11 January 2014

John 1: 29-42: who is Christ for you?
Who do you say Christ is?

John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him’ (John 1: 32)

Patrick Comerford

The Revised Common Lectionary readings for this year (Year A) are mainly from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Tomorrow, the First Sunday after the Epiphany (12 January 2014), we read Saint Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan (Matthew 3: 13-17).

But the readings from Saint Matthew’s Gospel are interrupted the following Sunday (19 January 2014, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany) for an account of the consequences of this event in Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 29-42).

The readings for Sunday week are: Isaiah 49: 1-7; Psalm 40: 1-12 (recte Psalm 40: 1-11); I Corinthians 1: 1-9; and John 1: 29-42.

We are looking at that Gospel reading in our Bible study this morning.

John 1: 29-42

29 Τῇ ἐπαύριον βλέπει τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐρχόμενον πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ λέγει, Ἴδε ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ὁ αἴρων τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου. 30 οὗτός ἐστιν ὑπὲρ οὗ ἐγὼ εἶπον, Ὀπίσω μου ἔρχεται ἀνὴρ ὃς ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν, ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν. 31 κἀγὼ οὐκ ᾔδειν αὐτόν, ἀλλ' ἵνα φανερωθῇ τῷ Ἰσραὴλ διὰ τοῦτο ἦλθον ἐγὼ ἐν ὕδατι βαπτίζων. 32 Καὶ ἐμαρτύρησεν Ἰωάννης λέγων ὅτι Τεθέαμαι τὸ πνεῦμα καταβαῖνον ὡς περιστερὰν ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, καὶ ἔμεινεν ἐπ' αὐτόν. 33 κἀγὼ οὐκ ᾔδειν αὐτόν, ἀλλ' ὁ πέμψας με βαπτίζειν ἐν ὕδατι ἐκεῖνός μοι εἶπεν, Ἐφ' ὃν ἂν ἴδῃς τὸ πνεῦμα καταβαῖνον καὶ μένον ἐπ' αὐτόν, οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ. 34 κἀγὼ ἑώρακα, καὶ μεμαρτύρηκα ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ.

35 Τῇ ἐπαύριον πάλιν εἱστήκει ὁ Ἰωάννης καὶ ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ δύο, 36 καὶ ἐμβλέψας τῷ Ἰησοῦ περιπατοῦντι λέγει, Ἴδε ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ. 37 καὶ ἤκουσαν οἱ δύο μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος καὶ ἠκολούθησαν τῷ Ἰησοῦ. 38 στραφεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος αὐτοὺς ἀκολουθοῦντας λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί ζητεῖτε; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ῥαββί (ὃ λέγεται μεθερμηνευόμενον Διδάσκαλε), ποῦ μένεις; 39 λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἔρχεσθε καὶ ὄψεσθε. ἦλθαν οὖν καὶ εἶδαν ποῦ μένει, καὶ παρ' αὐτῷ ἔμειναν τὴν ἡμέραν ἐκείνην: ὥρα ἦν ὡς δεκάτη. 40 Ην Ἀνδρέας ὁ ἀδελφὸς Σίμωνος Πέτρου εἷς ἐκ τῶν δύο τῶν ἀκουσάντων παρὰ Ἰωάννου καὶ ἀκολουθησάντων αὐτῷ: 41 εὑρίσκει οὗτος πρῶτον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τὸν ἴδιον Σίμωνα καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Εὑρήκαμεν τὸν Μεσσίαν (ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Χριστός): 42 ἤγαγεν αὐτὸν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν. ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Σὺ εἶ Σίμων ὁ υἱὸς Ἰωάννου: σὺ κληθήσῃ Κηφᾶς (ὃ ἑρμηνεύεται Πέτρος).

29 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! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptising with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32 And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.” 34 And 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, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When 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?’ 39 He 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. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42 He 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).

The Sunday Gospel reading:

How long does the Season of Christmas last for?

Are the decorations, the cards, and the tree down in your house?

Since when?

Did you leave the crib in place in your house, or in your church?

If it is still there, did you place the figures of the three wise men in the crib?

How long does the Season of Epiphany last for?

How long should the three kings or wise men remain be in a parish crib?

But the Epiphany season is about more than the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem – an event recorded only in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2: 1-12), and one many parishioners will not have heard this year, unless the Epiphany readings were transferred last Sunday.

Epiphany is about the public acknowledgment of Christ Jesus as God incarnate. The three Gospel events that are marked traditionally as part of Epiphany are:

● the Visit of the Magi,
● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan,
● the changing of water into wine at the Wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-12), which has been missed in the Church of Ireland daily lectionary for the Season of Epiphany this year, apart from the provision for a second service last Monday.

