Before we start, something about our first two readings. We’re going to be hearing parts of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth in the next few weeks, and it will help to have a few images in mind. Corinth is located on the very narrow isthmus that connects the northern and southern parts of Greece. It had multiple harbors, served as a provincial capital, and was the site of a major temple to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Combine mentally, if you will, New Orleans, Chicago & Las Vegas. God looks at that strange brew and says “That’d be a good place for a church!” And the presence of a church there, across the Mediterranean from Israel, signals the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
In the Name of the Father…
Most weeks in the Eucharist we sing (or say) some form of “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world…” What does this mean? The source of the affirmation is John the Baptist in the text which we’ve just heard: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Let’s explore this a little.
The phrase is a little odd, because Old Testament sacrifices don’t characteristically use a lamb as a sin offering. You may recall the scapegoat, on which the sins of the people are ceremonially laid. But Jesus was slaughtered at Passover, when the Passover lamb is slaughtered, a fact deeply woven into the passion narratives and into the apostle Paul’s words “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” So it’s more a question of wondering what that connection between the Passover lamb and Jesus might be about.
So let’s wonder together. Passover for the Israelites was a commemoration of their liberation from Egypt, the most ancient and most important of their feasts.
Israel was enslaved in Egypt. God sent Moses: “let my people go.” Pharaoh refused. God sent plague after plague, and Pharaoh continued to refuse. The Passover lamb appears in the context of the last plague. Moses gives the people instructions: each family is to sacrifice a lamb, and put its blood on the door frame. For the houses with the blood of the lamb on their door frames, there will be life; for the other houses, death. The lamb, with its death, delivers that house from judgment.
John the Baptist takes this story and uses it to describe Jesus’ role, the one who takes away the sin not of one house, or one nation, but of the entire world, and opens the door to freedom.
Freedom. Oddly, that’s the part that we tend to forget. Our culture encourages us to forget it: “You’re religious? That’s nice. But don’t let it get in the way of what’s really important, like Pharaoh getting his bricks.” The Lamb takes away the sin, not so that Israel can remain in slavery, but so that Israel can go forth and enter into the full liberty of God’s reign.
Freedom. It’s not just about freedom from oppressors out there, but equally about interior freedom, like the freedom to see. Did you notice what John the Baptist said? “I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Even John was unable to recognize the Messiah: God had to help him by means of the dove. And this is where all the movies I can recall which picture Jesus’ baptism get it wrong: Jesus comes to John and his robe is whiter or his teeth straighter or his face more beautiful and any idiot could tell which one was the Messiah. No. God Himself could be standing right in front of us and we’d be oblivious. Cue the Who’s rock opera Tommy: “deaf, dumb and blind.”
Back to the text. John combines the description “Lamb of God” with another description: “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” John baptizes (submerges!) with water, recalling Israel’s passage through the Red Sea and through the Jordan into the Promised Land. The One Coming baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that moved over the waters in creation, the same Spirit who empowered the kings and prophets of Israel, the same Spirit who swept into a valley filled with bones and turned them into a mighty people. And the baptizing image suggests not of a few little drops of the Spirit, but of submerging us in the Spirit.
“Lamb of God” and “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”: it’s worth keeping these two images in mind. It’s something like the tension between the servant’s vulnerability and power that we’ve been hearing in the Isaiah tests. Lamb of God, yes, but a Lamb who baptizes with the Spirit. One who baptizes with the Spirit, yes, but the one who baptizes with the Spirit is precisely this Lamb. And this means an ongoing tension between vulnerability and power among the Lamb’s followers.
The Gospel could have left us wondering about these two images, but instead plows ahead with the story. John says “Behold, the Lamb of God!” and two of his disciples follow Jesus… and end up spending the day with him. They begin with John’s strong images: “Lamb of God,” “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit;” they end up spending a day with a man of flesh and blood, beginning a friendship.
Take away the sins of the world? Yes, we’ve got plenty of sins that someone needs to do something with. We’re part of a world that badly needs liberation. Baptize with the Holy Spirit? Yes, although it sounds pretty formidable, we need that too. Nevertheless, in the actions of that day Jesus offers to the disciples and to us something perhaps more fundamental: friendship: friendship with Jesus.
In our action-oriented context it’s easy to forget this friendship part, easy to assume that the important thing is what we do. There’s plenty of doing in John’s Gospel. But it starts with “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.” Recall: the “greatest and first commandment” (Mt 22:38) is not “You shall obey the Lord your God” but “You shall love the Lord your God.” In our context that’s encouragement in our individual times of prayer/reading/reflection to hang out with Jesus, to waste time with Jesus. The Living Well Through Advent study we just finished included various ways of doing just that.
So, singing or saying “Lamb of God…” and coming to the altar each week, it’s worth remembering:
- Extending our hands to receive this Lamb we’re saying “yes” to the liberation of our world, “yes” to recovering our sight
- Extending our hands we’re putting ourselves in the hands of the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, that Holy Spirit that makes liberation happen. “Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position…” doesn’t begin to cover it.
- Extending our hands, we’re saying to Jesus “Yes, Lord, we would be your friends, live as your friends.”
And leaving the altar, the challenge is to let that same Spirit do his work. Come, Holy Spirit!