What's in a name?
Yesterday in Christchurch Pete Stevenson gave the homily. As always he gave us plenty to think about...
In today’s Gospel reading we pick up the story of John the Baptist when his ministry was in full flow, he had disciples, e.g. Peter’s brother Andrew. They were both fishermen and one wonders what on earth they were doing down in Bethany, East of Jerusalem because it’s about 70 miles away from the sea of Galilee were their fishing business was and where Jesus calls them to leave their nets and follow him. I think we have to conclude that Jesus calling them to leave their nets on the shores of Galilee was a later event, quite possibly prearranged since after their meeting at Bethany when Andrew and Peter stayed with Jesus, we read Jesus travelled to Galilee.
Jesus is described by John as the Lamb of God and as Rabbi by Andrew and Peter, as regular church goers we are probably familiar with the titles although, if we’re honest we might struggle to get our heads around Jesus being the lamb of God, one test is, ‘do you feel you could explain it to someone who had never been to church?’ We might be happier explaining the title rabbi, or teacher. The title lamb of God, John could be referring to the lamb that was sacrificed at the first Passover when the Israelites were escaping the tyranny of the slavery under the Egyptians when Moses led them over the Red Sea, through the wilderness to the Promised Land. John could have also meant the lamb that was a sin offering sacrificed in Old Testament times for sins unintentionally committed. We might ask, ‘what about the sins deliberately committed!?’ Another time may be.
We may not have needed to be rescued from tyranny or even seen tyranny first hand, although I suspect some here have. We might find it difficult to get our heads around Jesus, the lamb of God rescuing us from tyranny. But another way to look at it may be to consider what faults and flaws do we have within us that we wish we could escape from? And because of those faults we have moments of failure we struggle to erase from our memory?
In the medieval part of Thiers there’s an old building where the floor joists stick out beyond the walls and have been carved gargoyle like heads showing the seven deadly sins; Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride. I took a few moments once just looking at them and prayed, ‘Lord, which of these sins am I guilty of?’ A visual presence that helps us think and contemplate can be useful. Then the biggest aid we have to remind us that we are forgiven is surely that of communion? The quietness, the familiar words, the taste and feel. I think Jesus was very aware of the importance of visual, touch and taste aids to help us remember.
The other meaning of Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world refers to the old testament practice where a priest would sacrifice a lamb without blemish to atone for sins committed. In the Catholic tradition, there is the provision to verbally confess your shortcomings. I can imagine it being very powerful, it’s not the tradition I was brought up in but if it were, I think I’d be tempted to list a few misdemeanours, mishaps, foibles I have. And heaven knows (literally), I find saying those out loud in the quietness of my own room hard enough.
Richard Rhor writes. As a confessor, I know for a fact that many people beat their breasts about trivial things while not spotting the real evils that are likely poisoning their hearts and minds and countries. ...hearing most... Catholic confessions is like being stoned to death with marshmallows. We trained people to feel guilty about certain “sins” but allowed them to neglect the evils that are all around us and ignored.
A recurring theme of the teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus was repent, turn around, don’t do that again and the thing about the sin offering lamb was it was to atone for sins committed unintentionally; i.e. someone realises their guilt with hindsight, this was the provision for them to find forgiveness.
In the Psalm we read...
In sacrifice and offering you take no pleasure...
Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required...
I love to do your will, O my God;
your law is deep in my heart.
As well as being poetry, it’s almost prophetic, the days are coming when sacrifices will not be needed. We are those days, the last days. I don’t mean the end times are just around the corner, rather, since Christ’s resurrection, the world has been in the last days. With repentance, there is provision for forgiveness. And quite possibly we have done exactly as John the Baptist called his hearers to do – we have repented – moments we recall having done something bad, and decided to the depths of our souls, we will not behave like that again, we have turned around. In which case we need to heed John’s next proclamation, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. If we cannot realise that forgiveness, we are in trouble. ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ Knowing we are forgiven helps us to forgive others. An important step to forgiving others is to know we are also forgiven.
That’s not to minimise the importance of an apology. An apology offered with no excuses can be very cathartic, not least it paves the way for a better way in the future . But there are times when it takes time for it to sink in what we have done and an apology may not help anything at all or may be simply too late. If so, and if we have repented, we need to realise God’s forgiveness and leave the guilt behind.
In this short passage, Jesus is called the lamb of God, which can be interpreted in different ways, Andrew and Peter call him Rabbi or teacher, which is a title the rest of the world is more comfortable with, He teaches he is the bread of life after feeding the 5000, the resurrection and the life before raising Lazarus from the dead, the good shepherd. Jesus is all these titles and more. No one title is going to sum Him up.
When we mention our Christian faith to friends or describe our church to colleagues, acquaintances, we might receive a kind of quaint response ‘oh that’s nice for you’ and the conversation may move on. It’s as if faith is perceived as a sort of cherry on the cake. The cake is still good without the cherry but a cherry is a nice extra. In this short passage where Jesus is described in different ways, using metaphors, which in themselves may be taken different ways, I hope we see Jesus in a broader perspective. Our Christian faith is not simply the cherry on the top but it’s also the icing, the sponge, cake case, baking tray, oven, kitchen, everything!