First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 2

William Loader

Epiphany 2: 19 January John 1:29-42

John’s version of the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism has interesting twists. The words are being set to new music. To this point in John the author has been taking great pains to set John the Baptist in his proper place. 1:20 is so full of repetition in making sure we hear that John was not the Christ that we are left wondering what was the big issue. Something of the same concern is present in our passage. We hear John twice say that he did not know or recognise Jesus (1:31 and 33). As listeners we should by now be very clear: John the Baptist played a very subordinate role and should never be confused with Jesus or be set on the same level. Why the fuss?

There was a problem. It may have been that some did indeed see John as the superior and Jesus as the inferior. Luke tells us of people who knew only John the Baptist’s baptism, including Apollos (Acts 18:24 - 19:7). The Mandaeans, some of whom have come to Australia as asylum seekers from Iraq (and have doubtless also gone elsewhere), have traditions which include a higher regard for John than for Jesus. The great New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, noting also a similar use of imagery, argued that these traditions may well reflect the kind of context which the author of the fourth gospel had to grapple with. We now find that imagery more strongly represented in Judaism of the period. Nevertheless the major emphasis on putting John into the right perspective doubtless does reflect a problem, perhaps existing communities, but certainly the fact that Jesus was closely linked with John and began as his junior. Our passage also suggests that some of Jesus’ disciples swapped to Jesus from John.

So there is a kind of theological politics going on in the passage which could obscure other main features, as theological politics often do. The main feature is Jesus, portrayed here as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. ‘Look, the lamb of God’ occurs twice: 1:29 and 35. But what did it mean? It depends what you had for breakfast, so to speak. If you have been feeding on traditional ideas of messiahship (and they have been on the table since 1:19 in many shapes and sizes and will continue to dominate for the rest of the chapter) then you 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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

Imagery in John is always subordinate to the main theme. The main theme is that in Jesus we are to see and hear the Son whom the Father sent to offer us a relationship which will bring life to us and our world. That is the melody which is played throughout whatever the instrument. Messianic instruments in John reflect their origins in royal courts, but the theme is now the same as from those which have their origin in the lofty traditions of wisdom and the divine word with which the gospel began.

The same applies to the Spirit and to the indirect account of the baptism. The event functions in the story as a means of recognition of who Jesus is: it is the way that John the Baptist recognises that Jesus is the one whose coming he was inspired to predict. The imagery of baptising with Spirit does not reappear, but in substance will come into effect when the risen Jesus breathes the Spirit on his disciples. But the Spirit is also part of the orchestra playing the same tune, perhaps the conductor, if one will, especially in the period of the Church and certainly the inspiration for the writing of the gospel. In the fourth gospel the Son has been empowered from the beginning, so that the baptism and descent of the Spirit are more a statement about what is, than a change.

1:35-42 offers us a model of how to respond - and a model for any who might cling to John the Baptist. The author is winking at us when he reports the would-be disciples’ question about where Jesus stays. This is one of many occasions when we are meant to smile in recognition of deeper meaning. Where does Jesus live, indeed!? Perhaps John has totally reworked Mark’s story beyond recognition, so that no traces are left of calling Andrew and Peter from mending their fishing nets. Perhaps he does not know the story. Perhaps his is closer to historical reality and Mark’s, more symbolic. Certainly he knows something about Peter’s special naming. Matthew does, too, but in a very different setting (16:16-18). Or is this theological politics again: making sure Peter is given prominence but not too much? John is very political.

There is always a lot happening in John’s gospel with multiple meanings and layers of interpretation. But out of the complexity emerges a clear theme. It is in this Jesus that we encounter the being of God in invitation to us to belong. That belonging is not something static but a relationship with an agenda: ‘that they might have life and have it in abundance’. Its obverse is also clear: taking away, getting rid of, confronting, disempowering the sin of the world. ‘The sin’ by definition is what destroys life and relationship. When we let that note linger, we can hear through it not only the cries of the human heart but also the cries of all humanity in the pain of violence, injustice and evil. John’s gospel is like that: giving us key central themes of life and light, death and darkness, but we have to unpack them if they are not to remain remote and abstract. The theme of incarnation also becomes our hermeneutical task if we want to rescue John from being relegated to pious trivia and sectarian assurance. Left to itself without the canon this is often its fate.

Epistle: Epiphany 2  19 January  1 Corinthians 1:1-9

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