Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Does That Mean?

John 1:29-42 (NRSV)

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward 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 baptizing 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 baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes 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).


I like pretty much everything about the TV show “Bones.”  I mean, what’s not to like?  A love story between a brilliant and gorgeous yet socially inept scientist and a handsome, brash FBI agent,  an entire lab full of geeks and tech nerds, science stuff, murders being solved . . . it has everything.  Except, at the very end, when they run the name of the production company, there’s a voice-over of some kid asking “What does that mean?” in the most annoyingly whiney voice ever.  Really annoying, you know?  But when I read this passage that whiney kid’s voice flashed through my mind, and I knew where I had to go with this today.

So, a bit about language and word histories.  Did you notice how John gave translations for some of the words and assumed his listeners would know what he meant by others?   He wrote this Gospel in Koine Greek, which was the Greek used by ordinary folks on the street, not the classical Greek of the great scholars and philosophers.  Although his writing is lyrical and beautiful, his grasp of Greek wasn’t as good as the other Gospel writers, especially Luke, who from his writing was clearly a very well educated man.  (I only say that because when I was studying Koine Greek, the translation part of our final exams were always from John,  because our professor, Dr. Marvin Meyer, said John’s writing was at a level we were more likely to get right than the others.  Like translating something written by a junior higher instead of a grad student.  And in case you are wondering, if I work really hard at it I might be able to translate a couple of lines, but I mostly took Greek so I could avoid Psych.  And cause I really like Marv Meyer.)    At the time this Gospel was written, most of the world could speak Greek.   It was written some 20 or 30 years after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and kicked the Jews out of Jerusalem, (some 60 - 80 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus). Many had already gone to other lands centuries earlier, during and after the Babylonian captivity, so by John’s time even the Jews spoke Greek more commonly than any other language.  So John had to tell his audience, generally considered to be Jews in exile, what the Hebrew and Aramaic words he used meant. 

So, some definitions to help out going forward:
Rabbi - Hebrew for teacher.  Now we use that term pretty specifically for an ordained person who is the leader of a congregation, like minister or priest in the Christian world.  But at that time the title belonged to anyone who taught, and Jesus was definitely a teacher.

Messiah -  a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.”   It sounds and looks a bit like the Hebrew word for “savior” so the two were often confused in early translations.  Among other people named messiah in the Bible are Saul and David, both anointed by Samuel at God’s direction, and Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who overthrew the Babylonians, returned the exiled Judeans to Jerusalem, and even helped pay to re-build the Temple.

Christ -  the Greek word meaning “anointed.”  It is not a name, but a title.  So to say Jesus Christ is to say Jesus Anointed.  Jesus the Christ is Jesus the Anointed [One].

Cephas - means Rock in Aramaic, which was the common language spoken in Palestine at the time of Jesus (and today).  Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic in their day to day lives, and Hebrew in religious situations - for prayers and worship, in study of the Torah, visits to the Temple, and so on.

And the big one . . . Disciple.  “a person who believes in the ideas of a leader, esp. a religious or political one, and tries to live according to those ideas: For example, Jesse Jackson was a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr.”  (Cambridge University Academic Dictionary)  

Now that we have all that language stuff out of the way, what did John mean?  When John the Baptizer said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  What did he want his disciples to understand?  What are we to understand?   

First, we are to remember that this was written long after the death, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  John the Evangelist himself was not present to hear John the Baptizer speak.  No other Gospel writer reports this particular encounter along the road.  And, oddly enough, John doesn’t report on the baptism as the other Gospel writers do.  Instead, he has John the Baptizer describe it from his perspective, as the one performing the baptism, who heard God’s voice speaking.  But we know from our reading of this Gospel that John had a particular theological view that is not as easy to spot in the other Gospels, of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for a sin-sick world.  More than a mere rabbi, more even than a prophet, Jesus was the Word made flesh, sacrificed on the altar of of greed, fear, and lust for power.  In the other Gospels John’s personal interaction with Jesus is restricted to the baptism.  Here, however, John calls attention to Jesus, points him out as God’s own son come to live among us.  John calls out that this is the Lamb of God, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and thus change lives.  John testifies as to whom Jesus is, and points the way to others recognizing him as the Christ, the Son of God, living among us that our lives might be changed, our souls healed, our sins washed clean.   John the Baptizer was so persuasive in his description that two of his own disciples left him and went to follow Jesus instead.

There’s another word that has often confused me.  I like words, and I like to try to figure out where the come from.  So - Christian.   I know where Christ comes from. That’s anointed, and we use it almost interchangeably with Jesus.  But the -ian part is what confuses me.  Is it simply someone who follows that particular philosophy, like a Marxian?  Or is it someone who lives in that Anointed One, like a Philadelphian?  You see, I like the Philadelphian model of Christian.  Living in Christ, not living like Christ.  
I read a story about a young woman who received a WWJD bracelet and wore it, but wasn’t really comfortable about it.  One of her teachers tried to explain what it meant, and that we have Scripture to help guide us in terms of what Jesus would do in various situations, and she assured him she knew that part.  Her problem was that she was fully human, whereas Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  She said, “It’s not fair to assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God!”  And I see her point. I mean, if we pay close attention to all the “turn the other cheek” and “walk a further mile” and “give up your coat as well” and “forgive seventy times seven times” instructions, how do we get from there to overturning the money changer’s tables and cleansing the Temple courtyard?   That’s a question that deserves a great deal of thought and prayer.  

But what if we were to live in Christ?  Theresa of Avila, a 16th century nun and mystic, reformer and author, whose writings were so profound and important that she was named a Doctor of the Church, wrote in a letter to her Carmelite sisters,   

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; 
no hands but yours; no feet but yours. 
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. 
Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.
(Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1. p 263. Westminster John Knox Press 2010)  

No need to try to be just like him, or make the sorts of decisions he would make.  As that young lady with the bracelet pointed out, we are not him.  We can’t possibly know what he would decide for sure.  But we do know how to do good. We know how to be compassionate.  We know how to help the poor.  We know how to stand up for the oppressed.  We know how to be a blessing.  We know how to touch the sick with healing hands.  We know how to do the work of the church in the world.   We know how to speak kindly to others, to reach out to help those in pain, to pray for those whom we don’t know any other way to help.  

Those two disciples who left John to follow Jesus had no idea what lay ahead for them.  Three years of walking from Judah to Galilee and back again, tired and hungry much of the time, dusty most all of the time, confused more often than not.  But they stuck, they stayed, they were there for the end, and for the new beginning of the resurrection.  They changed through knowing Jesus, and by teaching his ways, they changed others.   Let us do the same.  Just as John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, so let us too commit to leave behind our old ways and do a new thing.  Let us walk forward without fear into a future where all we know for sure is that God is with us.   Let us go forward to follow Jesus, to be like him, to live in him, today and every day.  

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