An intro to John’s gospel…
John was writing his gospel maybe 100 years after Jesus was born. The year was 863 – 863 years since the city of Rome was established. By this time small Christian communities had formed. About .01% of the population were Christian, so if Christchurch existed back then there would less Christians in the whole city than are gathered here – maybe a little group of thirty dissidents, because that’s how we would be seen, followers of Jesus. In the whole Roman Empire maybe 8,000 Christians. Tiny but resilient.
We have a fascinating letter written by Pliny, a local governor in what we know as Turkey in AD112 about the time John was writing his gospel. The letter concerned the new Christian sect. It is actually the first reference to Christians in Roman records that we still have. Pliny the governor writes to Emperor Trajan in Rome asking what he should do about the Christians that have been brought to him for trial. There was no blanket persecution of Christians in the empire but obviously there was local voices who were upset by this new sect and Pliny wants advice. He points out the Christians meet as a little club that shares a common meal, they sing hymns to Christ as if he were a god, and commit to not practicing fraud, theft, or adultery. Clearly they do not follow the accepted practice of worshipping the local Roman gods. Emperor Trajan responds with clear advice. Don’t go after these Christians and don’t listen to any anonymous accusations. However if you do have Christians brought before you and they refuse to denounce their faith and curse Jesus, and worship the Roman gods then kill them. It’s never much fun being a small outsider group. But this outsider group continued to grow, maybe just 2-3 people per year, but year after year. Clearly they meant business as you don’t continue to practice your faith without good cause if it could mean you got executed. In ten years 30 had become 50.
People found friendship, acceptance, every person and all life was valued, every person was seen to have a ministry because this tiny group ushered in a new way of living. Some of these groups were actually called people of the Way. They claimed Jesus was alive with them in Spirit leading, encouraging, teaching.
They were sustained by practices like the common meal where everyone was treated as an equal, worship, prayers, mutual support and friendship, and the teaching. The equality in the group meant that women were treated with respect in a world that often abandoned girl babies to die. It meant slaves sat down at the communion meal with their owners. The teaching and learning was ongoing as Christians sought to live out the Way of Jesus in a world that knew nothing of Jesus. Most people in the surrounding communities had never heard of Jesus.
One of the obvious needs was to have some concise writings that told the story of their departed leader. Matthew, Mark, and Luke had provided such stories by this stage but John and others were gathering material for additional life stories. There were other gospels written but only John’s story would be added to the other three when the scriptures were finally put together in a later process.
Read: John 1: 29-42
John’s story of Jesus opens with some amazing credentials. Son of God or Chosen One in some early Greek versions, Teacher Rabbi, Lamb of God, Messiah, the Anointed One.
I wonder what John meant by using these titles. They were not titles Jesus claimed for himself and I doubt they were actually used freely by his immediate disciples. However by the time John was writing his gospel they were in free use. One hundred years after Jesus Christians were using these titles to help explain who Jesus was for them. I want to take a closer look.
Lamb of God: Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t use the title Lamb of God, but John does, and he does because he wants to make a link. John introduces Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Many Christians assume that this is referring to Jesus’ death which is seen to be a sacrifice for sin. I see sin as separation from God. The world is in a state of darkness. Violence and inhumanity exist all round us. We see literally the earth burning across the ditch, people and all sorts of God’s creatures perish literally because of greed and over consumptive lifestyles. The power of evil is strong. John says Jesus came to heal this, to take away the sin of the world, the separation from what God desires. John is taking us back to the beginning of the Exodus story the people of Israel were living in a state of sin. It wasn’t so much that they were bad people, but they living in a terrible state of oppression and God heard their cries and promised to lead them to a new land. But there was an event that signalled this journey to the new land. The Passover, the key festival for all Jews even today. I remember well being very intrigued as a youngster when at the time of Passover our Jewish neighbours in Dunedin acquired a little lamb. I heard it bleating and then silence. The father of the household happened to be a surgeon at the hospital so I guess the end was well managed. At the first Passover an unblemished lamb was killed, the blood was collected and sprinkled over their doorways as a protection from evil and as a sign that God would lead them to the new Promised Land. The lamb was eaten as the last meal in slavery. A new journey was begun. The blood of the lamb was not a simple ritual to atone for sin, but was to protect and establish a covenantal relationship of hope as together with God they sought the new land where lion and lamb would exist in peace together, and sin or separation from God would be no more. So the lamb is about a journey with God to a new place. Fast forward back to Jesus and John and the message is that Jesus is going to be the one to lead us to the new earth where sin or separation from God is no more. The lamb is about leaving behind what enslaves us, be it bad habits, unjust economic systems, mistakes we have made in our personal lives, lifestyles that are unsustainable to find the new person, the new society, the new earth. It’s going to take blood and guts, exposing what is evil, forgiveness, faith, and lots of hard work but the way of this gentle lamb is the way of redemption and true life. The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world will be our guide, our light, our companion, our hope in the great journey to see the whole earth not perish, but find eternal life.
