Lamb of God

The story of Jesus’s baptism in the gospel of John doesn’t actually say that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. However, there are so many points of contact between John and the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) that it’s hard to miss the point. John is so different from the other three gospels that when commonalities are found it’s the exception rather than the rule. All four gospels relate how John the Baptist claimed a connection to the words of Isaiah, “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness” (John 1:23||Isaiah 40:3). All four speak of John saying of Jesus that he is not worthy to untie the sandal ties of Jesus’s shoes (John 1:26). All four gospels emphasize that the baptism Jesus brings is different—it is a baptism of the Holy Spirit. The tradition that informed the synoptics informed John also.

The witness here is the role John played as essentially the last Old Testament prophet and the harbinger of the Messiah and the early church. We sometimes miss the radical claims of scripture that speak of the entrance of Christ as a planned and intentional act on the part of God. God sent  John the Baptist to help us get ready. Jesus didn’t happen by accident. There was a plan—according to the New Testament.

What is unique in the Gospel of John is the confession of faith that he makes concerning Jesus. He said, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is not sentenced on Friday. He is sentenced on Thursday—John 19:14 says, “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.” That means that John places the beginning of the crucifixion at the same time as the time when the priests were beginning to slaughter lambs at the Temple. Thus, in his death, Jesus fulfilled the claim about him at the front end of the gospel. Jesus came to redeem us and free us of our sin.

Living Bread

The service of bread and cup goes by several names.  It’s called Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist, Breaking Bread, and meal of remembrance just to name a few.  Different churches share this ritual in different ways.  Some churches take Communion every week.  Some churches take the Lord’s Supper once a quarter.  Some church do not have physical elements—i.e., actual bread, actual wine or juice—that they share.  But for all churches, the bread and cup symbolizes Jesus Christ.  It represents the body and blood of Christ.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).  And that is where many Christian’s mind goes.  Communion is about Christ’s death on the cross.  Certainly that’s a huge part of communion, but really Christians need to be thinking about the whole life of Christ at the moment of communion.

John 6

John 6 is a good text to help us remember that the whole life of Christ—his incarnation, teaching, signs, fellowship meals, death, burial and resurrection are all represented in communion.  John’s gospel does not include the story of Jesus providing new meaning to the Passover meal.  In John, the what’s recorded of the final meal is that Jesus washed his disciples feet (John 13).   There’s not a lot of overlap between John and the other three gospels.  But, one of the places of overlap concerns the feeding of the five thousand.  All four gospels tell the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.  That doesn’t mean that John isn’t different even here.

In John’s telling of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus follows up that miracle (and that shared meal) with a discussion of himself as the living bread.  He describes himself as living bread three times in John 6.  In   John  6:35, he said, “I am the bread of life.” John 6:41, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” John 6:48, “I am the bread of life.”  Jesus compared himself to the manna that the Israelites ate as they journeyed from Egypt to Israel.  This food did not lead to eternal life.  The people who ate it eventually died.  However, the people who consume the body and blood of the Son of Man experience eternal life.

Lord’s Supper and Eternal Life

This is not to suggest that communion itself equals eternal life.  Jesus uses this as a metaphor.  “I am the bread of life” is one of several “I am” metaphors Jesus uses.  He also said, “I am the living water” (chapter 4), “I am the good shepherd” (John 10).  “I am the vine” (John 15).  What Jesus makes clear in this story is that believing in him—truly trusting one’s life and ordering one’s existence around Jesus—is like receiving living bread that grants eternal life.  While John 6 is not an explicit Eucharistic text.  Its use of the bread symbol can help us think more broadly about what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.  The bread and cup do point to the death of our Lord, but they also point to the whole life and its meaning for us.


Cause and Effect

Scripture reading today is John 3:1-8

Consider a person’s baptism as an effect. What was the immediate cause? In general, there are one of two immediate causes for someone’s baptism: (a) their parents decided to have them baptized OR (b) they made a public confession of faith.  Don’t get bogged down in the merits of infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism.  Both are important and valid.  However, if we traced back from the immediate cause to the immediate cause that caused them we’d see that those baptismal decisions were the effects of something else.  If we could keep tracking back the causal chain of baptisms, all baptisms would converge with the witness of the earliest disciples and with Christ himself.

John 3:1-8 teaches that at every step along the way faith has come because the Holy Spirit enabled people to believe.  People of faith are born of the Holy Spirit. Four interwoven themes belong in this text:

First, the Holy Spirit enables people to believe.  Faith is a gift of God through the Holy Spirit.  There’s an analogy to receiving a love letter from your beloved in a language you do not understand.  In order for you to receive the love letter, your beloved teaches you the language of the letter.  Now, what is the gift you have received?  The letter (i.e., the expression of the Beloved’s love) or the capacity to read (the capacity to believe)?  Clearly it is both.  And so also is the idea expressed of the gift of faith—it is by faith that we receive the gift of God and the knowledge of God’s grace.  The very capacity to believe is God’s gift to us.

Second, this belief is a form of new birth.  John 3:3 is the origin of the popular terms “born again.”  It would be more accurately translated “born from above.”  It’s not about the number of times a person has been born.  Jesus stresses the origin not the frequency of birth.  Belief in Christ reorients a person’s perceptions, sense of truth, values and actions that it can only be understood as a birth from an origin somewhere other than in the flesh.

Third, this new birth is represented in baptism.  It’s tempting any time water is used in the Bible to imagine that Baptism is what’s meant.  This is a sort of “allegorical” interpretation that was popular once centuries ago.  That said, I do believe that Jesus’s reference to being born of water is, in fact, a reference to baptism.  “Water” is not connected to flesh in John it is connected to Christ (chapter 4) and to the Spirit (7:37-39).  Water is a symbol of Christ’s gracious act that inspires imitation by Christ’s followers (13:8).  I do not believe that John is implying that baptism is necessary for receiving the Holy Spirit OR salvation.  The use of symbols here is too subtle.  Rater, I think that John is implying that the water of baptism is filled with this meaning—a new life of faith has come into being through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It continues to be reflected in a transformed life.  Interesting John 3:3 contains the only reference in John to the “Kingdom of God.”  Kingdom talk occurs throughout the three other gospels.  It comes just a few verses ahead of the verse in which Jesus says, “The Spirit blows where it will.”  In other words, the Kingdom is not a stable place with fixed points. It is a constantly changing and modifying experiential demonstration of God’s authority in a person’s life.