Gospel for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (15 January 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God”. (John 1:29-34 – NRSV)
“This section forms something of a bridge. On the one hand, these verses continue the theme of the witness of John the Baptist, begun in the preceding verses (vv. 19–28); on the other, they introduce a lengthy list of titles applied to Jesus, a list that takes up the rest of the chapter: Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Elect One (the most likely variant of 1:34), Rabbi (1:38, 49), Messiah/Christ (1:41), Son of God (1:49), King of Israel (1:49), Son of Man (1:51)—not to mention ‘the one Moses wrote about in the law, and about whom the prophets also wrote’ (1:45). Cf. Schnackenburg, 1.507–514.
“The fact that Jesus is so fully and so early recognized to be the Messiah is judged by some to be evidence for the unhistorical nature of John 1:29–51. After all, in the Synoptic Gospels Peter and the others do not volunteer a formal confession that Jesus is the Messiah until Caesarea Philippi (Mt. 16:13–20 par.), well into the ministry. But several factors mitigate the tension between the accounts. If some of Jesus’ first disciples had earlier followed John the Baptist, we must suppose that something encouraged them to abandon their old master at the peak of his influence, in order to follow a still unknown preacher from Galilee. The best reason is the obvious one: they changed their allegiance precisely because it was the Baptist himself who pointed Jesus out as the one who was coming to fulfil the promises of Scripture. In that case, the confessions of John 1 are not only plausible, but almost historically necessary.
“This does not mean that the followers of Jesus portrayed in John 1 enjoyed a thoroughly Christian grasp of the titles they applied to Jesus. Doubtless they were first uttered more in hope than in faith. In fact, of the four Gospels it is John’s that most insistently stresses how much the disciples misunderstood what they confessed (cf. Carson, ‘Mis’). In other words, if John records early confessions, he also emphasizes how little the first confessors understood. This leaves scope for a rising understanding, better portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels. Even there, after all, when Peter and the others come to God-revealed knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the confession is promptly marred by massive misunderstanding: Peter at least sees no place for the Messiah to suffer, and rebukes Jesus accordingly (Mt. 16:21–23 par.). Every gain in fresh understanding, including the first steps of discipleship, masked major misunderstanding that remained in place until after the cross and resurrection. That is an important point for John to make, if he is interested in evangelizing Jews in his own day; for it simultaneously encourages his contemporaries to take steps of faith, and begins the detailed explanation (needed by all first-century Jews) as to how the first ‘converts’ came to accept that the promised Messiah had to be crucified, cursed like an abominated criminal.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W B. Eerdmans, 1991, 147-148.)
the sin of the world: “In the present passage, as in most places in the Gospel, John refers to sin in the singular, and so the focus is on the sinful condition of the world, rather than on particular sinful deeds. For the singular see 1:29; [8:3]; 8:21, 34 (twice), 46; 9:41 (twice); 15:22, 24; 16:8, 9; 19:11; the plural occurs only three times, twice in the same structure in 8:24 and once in 9:34.
“As already indicated, one may interpret who takes away the sin of the world as a reference to the destruction of evil powers on the earth. Therefore an appropriate rendering might be ‘who destroys the evil in the world’. However, it seems preferable to translate this expression in accordance with Johannine theology, for example, ‘who causes the sin of the world to be forgiven’. In some languages one can use a singular for ‘sin’ in the sense of ‘sinful condition’ or ‘sin as a principle of behavior’. In other languages it is not possible, and therefore a plural must be used. Otherwise the readers might think that the function of the Lamb of God was merely to remove one single misdeed. If it is necessary to use an active relation in the verb ‘to forgive’, one can say ‘the Lamb by which God forgives the sin of the world’ or ‘the Lamb by which God shows that he forgives the sins of the people in the world’, or ‘the Lamb who forgives sinners’.” (B M Newman, & E A Nida, A Handbook on the Gospel of John, United Bible Societies, 1993, 37.)
There is a huge paradox – a delightful paradox – in this Gospel text. John the Baptist finds his identity in pointing to Jesus. The more effectively he has his hearers looking towards and listening to Jesus, the more he is who is – John! In order to become John he must, in a sense, disappear. John is not about John. John is about Jesus. That is how he becomes John.
We actually have a very beautiful and rich example of this same kind of paradox in family life. Spouses become who they are by, in a sense, disappearing. The mother thrives as this unique woman in her self-giving to her husband and children. The father thrives as this unique man in his self-giving to his wife and children.
Living is stripping. It is a ceasing to exist so that you may really exist. To grow is to emerge from the “self” that got us this far but cannot take us further. “I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Trust the paradox in your life. You who are baptized into Christ (see Romans 6:3) find your true identity in him. You are not about you. You are about the one who is the Christ. That is how you become you.
Lest this paradox turn you away, consider what is implied when John uses the verb “to see”. “The next day (John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming toward him ....” (1:29) and “I myself have seen ....” (1:34). A little further on we are told of the Baptist’s two disciples who walked after Jesus, and Jesus “turned around and saw them following” (1:38). They asked Jesus, “Where do you live?”. Jesus replied, “Come and see”. John tells us the disciples “saw where he lived” (1:39). A few verses on, when Andrew brings his brother to Jesus, the Gospel tells us that Jesus “looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon Peter .....’” (1:47).
The idea of “seeing” in John’s Gospel is full of significance. “Seeing” is catching the eye of the Lord. Jesus looks at you with love, all the time, constantly, everywhere. Have you seen him looking at you? As parents look at their infant child? As lovers look at each other?
That look of love changes everything. As with the child who receives the look of love over and over again from its parents and is thus set free to be who he or she is.
“We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence. Standing before him with open hearts, letting him look at us, we see that gaze of love which Nathaniel glimpsed on the day when Jesus said to him: ‘I saw you under the fig tree’ (Jn 1:48).” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #264)