The manifestation of the Incarnate Christ in Saint John’s Gospel is revealed not at his birth in Bethlehem, not at the visit by the Shepherds, nor at the visit of the Magi, but with the witness of John the Baptist to Christ as the Lamb of God, the one who “existed before me,” and as “the Son of God” or “God’s Chosen One.”

That manifestation of the Christ in Saint John’s Gospel will close with the witness of the Beloved Disciple – the other John – to the Paschal Lamb dying on the Cross on the eve of Passover.

‘Behold the Lamb of God’

‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (John 1: 29) … the Lamb seated on the Throne – a fresco on a ceiling in a Greek Orthodox monastery in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Raymond Brown asks us to imagine a triptych, with the Lamb at the centre, and the two witnesses, the two Johns, on either side – John the Baptist in this scene, and John the beloved Disciple at the close of the Gospel. Saint John’s Gospel knows truly about how to present us with beginnings and endings.

But some of that drama in Saint John’s Gospel is missed in the paucity of dramatic and poetic presentation in the translations favoured in the NRSV. The NRSV translation renders Saint John the Baptist’s acclamation in the opening verse as: “Here is the Lamb of God.” I think the sense of the drama of the moment is captured in a more descriptive way in the more familiar RSV rendition: “Behold the Lamb of God.”

Saint John’s Gospel alone is without an actual account of the Baptism of Christ. Instead, we have Saint John the Baptist’s recollection of it, and an interpretation of its meaning and its consequences.

In a dramatic and poetic way, the Sunday Gospel reading we are looking at presents us with three descriptions of the newly-baptised Christ by Saint John the Baptist, and three descriptions of Christ by the newly-called disciples.

Saint John the Baptist identifies Christ as:

● “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (verses 29 and 36),
● the one who existed before John (verse 30),
● and as the Son of God (verse 34).

His description of Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” presents Christ as the Servant of God described in Isaiah as being led without complaint like a lamb before the shearers, a man who “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (see Isaiah 53: 7-12). But this is also read, with the benefit of hindsight, as a reference to the Lamb sacrificed at Passover – in Saint John’s Gospel, the crucifixion takes place at the same time as the Passover.

But the Lamb of God who is taking away not just my sin, not just our sin, not just the sin of many, of Christians, or those we judge as transgressors – not even the sin of the world, but the sin of the κόσμος (cosmos), which means not merely planet earth, but the whole created order.

The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Greek mathematics and philosophy, the κόσμος (cosmos) is understood as the Universe, which regarded as a beautifully-arranged system. The concept is beautifully developed by Pythagoras. The significance of this within the Johannine system is worth noting, for Pythagoras was from Samos, which is the larger island merely 54 km and a short sailing distance north of Patmos – today they are both in the same prefecture in Greece.

Pythagoras was probably the first philosopher to apply the term κόσμος (cosmos) to the universe, and he was followed in this by Archimedes and others. The Greek word literally means “well-ordered” or the created order, and is antithetical to the concept of chaos. It gives us words like cosmetic and cosmonaut.

Secondly, Saint John the Baptist describes Christ (verse 30) as one who “existed before me” (RSV) or who “was before me” (NRSV), which reflects a recurring theme in Johannine literature of the pre-existence of the Word.

Thirdly, John describes him as “the Son of God” or “God’s Chosen One” (verse 34). This is the first time in this Gospel that Christ is given the messianic title of “the Son of God.” This title, “The Son of God” is another reference to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

Seeing and believing

We then move on in this reading to find John the Baptist’s disciples turning to follow Christ. While the Synoptic Gospels have telescoped the first call of the disciples into Christ’s Galilean ministry, Saint John’s Gospel gives us greater detail, and tells us the first disciples were called at the River Jordan before Christ returns to Galilee.

So this passage links the baptism of Christ with the call of the Disciples, links seeing and believing, being and doing, baptism and discipleship.

The first two disciples are called, although they remain unnamed for the moment. They are not just called, but they also decide to follow Jesus (verse 37). They are called in word and action. “Come and see” (verse 39) is a call to personal following. In John, “seeing,” in the true sense, means believing. Think of the later insistence by Saint Thomas that he cannot believe unless he also sees (see John 20: 24-29).

And to come and see is to abide in Christ. Those first disciples come, see and stay (verse 39).

But who do the disciples say Christ is?

They have three very different descriptions from those given by Saint John the Baptist:

● Rabbi or Teacher (verse 38);
● the one to see and follow (verse (verse 39);
● the Messiah or the anointed one (verse 41).

Who is Christ for you?

Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 … George Fox challenged his followers to say who Christ is for them (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

Who is Christ for you?

This is a question each and every one of us must ask ourselves anew time and time again.

