Sermon / January 15, 2017 / Anne Richards / John 1:29-42 /
Each gospel writer tells the story of Jesus from a different point of view. Even though they each tell the same story, their vantage points are a manifestation not only of their own faiths and personalities, but also of their understanding of what the Jesus event means.
Matthew ties the story closely to the Hebrew tradition, emphasizing that Jesus was a good Jewish boy, because that was very important in helping people understand that Jesus was not an innovation entering the story from outside the tradition, but the fulfillment of the Chosen People’s hope. This is the reason Matthew is placed first in the New Testament; it’s a hinge between the old and new covenants. Mark strongly emphasizes Jesus’s road to the cross and the how suffering is always part of faith. Luke stresses the inclusivity of the Christian faith and raises women and other first-century persona non grata to essential focal points of Jesus’s ministry. And John, from whom today’s gospel is taken, is the mystical gospeler, the one who tells us what relationship with God looks like from the inside. And so his gospel, which is the gospel least invested in the chronology of the Jesus story, is filled with all kinds of metaphors and symbols that are meant to draw us into wondering about what it is to be a friend of God.
In this gospel, John the Baptist calls Jesus “the lamb of God”. Ancient Israel was a pastoral nation, so this would have been a familiar image to readers of Scripture. But there’s a lot more about sheep that makes this gospel an amazing passage for us to consider on Martin Luther King Sunday.
Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated, and they are in fact hyper-domesticated. There is no such thing as feral sheep, because without a shepherd, sheep cannot survive. They may stray, but they never escape. Sheep require human care for food, water, defense, even reproduction. And so, the sheep is more “human” than any other animal. Sheep need human care just like humans need human care.
Now, the Bible is not like Aesop’s fables. There aren’t many talking animals in the Bible. But the 23rd psalm is written in the voice a sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Sheep will not drink from streams, only ponds. Hence, “by still waters he leads me”. They will not lower their heads to drink; hence, my cup is overflowing”. And so you can see why the readers of Scripture have found sheep to be an imaginative surrogate for the vulnerable human condition and for our need for God. We are made for interdependence. We can’t make it on our own. And when we try to, bad things happen.
The colloquial expression, “like a lamb going to the slaughter” points up another touching quality shared by sheep and people, which is that the young of both species cannot distinguish between friend and foe. We see this explored in the story of the binding of Isaac in the Old Testament, when Abraham takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed on Mt Moriah and Isaac goes along willingly, never suspecting what (but for the last-minute intervention of the angel of the Lord) might have been his fate.
And there is the Passover lamb. On the first Passover, Yahweh tells the Israelites to splash the blood of a lamb on their doors as a signal so that Yahweh will pass them by when He passes through Egypt slaying the firstborn of the lamb. A story that is a good reminder that, in the main, the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Torah, picture God as a divine Warrior, possessed of magnificent strength. Not a little lamb. And so there is a contrast between the Old and New Testaments in their imaginative understanding of God that is reinforced later in John’s gospel when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, not the divine Warrior or avenger.
When John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” in today’s gospel, all of these associations are meant to come together and to jump out at us. John is saying, “In this person, Jesus, we see both the human condition in its weakness and vulnerability, and the cure for the human condition, the caring, attentive, shepherd, brought together and made one. And so, as divine Son, Jesus is both carer of us, and cared for by his Father. This is who he is.
The whole of Scripture tells us that, in a world truly oriented toward God, we would be like Jesus: both carers and cared for, in a continual flow of love and respect and nurture among us all. The sheep, like people, need care, and the shepherd, like God, finds his or her purpose in caring. That relationship is the divine life, flowing like water among us all.
And I’m sure you noticed that powerful line toward the end of the gospel story, when John’s disciples are intrigued by Jesus and ask him where he is staying. “Come and see,” Jesus says. “Come and see.” In other words, get to know me. Come and see this beautiful exchange of divine love happening within a human person. Come and see what real life looks like.
