Year A, Second Sunday After the Epiphany, Psalm 40:1-12; Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
As I was reading and reflecting on the passage in Johnâ€™s gospel set for today, I began to notice how central the theme of the giving of names and titles is. It is John the Baptist who offers the first new title. He calls Jesus â€œThe Lamb of God.â€ He clearly identifies Jesus by this name twice in succession. Between these two acknowledgments, The Baptist says something very curious, something that may account in part for why this section of the gospel is so rich in names and titles. Itâ€™s to help us get to know Jesus better.
For while The Baptist acknowledges that he has been preparing the way for the one God would send, the one who would baptize with Holy Spirit, he admits that when Jesus came to be baptized, â€œI myself did not know him.â€
This is the kind of remark that can easily slip right past us, but it is actually rather startling if you know your Bible, because in Lukeâ€™s gospel, John the Baptist is said to be the cousin of Jesus. In Luke, when Mary is about three months pregnant she goes and visits her kinswoman Elizabeth, Johnâ€™s mother, who is about six months pregnant with John. Elizabeth tells Mary that the child growing within her had leaped for joy at the mere presence of the child Mary is carrying. As a result, there are many classical paintings and scultures of the two children playing together, John always dressed in skins–even as a child of two.
But in the other gospels there is no hint that Jesus and John have met before. In ancient times people did not always write the stories of the childhood of the great the way we do. They wrote what seemed to them would have been most fitting to have taken place. So it is possible that St. Luke thought it would be most fitting to have John the Baptist, who was, after all, the Forerunner of Jesus, acknowledge him even in the womb. Perhaps what St. Johnâ€™s gospel seems to suggest here is true. John the Baptist knew he was waiting for someone, but he did not know who. He had no name in mind: he trusted that God would reveal the one John was waiting for by his role in Godâ€™s plan.
So when John the Baptist names Jesus he calls him, not â€œCousin Jesusâ€ but â€œthe Lamb of God.â€
â€œLamb of Godâ€ has two different connotations in this context. One is of sacrifice, like the Passover lambs that were offered to God in the Temple as a reminder of Godâ€™s power to rescue and deliver from slavery. In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the blood of the slain lambs was put on the doorways of the people, so that God passed over the homes of the Israelites and saved them from a night of death and destruction. Jesus is to be this for the human race–the lamb by whose shed blood Godâ€™s redemption is made possible.
The Passover lamb is supposed to be watched for three days, to make sure it is pure and without blemish. In St. Johnâ€™s gospel it becomes clear that The Baptist has been watching Jesus for three days. John sees the purity of Jesus. It is of an order so extraordinary that it can only be divine. He is fit to be the redeemer. So John also bestows on Jesus another name or title: the Son of God. This name, then, is linked to the title of Lamb of God, and the role of the Passover lamb.
But the Lamb of God has another meaning. In the Middle East, shepherds often use young rams the way other nations use sheepdogs–they are actually trained to lead the flock, and the flock follows where they go. John the Baptist also sees in Jesus this extraordinary power to draw others.
And two of his followers immediately prove John right–Jesus has only to walk by and they fare drawn after himÂ as if they were already members of his flock and he were the young ram trained to lead them. But note John has encouraged them in this. He has named Jesus in their hearing â€œThe Lamb of God.â€ He must know that he will lose them. But the Baptist also knows that he is the forerunner, and that, however painful, this giving over has always been his destiny.
More names for Jesus follow. â€œDiscipleâ€ means something like student, or learner, or follower. These two disciples of John make clear that they have left John in the next title they bestow on Jesus. The two disciples callÂ him â€œRabbiâ€, which means something likeÂ teacher or leader or even “master”. Â To become a disciple is not like signing up for a college course in Hebrew Scriptures. It is more like taking an oath of allegiance to your professor on those scriptures.Â So the two are making it clear that they have transferred their loyalty from John to Jesus, and that from now on, they will follow him. It is a huge commitment, but Jesus seems unsurprised. They ask him where he is staying and he does not reply directly. Instead, he offers an invitation: â€œCome and see.â€ He doesnâ€™t explain with words, or give directions, or create any kind of verbal barrier. He just says, â€œSee for yourself.â€ And by the end of the afternoon Andrew rushes off to invite his brother, Simon, also to â€œcome and seeâ€.
In telling Simon about this wonderfulÂ new rabbi, Andrew gives Jesus another new name–â€œMessiahâ€, which means â€œAnointed One.â€ The act of anointing marks one as set apart for a special purpose. Kings in Israel were anointed, and the people of Israel, groaning under the Roman yoke of oppression, had long looked for a deliverer set apart by God for this purpose. An Anointed One. A King. A Messiah.Â So here is yet another name or title for Jesus, and we use it to this day, for Christ means â€œAnointed One.â€
The last name bestowed in the portion of the gospel chosen for today is not a name given to Jesus, but by Jesus. He gives Simon a new name, one that eclipsed his former name in memory for all time. We all know who Peter is–Peter the impetuous, the foolish, the stalwart, the denier, the powerful, the passionate, the all-too-human, most vivid of all Jesusâ€™ followers. But Peter is a nickname–itâ€™s a Greek version of the Aramaic nickname Jesus would have actually used. Petra is Greek for rock–think of petrified–and in Aramaic, the word for rock is Kefa. And here and there in Paul’s letters later in the New Testament we see references to an important manÂ he callsÂ Cephas–who is almost certainly our “Peter.”
Why is there such a cascade of names and titles here in St. Johnâ€™s gospel?
I think in part it is because St. John is trying to show us Jesus from as many vantage points as possible. He will show us what each of the names really means in the context of Jesusâ€™ whole ministry as it unfolds in the succeeding chapters.
And why the new name for Peter? I donâ€™t think Jesus ever thought Peter would be a â€œrockâ€ in the steady, stable way we might think of when we say a person is a rock. Heaven knows that Peter is anything BUT the Rock of Gibraltar type. He is impulsive and hot headed. And when the chips were really down he even denies he ever even knew Jesus!
But he is a rock in the way even you or I can be.
Peter is foolish, flawed, fallible–just like us. He knows he is weak and willful–like the rest of the human race. But Peter has seen the Lamb of God both as the young ram that leads the flock, and as the Passover lamb that is slain for the sake of the people. Peter has lived side-by-side with one so pure that the divine light cannot be hidden within him. He knows this is the Son of God. Rabbi Jesus has taught Peter, by words and deeds, things he had never even begun to imagine when he was a simple fisherman. I doubt he ever fully got over the shame of denying his Lord. But Peter knows that, as vacillating as he has been, he wants to give his whole heart and soul to Jesus. The love is there, despite all the ways Peter messes the love up.
And that yearning love is enough: it is THAT rock on which Jesus–teacher, Messiah, Lamb of God, Son of God–can build his church. And we who call on him by his many names need seek only to know him, to know him ever more fully, more surely, in all the times and seasons of our lives, and we will discover that a love yearning for its beloved has found a place deep within our own hearts.