Commentary on Isaiah 49:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34
TODAY WE BEGIN again the Sundays in the Ordinary Season of the year. On most Sundays, we will be following the gospel of Matthew. However, today’s Gospel reading is from John.
Our readings speak about two things:
– the identity of Jesus, and
– the mission of Jesus.
We need to know who Jesus is, if we want to be his disciples. We also need to know what his mission is, if we want to be good disciples. Because a good disciple is also an apostle. By definition, a disciple is a follower; an apostle is the bearer of a message from a superior. The Christian disciple not only follows the Gospel of Jesus but also helps others to hear and accept it.
Who is Jesus?
Who is Jesus? We see him today simultaneously in the role of Lord and Servant. Today’s Gospel speaks about Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist. As Jesus approaches, John announces to some of his own disciples: “There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Why is Jesus called by this strange title, the Lamb of God? It refers back to the origins of the great Jewish feast of the Passover. According to the tradition, God had been urging the Pharaoh to let God’s people leave Egypt. There had been a series of plagues but each time Pharaoh reneged on his promise to do so. The final and most terrible plague involved the slaying of every firstborn child in Egypt.
In order that the Israelites might not be punished, they were told to smear the doorposts of their houses with the blood of a lamb. When God’s angel struck, he passed over the blood-painted houses of the Israelites and their children were spared. They had, in effect, been saved by the blood of the lamb.
Pharaoh acknowledged defeat and finally said he would let the Israelites go. (He will go back on his word once more and with disastrous results for him.) On the night before the Israelites left, under the leadership of Moses, they had a final meal which included the eating of a roast lamb. (The same lamb whose blood had been painted on the doorposts of the house.) The lamb then becomes the sign and symbol of the liberation of God’s people from slavery and oppression.
This great event of the Exodus, the Going Out, was and is commemorated in the Passover meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples at the Last Supper and which is still celebrated by Jews worldwide. (The Passover meal is now also being observed unofficially by many groups of Catholics and other Christians during Holy Week.)
Jesus the eternal Lamb
But for us – and this is John the Baptist’s meaning – Jesus is the new Lamb which brings freedom and liberation from the oppression of evil and sin. He sacrifices himself to take away our sins.
Through his death he liberates us. It is no coincidence that Jesus’ sacrificial death took place at the Passover. He is the new Pasch; he is the Lamb who both sacrifices himself and is sacrificed to liberate us. And it is his Blood poured out that is the sign of our salvation.
Jesus can do this because he is at the same time our Lord and our Servant. Because he is our Lord, he can take away our sins; because he is a servant, he sacrifices his life for us. And he is not only our servant, he is our friend. As he told his disciples at the Last Supper, the greatest love a person can show is to sacrifice one’s life for one’s friends and he insists that his disciples are his friends not servants. Even more, Jesus is our Brother.
Jesus and John
John the Baptist also speaks of Jesus in the same way. He says: “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” Now we know that John and Jesus are related. And we know, from Luke’s gospel, that John is older than Jesus by about six months, yet he says that Jesus ranks above him and existed before him.
John appears first proclaiming the Kingdom of God. But Jesus precedes John in dignity and status. Because, before John was even conceived in his mother’s womb, Jesus, the Word of God, already existed.
So John says, “I did not know him”. How come he does not know his own cousin, although he makes clear statements about him? Why does he not know his cousin? Of course, he knows Jesus while at the same time he does not know him. For at first he did not know the real identity of Jesus. Jesus is not only his younger relative. Jesus is his Lord and his God.
Son of God
When did John know? When, he says, he “saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself [at first] did not know him but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit’.”
And then he makes his declaration of faith: “I myself have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God.” Jesus is Lord and God. (In this first chapter of his gospel, John gives all of Jesus’ titles: Word, Son of the Father, Lamb of God, Son of God, Messiah [the Christ], Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Joseph, King of Israel, Son of Man.)
And yet, this Jesus Lord is standing in the river water, together with many sinners. He is God but he has come to serve us, to love us, to liberate us, to mingle with us, to be one of us. And he asks us to work with him in the same way – to be in the world and to serve the world, to serve all as brothers and sisters.
Jesus as servant The First Reading also speaks of Jesus as servant. “Israel, you are my servant.” The Lord “formed me in the womb to be his servant”. And what is the work of this servant? His work is to “bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him…” (In the Reading it is Isaiah who is being spoken to but the words clearly are now applied to Jesus – and by implication also to us.)
But it is not enough to bring just the Jews back to God. “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel…” Much more, as Isaiah continues: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus is the Light of the whole world. He wants every single person to experience his salvation.
He wants every single person to enter the Kingdom of God. He wants every person to experience the truth, the love and the freedom of the Gospel. The mission of Jesus is to bring all the people of the world back to God, their Creator, their Beginning and their End.
Our common mission
The mission of Jesus is also our mission. We cannot be good disciples of Jesus if we are not also good apostles. To be a good Christian necessarily entails being a good evangeliser. Our duty is not only to save our own souls and “go to heaven”. Our duty is also to share our faith with others, help them to know Jesus and his Gospel, and to experience directly the love of God.
Where can we do this? In our homes and families, in our working places, in the area covered by our parish.
Let us pray that God will help us to work together with Jesus to establish his Kingdom in the whole world and especially in that part of it where we live out our lives.