First of all, so that nobody has to say it first, I agree that I didn’t write enough Bible posts (or posts in general, really) in 2013. I hope I can turn that around in 2014, but I’ve learned not to predict the future when it comes to my own productivity in the long haul. Instead, I’m going to write this post, and if things turn out well, I’ll write another next week.
I’m never sure how to take John in terms of his sense of audience. On one hand, the fourth gospel does a bunch of explaining when it comes to Jewish customs, Aramaic etymology, and other such details that a Palestinian of the first century would likely already grasp. On the other, the text’s sometimes-dizzying re-castings of the traditions of Temple and Synagogue seem to assume an intimate familiarity with Biblical and post-Biblical material. This week’s reading is no exception. The passage ends with explanations of what “Cephas” and “Messiah” mean, just in case those hearing the book read don’t know enough Aramaic to figure that out, yet the revolutionary character of John’s proclamation relies on a fairly sophisticated knowledge of Temple-sacrifices.
The lamb sacrificed in Temple worship died not primarily for the sake of individual worshipers’ sense of personal unworthiness (thought that was part of it) but to remove sin from the Temple. As the focal point for Palestinian Jews’ sense of how they related to God (Egyptian and Chaldean Jews tended not to emphasize the physical and politically-suspect Jerusalem Temple as much in the first century), the Temple was where, in the liturgy of the priests, the sins of the people, as a collective, came home to roost. In the grammar of Temple-worship, that presents a singular problem, as the Glory of God has a history of fleeing Temple when the sins of the people accumulate. (Ezekiel’s vision of the kabod adonai fleeing the Temple, in Ezekiel 10, is the locus classicus of this notion). So the sacrifice of the lamb takes away the sins of the Temple.
So when John makes his signature declaration, there’s no mistaking the implications: the entire world will now be God’s Temple, and Jesus will die in order that the glory of God can inhabit the world. When John baptizes to reveal the Messiah, that revelation will begin a chain of events that redefines what it means for a place to be God’s place and relativize the importance of the Jerusalem Temple forever. In short, nothing less significant than a cosmic revolution takes place when Jesus walks into a scene.
Thus the designation of John not as baptizer but as witness is crucial in John’s version of the story. The important baptism, as John casts things, is the baptism of the spirit, narrated in Numbers and prophesied in Joel, that will make hosts of prophets and witnesses so numerous that they defy counting. The Son of God, a figure familiar to Israel since Psalm 2 if not before, has approached us and lived among us, and the proper response to that reality is to repent and believe. The John-disciples’ answer to “What are you seeking?” is mundane enough in the text, but the subtext is no doubt among the richest that one could imagine: precisely by following Jesus, the two men commit their loyalties to one who will teach them precisely what (and whom) to seek.
One of those men, among the first to repent and believe in Jesus, is Andrew. The man whose brother’s fame overshadows his own nonetheless becomes the walking sign that the fore-runner, John, has given way to the one who precedes the one who announces him. Andrew moves with the grain of the universe, fulfilling his discipleship to the witness by becoming disciple to the anointed. Never anticipating that “supercessionism” would become one of the seminarian’s idiosyncratic cuss-words in an age yet to come, Andrew simply follows the one whose destiny is to save.
So when Andrew approaches his brother Simon and tells him that they’ve found Messiah, and when Jesus, in a version of the story much more terse than the synoptic version, calls him Cephas, the beginning of the quest for something to seek begins. As they journey through John Andrew and the other disciples will see that no mere restoration will satisfy; that vengeance upon enemies can never be the ultimate good; that their idea of the Kingdom cannot hold steady when the King whom they follow is an eternal one, one in whom they must abide as no Hebrew ever imagined abiding in a person. The adventure of the gospel of John begins here, and only in shadows does anyone know what anyone seeks.
May our own adventures in learning-what-to-seek follow paths laid down by us, step boldly into ways not seen, and always remain in the King who is also the Way.