Still haven’t managed to set up this blog so that the priest I live with can post directly, so here is what she preached yesterday.
I’m sure you have all played a game of odd one out at some point in your lives – perhaps when you were very small. I was recently doing a puzzle book with one of my young grandsons and he loved the odd one out puzzles. There was a picture of a duck, a hen, a cow and a turkey. Which is the odd one out? The cow! There is a very adult version of the game on “Have I Got News For You”. They once had pictures of Richard Branson, Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, and Hazel Blears. Anyone know the odd one out? Turned out it was Richard Branson. All had cameo roles in films but Richard Branson had his cameo role in Casino Royale cut out of the film when it was shown on a British Airways flight!
So let’s play the game. Of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which is the odd one out? John’s gospel is the odd one out. The other three are linked and use some of the same material, but John’s Gospel is very different. For instance you won’t find any parables in John’s gospel. The fourth gospel seems to have a different purpose. Most scholars assume the people for whom John’s gospel was written were already familiar with the stories about Jesus. The fourth, odd one out, gospel, is not so concerned to tell the story but to explain purpose and above all to get across who Jesus is. In theological language we say that the fourth gospel has the highest Christology – a word that simply means that branch of Christian theology which is about the person, nature and role of Jesus Christ. And by saying John’s gospel has the highest Christology we mean it is the gospel which focuses on this and is at pains to stress the divinity of Jesus. From its opening words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” to its original closing words “These signs are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name”; from its beginning to its end this Gospel is all about explaining who Jesus is and stressing that all you have to do, is believe in who Jesus is – this is a gospel principally about faith, not works. The emphasis is always on who Jesus is – the divine Son of God, God here on earth, God incarnate – another theological word – and that truth about who Jesus is, is revealed to us through the signs, the things Jesus did, which could only be done by God.
Last week we heard the story of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew’s gospel and this week we hear about it in the odd one out Gospel – in John’s gospel – or do we? Think back to the reading or look at it on your sheet and spot the point in the gospel reading where Jesus is baptised. It’s not there! It sounds like the story of the baptism of Jesus – John the Baptist speaks of Jesus coming towards him and of the spirit descending like a dove and of God’s words about Jesus. We can visualise the baptism because of these clues but at no point does it say John the Baptist baptised Jesus.
This may just be because everyone knew the story so the writer didn’t have to go into detail, but many biblical scholars think it is because of the high Christology of John’s gospel – the emphasis on Jesus’s divinity. This is the reason the writer of the fourth gospel deliberately misses out the actual baptism. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – Jesus was obviously baptised by John in the Jordan – it was too well known a story for it not to have happened, but scholars think by the time the fourth gospel was written it had become a bit of an embarrassing story – because if Jesus was really divine, really God incarnate, then why on earth did he need John’s baptism for the repentance of sins? Do you see? A divine, sinless Jesus didn’t need John’s baptism. So the writer of John’s gospel cleverly infers the baptism but doesn’t spell it out – we think it was a bit controversial at the time, so best not spelt out.
And, in any case, the really important thing that we are meant to be picking up from this passage is John the Baptist’s testimony as to who Jesus really is.
There are many people, even atheists, who can accept that Jesus was a great teacher. Muslims accept that Jesus was a revered prophet. But the stumbling block for atheists, agnostics and those of other faiths is that Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus.
And sometimes we get muddled too. How often do we think that being a Christian is about being a good person, about following the teachings of Jesus, about being upright and honest? We often preach those sorts of things from this pulpit. But essentially being a Christian is about what we believe about Jesus. It is about believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you have life in his name.
I came across this story which links so well with our gospel reading this morning. Rodger Nishioka is a Professor of Christian Education and he tells this story about one of his students.
“Several years ago when the “What would Jesus do” campaign was at its peak, I had a conversation with one of my students. She had been given a WWJD bracelet – what would Jesus do – she was wearing it, but she was also troubled by it. She told me that she understood it was meant to remind her that she was a follower of Jesus and should be guided by him in everything she did, but she said she just couldn’t see how it was possible to know what Jesus would do in every situation, let alone actually try to do what Jesus would do. I tried to explain to her that we could learn this from the Bible and we had our Christian friends to guide us, but she just got more and more exasperated with me and said ”Yeah I know all that, but don’t you see? I am not Jesus! I’m fully human, but I’m not fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to even assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I’m not God!”
Rodger Nishioka says this encounter really made him think. She had a point. And he came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be plugging this WWJD stuff – what would Jesus do, but we would be far better with WWJBD bracelets.
WWJBD– what would John the Baptist do? And he says from then on he challenged himself and his students to be more like John the Baptist. We will see that he didn’t mean we all had to eat locusts and honey and grow our hair!
We can never be like Jesus. That student was right. We are not God, as he was. And sometimes we pile ourselves with guilt because of that. We think we are not good enough. But we are 100% human, whilst Jesus was 100% human and 100% divine. Now I know that is not mathematically possible, but it is, as Christians, what we believe about Jesus. So we can never be like him, we can never be sinless.
The fourth gospel emphasises this. It is a gospel not about good works but a gospel about faith. It is not what you do, but what you believe that matters. And in this first chapter the writer portrays John the Baptist pointing out who Jesus is “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” “I myself have seen and have testified” says John the Baptist “that this is the Son of God”. And then the next day he again points Jesus out to his own disciples – “look, the Lamb of God”, and the inference is that he encourages them to follow Jesus and to turn away from him. He simply points them to Jesus and who Jesus is.
And Rodger Nishioka says that if we try to be a bit more like John the Baptist, then our calling is to point to Jesus, draw attention to the Jesus in our midst. We don’t try and do what Jesus did – we can’t do miracles, but instead we call attention to Jesus, we point others in his direction and above all, like John the Baptist, we spot Jesus in our midst. Jesus is alive – that is what we believe, and so we spot the Living God at work amongst us and we recognise the Holy Spirit at work in us and through us and, most importantly, at work in spite of us. We, like John the Baptist, are called to simply Behold the Lamb of God in our midst.