Son of God: There is a context behind this title. In the Old Testament it sometimes refers to the nation of Israel (Hosea11:1) sometimes to the king (Ps2:7), sometimes to heavenly beings (Job 1:6, 2:1). In the time of Jesus the term was used of ‘holy men’ who were mystics or healers. There is a thread in the use of the term and that is a “Son of God’ was someone who had an especially intimate relationship with God. You could see God in that person. In our own time we might call Desmond Tutu a Son of God, or Mother Teresa a Daughter of God. They are human beings who radiate the qualities of God and we see God in their lives inspiring us. For us as Christians Jesus is the Son of God because we see God clearly in him. For us he became the decisive revelation of God. A key question however in our time is also whether the Way that our Son of God calls us to is found in other places and in other traditions. I believe it is, but that’s something to talk about later. There is however another context we should be aware of. Ten years ago Janet and I had the privilege of visiting the ruins of Ephesus. There as we wandered around the ancient streets we came across this archway [photo] The wording above it is important. It proclaims Caesar Augustus to be a Son of God (DIVI F) and High Priest (PONTIFICO MAXIMO). In the Roman Empire ‘Son of God’ referred to one thing – the emperor Caesar. It began with Caesar Augustus, who ruled from 31BC to 14CE. According to roman imperial theology he was the product of a divine conception conceived in the womb of his mother, Attia, by the god Apollo. The title ‘Son of God’ occurred on coins and inscriptions throughout the empire. So when Jesus’ followers spoke of Jesus as the “Son of God” they were not only saying he was especially related to God, but they were saying something treasonous. The real Son of God was not Caesar and his world of so called Pax Romana the peace of Rome established by brute power, but Jesus the Lamb of God. And that as they sometimes discovered meant they faced the lions or some other hideous fate. Being a Christian meant you didn’t follow the party line but stood out and followed a different path and Way, a different “Son of God.” The guide and authority in your life was not Caesar but Jesus. We comfortable Christians living in the lap of consumerism need to hear this challenge very clearly. For too long we have seen faith as just fitting in to our world and our society, Jesus the Son of God, calls us to stand out and be different. We are called to show others in our community a new Way of living – the Jesus Way – because Jesus is the Son of God.
Messiah: Messiah is a distinctly Jewish idea and had no great meaning in the Roman world. However we all know the Greek word used to translate the word Messiah – it is Christos from which of course we get the title Christ. I think many people are a little confused by name Christ and some think it must be Jesus’ family name because we often talk of Jesus as Jesus Christ. We should correctly say Jesus the Christ. Christ or Messiah was a title which meant the anointed one. The original meaning was literally someone who was anointed with oil. The Old Testament practice indicated that the person anointed had been singled out by God as having special gifts or functions. In 1 Samuel 24:6 David refuses to let his men harm King Saul because he is the Lord’s anointed. In Psalm 23 the Psalmist radically proclaims that God sees us all as special when he writes ‘you anoint my head with oil’ but in general thinking it was a way of signifying someone who was a special leader. During the period of Jesus’ ministry Palestine was occupied and administered by Rome, and the Jewish people felt pretty much about the Romans as the Iraqi’s think of the Americans. Be great to see them gone! Jewish people in Palestine longed to see the foreign occupying army gone, and this gave rise to the hopes of a Messiah, a new king anointed by God who would expel the Romans and restore national freedom. Remember the comment by the two disciples trudging home along the Emmaus road after the death of Jesus. Sad and disappointed they say to each other, “we hoped he would be the one who would liberate our nation Israel.” Some expected a warrior messiah but as the Messiah Jesus was a very different kettle of fish. Instead of kicking butt he spoke of reconciliation and building bridges. Instead of imposing from the top down he worked from the bottom up, unleashing the power of compassion and grace. Be your true self, be generous, respect all life, love God and love neighbour as yourself. Jesus our Messiah was anointed by God to reshape life on earth, to bring true life and freedom and justice for all. I think he would say to us, ‘ahhh but you are all messiahs, all anointed, all special, each with your God given gifts. Together let’s heal this earth, together let’s unleash to power of compassion and grace and love.’
The last title in the reading is Rabbi or Teacher and we’ll pick up on that next week.
Dugald Wilson 19 Jan 2020