This is not the world we’ve made for ourselves. Dr. King sacrificed his life working for it. And yet, these days it can seem as if we are farther from it than ever. Racism is a foundational evil not yet fully acknowledged or healed, and an especially vicious example of the tendency of some to victimize others so that they remain on top. Cain and Abel all over again. One brother kills another because he perceives that brother’s existence as a threat to him.
The Bible has a lot to say about this. Because this sin has been with us since the beginning of time. The Bible insists that God is a God of righteousness and justice. But that justice is not going to become real by means of some divine intervention from on high, like an angel coming down to save Isaac from the knife. It becomes real when every one of us undergoes a inner transformation that teaches us how to see each other in a different way, when each one of us learns to come and see. This is what being a Christian is about.
The good news is that God is always trying to teach us how to do this. Let tell you a story.
In the mid-1980s, I was a chaplain at New York University Medical Center here in the city. Since I lived in Cobble Hill, I took the 4 or 5 train into the city every day. I had to be at the hospital at 8:30 am sharp. That meant that I had to be on the platform at the Borough Hall Station at 7:30 am in order to be on time for work. You know the scene. Every morning, the platform and the train were like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. A mob of humanity. On one particular morning, I let several crowded trains pass by because there was not one bit of space for another human being to fit in in any one of them. Finally, because I was running out of time, I had to push my way into a car.
I took about 3 steps and found my way to that pole that’s right inside the doors on either end of each car. I’m sure you know the pole I’m talking about. People were so closely clustered around that pole that we were eyeball to eyeball. It was very, very disarming. Hot, too. We could all feel each other breathing and sweating. And we were all standing with our heads down to avoid that very close intimacy.
After a few minutes, I raised my head a bit and looked at the person I was standing next to. He was a black man, and though he was physically smaller than I am, I immediately felt slight fear, the shock of otherness. He was wearing the hat that Rastafari wear, he had dreadlocks, and he was dressed in a red fur jacket and other clothing not familiar to me, who usually dressed in clothes the color of toast or dead toenails.
As I glanced at his face, and it seemed to me that he felt fear too. Or distaste. Our eyes met for a split second. Centuries of history were standing behind each of us.
We both looked down again.
But we could not escape each other. We were jammed together. Everyone was hanging onto the pole. And this man’s hand and my hand were right next to each other on the pole, his hand just a hair’s breadth away from mind. And he and I were both trying very, very hard to keep our hands from touching. It took every ounce of my strength to keep my hand from touching his. And I knew he was doing the same thing. He didn’t want to touch me. Our whole beings were focused on the task of not touching, of staying separate.
Finally, I got to my stop. I flew off to the hospital for the day’s work.
Twelve hours later, I left the hospital to return to Brooklyn. This time I took the F train. It was 8:30 at night. As I went down into the station, I could hear a train coming, so I ran down the steps and flew through the turnstile and just barely made it through the doors before they closed.
And who was right there in front of me? The same man. And he looked at me and said, “It’s you!”
And we sat down and talked about what idiots we had been that morning.
Now. This was not a coincidence. This was just two people happening to notice what God is always doing: trying to bring us poor human beings back together again. Trying to give us a new way of seeing each other. To see that we are all just people. We need care and we are designed by God to give care. We are already fundamentally united. We just don’t see it. What Christians do is to make what is already true REAL.
There’s a story that circulated among the early church fathers and mothers that said that being a Christian means becoming like Jesus. So much like Jesus, the story says, that when our Precious Lord takes our hands and brings us to heaven, we will look at all the other people there – all those people crowded around the subway pole – and we will have become so sanctified, so united with God, that each of us will say to each other, “Which one is Jesus?”
We’re all going to die. And life strips us of most things. What we will always have is each other. Let’s not let each other go. You and I are all we have as we find our way to God. And when we get there, we’re all going to day, “It’s you!”
Come and see.