story. We are invited to come and see.

John’s Gospel, like all four, is written after the destruction of the Temple (see John 2:13-22 for the Evangelist’s take on that destruction). The crisis question of Jewish identity (we can finally begin to speak of Judaisms after 70 CE) is “where does God remain?” The Rabbis answered that Wisdom was found in Torah. John’s community is going to answer that question differently. The Spirit has descended and remained on Jesus, and the Baptist has witnessed to that fact.

John’s community is also in the process of being thrown out of the synagogue (see 9:22), and likely felt homeless and wondered where they might find Jesus, wondered where Jesus remained. The reader is invited to come and see.

Leaping over most of the Gospel, when we come to the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, the pieces of the Evangelist’s project begin to fall into place. When Mary enters the tomb, she sees the empty space where the body had been, with an angel (cherubim) on either side of the empty space (at the head and foot). As Rowan Williams has observed, this correlates with the two cherubim above the ark in the inner sanctum (in the second temple, there was no ark, just empty space). Mary, not the high priest, has entered the holy of holies, on the Great Day of Atonement. Jesus then appears to the disciples, locked in a room for fear of the Jews, and breathes on them. He says, “Receive Holy Breath. The sins of whoever you forgive are forgiven them; the sins of whoever you hold on to are held on to.” The Christian community has replaced the inner sanctum of the Temple and its role in the Great Day of Atonement.

John also has Jesus die at the exact hour the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple courtyard. Jesus is the new Passover lamb. John has collapsed the Passover lamb and the scapegoat into a single moment. Sharing the Passover lamb made one a Jew; participating in the Great Day of Atonement removed the sins from the whole people. This new people, who share the new Passover feast, remove the sin of the cosmos.

But John doesn’t want to replace the Temple with a new institution. In the prologue, we are told that the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. This new people is on the desert way (see Chapter 6 for the Bread of Life discourse where Jesus’ flesh is compared to the manna in the wilderness). When Mary at last recognizes Jesus in the garden, he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go and tell my brethren that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” This is going to be a journey, not a new building.

John’s is a stunning (and a bit terrifying) theological maneuver. We are that new people. The sins of whoever we forgive are forgiven them . . . or not, if we don’t. Our work is the reconciliation of the world to God.

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