He must be more than a good rabbi or teacher, because the expectations of a good religious leader or a good teacher change over time.

Who is the Messiah for you?

Again, many people at the time had false expectations of the Messiah.

We may see the difference between how John, near the end of his ministry, describes Christ, and how the disciples, at the beginning of answering Christ’s call, describe Christ.

But who is Christ for you?

George Fox, the founding Quaker, challenged his contemporaries: “You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”

Who is Christ for you?

Is he a personal saviour?

One who comforts you?

Or is he more than that for you?

Who do you say Christ is?

It is a question that challenges Saint Peter later in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 16: 15, which is part of the reading on 24 August 2014, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, Matthew 16: 13-20). Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?

The sin of the cosmos

Janet Unsworth, in her presentation on Johannine spirituality here some years ago, pointed out the difference in translations that speak of the “sins of the world” and the sin of the world.”

The word here in verse 29 is the singular sin of the cosmos: ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου. The word indicates being without a share in something, in this case God’s intention or design; or missing the mark.

So often the world has missed the mark in terms of shaping up to Gods plan and intention for the whole creation, the whole cosmos.

Christmas has passed, and the Epiphany season concludes with the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas, two weeks after this reading (2 February 2014).

The Sunday Gospel reading we are looking at this morning is a reminder in the middle of the Epiphany season that Christ has come, not just as cuddly baby at Christmas, not just to give me personal comfort, not just to give me a personal revelation, but to confront the whole created order, and to reconcile the whole created order to God’s plan.

I find it is a beautiful presentation in this Gospel that the beginning of Christ’s ministry is set out over six days. And on the seventh day of that new beginning we have a sabbath – God rests; Christ goes to the wedding at Cana, the third of the Epiphany moments. And there we have a sign, a sacrament, a token of the complete transformation of the created order, a sacramental or symbolic token of the heavenly banquet (John 2: 1-12).

The Gospel in the context of the other readings

How do you place the Gospel reading within the context of the other readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and within the season context that helps us to move from Christmas through Epiphany and onto the Feast of the Presentation, which acts as a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, between Christmas and Easter?

Isaiah 49: 1-7

The Old Testament reading (Isaiah 49:1-7) is the Second Servant Song, written by Deutero-Isaiah.

The Servant, speaking in the first person, claims to have been called by God while still in his mother’s womb (verses 1, 5), which could lead us to reflect on Saint John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb when he realised he was in the presence of the yet-to-be born Christ (see Luke 1: 41, 44). Though hidden, he has been made a sharp sword and arrow (verse 2), which could draw out some contextual references to the Gospel reading (Luke 2: 22-40) for the Feast of the Presentation (2 February) two weeks later (see Luke 2: 35). Indeed, Simeon’s vision (Luke 2: 29-32) is filled with images from the promises in Isaiah, such as being a light to the nations and salvation to the world (Isaiah 49: 6).

The closing images of kings bowing down (verse 7) might also allow us to recall another Epiphany image, of the wise men kneeling before the Christ child and paying homage (see Matthew 2: 11).

Psalm 40: 1-11:

The Church of Ireland Directory 2014 provides for Psalm 40: 1-12. However, this appears to be a mistake. The Revised Common Lectionary in every version provides for Psalm 40: 1-11. This is a logical division of the psalm, for Psalm 40 is a composite Psalm, and may originally have been two separate psalms: a psalm of thanksgiving (verse 1-11) and a psalm of lament (verses 12-17).

The compilers may have been following The Book of Common Prayer, where the typographical error may have originated (see p. 30), and it was continued six years and three years ago in the 2008 and 2011 directories.

Once again, this is an example of the need to check the directory and lectionary against each other, and to double check both when you are preparing the psalms and the readings, and the need to check with others involved in a service, including choirs, organists and musicians in the case of the psalm.

This psalm begins with the Psalmist describing his experience of God drawing him up from desolation and hearing his cry (verses 1-2). He is vindicated so that many will put their trust in the Lord rather than turning to the proud, and so will be happy (verses 3-4). He goes on to tell the glad news of deliverance and saving help (verses 9-10). God will not withhold his mercy, for his steadfast love will last forever (verse 11).

I Corinthians 1: 1-9

This is the opening of Saint Paul’s letter from his prison in Ephesus to the church in Corinth (see Acts 18:1- 11). Could you draw comparisons between the Apostle Paul’s opening declaration of who Christ is for him and the Church, and who Christ is for Saint John the Baptist and the first-called disciples?

Concluding questions

Who is Christ for you?

Is Christ inviting you to the heavenly banquet, to enjoy the new creation, to be in partnership with him, as the Lamb of God, in the renewal of the cosmos?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with part-time MTh students on 11 January 2014.

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