Epiphany II John 1:29-42                              1/15/17 Epiphany, Norfolk

Our Gospel Reading for this morning is a portion of the 1st Chapter of the Gospel of John, also referred to as The 4th Gospel. The Gospel of John is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

When I was in seminary, they stressed pretty heavily that no one was sure who wrote the Gospel of John, or when, or where, or why. In those days, every scholar seemed to have his/her theories. But when John Roberts and I were in Turkey, they seemed to know a lot about John, and talked about him all the time. I think our seminaries need to get a good Turk to come over and teach John, because there’s a lot more information out there than I was ever told in seminary.

Well, here’s where things seem to stand. The “base line assumption” is that the Gospel of John was written about 120 a.d. That’s about 90 years after the death of Jesus. Now, you might hear that John the Baptist wrote the Gospel of John. We know that John the Baptist was beheaded while Jesus was still alive, so we know for sure that the Gospel of John was not written by John the Baptist.

When I was in school, the suspicion was that it was probably written in what is now Turkey. The Turks today confirm this. They know all about him, where he traveled, who his family was, and where he wrote. Most of us don’t realize that places like Ephesus and Constantinople (now Istanbul) were big cities with very large Christian communities – much larger than in Israel. So, this Gospel was probably written as a teaching tool to those Christian communities up there in Greece, Constantinople, and what is not western Turkey. And this is why the language and imagery of the Gospel of John are so different. The vocabulary, the sentence structure, and the language are very sophisticated and very stylized. You get a constant reference to “opposites in tension” – like “light and dark.” That is basically Greek thinking. But Greece was part of that cultural melting pot.

So, what we have with John is a writer up around today’s Turkey, trying to tell the story of Jesus and the events around his life, as he imagines they would have happened way down south in Israel, about 100 years earlier. But he’s not trying to write history. He is trying to explain “why”, not “what”, and we’re not very used to that. We today are ferocious about historical accuracy. We want correct facts and history, or we get very fussy. The writer of Luke and Acts was writing history, trying to get the historical facts right. But the writer of John was “reading back into history” from a distance of years, miles, and cultures, and making this “Christ Event” fit into a “divine scheme.”

The writer of John was trying to show God moving in this creation, and not just for the moment, but from the beginning of time. He opens his Gospel with “In the beginning was the word…” paralleling Genesis, “In the beginning God created…” The writer of John is going all the way back to the beginning of time, and bringing time forward to the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Because for John, with the death of Jesus, there  begins a new creation where all human sins have been forgiven, and creation has started anew.

Well in today’s reading, we get two very important symbols: the Lamb of God, and the Dove. Let’s take the dove first, because that’s the easiest. According to the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, any bird in the pigeon family was referred to as a “dove.” They were non-aggressive, peaceful birds, sometimes used to symbolize innocence, and sometimes seen as messengers from God. They ride the Holy Wind of God, and could go all the way to the heavens, up where the divine was. It was the dove that brought back the olive branch in one version of Noah’s Ark. We get doves all over the place in both the Old and New Testaments. And when doves appear, they are usually symbols of God’s acting – – or they are offerings to God. Now, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If they are messengers of God, it seems like you wouldn’t sacrifice them, but that’s what we get.

So, in today’s reading, the dove represents the “Spirit of God”, or the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Wind, or the Holy Breath of God. To the writer of John, this dove descending on Jesus fulfills the prophesy from John the Baptist: “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And the dove descends.

One of the things I really liked about the dove on the front of our bulletin this morning is that it appears to be coming down from the Holy Winds, the Holy Breath – with some effort – to lite on “the chosen one.” I see a lot of action and energy in that painting that says to me what I think John was feeling.

Well, more complicated is the Lamb of God. The lamb also is seen as “innocence and purity.” Sheep were very important to life in that region of the world. If you had sheep, you could live a comfortable life. They reproduced easily, and they provided almost everything necessary to life from food, to textiles, to income. And they demanded very little, other than protection. They cannot protect themselves from predators. They have to BE protected. So, we get this picture of innocence with mystical powers, kind of like the idea of the Unicorn. Innocence and mystery go together.
At the Passover, it is the blood of a lamb, the Pascal Lamb, that is put on the door posts to protect the Jews, and allow them to leave slavery in Egypt. We get references to the “innocent lamb” being led to the slaughter, usually as a sacrifice. The idea is that since it is defenseless, and pure, and innocent, it can carry our sins away with it – again – innocence and mystery working together.

So, through Jewish history, each year the Pascal Lamb was (and is) offered at the Passover, the most perfect lamb that can be found, because in its perfection, it can carry away the sins of the people.

Now, this still comes down to us in our Eucharist, even today. This morning, when the bread is broken, the priest says: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” and the people respond, “Therefore let us keep the Feast.” The idea is that Christ became the perfect lamb, the Pascal Lamb, and because he was perfect when he was sacrificed on the cross, he was able to carry away the sins of all humankind, and usher in the New Creation.

Our Gospel Reading this morning begins: “John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’”

See how it all weaves together? And the writer of the Gospel of John is the “master weaver.” When you read the Gospel of John, you are reading one of the most brilliant compilations of theology through the ages that has ever been written. It really does start at creation and carry right up to today. It is difficult reading. You almost have to read one sentence at a time, and think about it for a long time, before going on to the next idea. But it’s well worth it, and I commend it to you.


Posted January 17, 2017 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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