If you went to church this morning, you might remember that the Gospel reading was from the gospel “according to John” 1:29-42.

Whether it was written by John or not, we don’t know. It claims to have been written by the “beloved disciple” who was obviously not one of the twelve but someone much more familiar with the Jerusalem area and the goings on of the Temple establishment. My guess is that it might have been someone associated with the circle of disciples in Bethany. (This someone might even have been one of the sisters, as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza theorized).

Whoever this person was, the gospel says that they took the mother of Jesus into their home, and the story told (the “tradition”) is that Mary lived with them until her death (and/or bodily assumption). The two of them even relocated together to Ephesus. This would mean that the author of the Gospel was mentored by Jesus’ own mother, and so has a unique insider’s perspective on Jesus and his life and teachings.

This person’s writings — which were published in the tenth decade (the 90s) of the first century — were associated with someone known as “the Elder” (they might have been one and the same person) — maybe because they were from the first generation of disciples — and also with the prophet who penned the scroll we know as “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (they were most likely not the same person). This little group of writings was apparently penned in Ephesus, a Greek city on the eastern periphery of the Aegean Sea (western Turkey), which was also the second center of the Pauline apostolate (C.E. 52-57) after Antioch. These writings were published around the same time that an expanded corpus of Paul’s letters was also published in Ephesus (in the same city) by someone named Onesimus, a former slave who became one of Paul’s associates. The original Pauline corpus was just four letters redacted by Paul himself in the winter of C.E. 56-57 at the time he sent Romans 1-15 to Rome (Romans 16, which was not sent to Rome with the epistle, was basically a “cover letter” attached to this first collection when Paul sent it to the church in Ephesus).

John’s Gospel has a peculiar mathematic precision to it, which means that the author had mulled over it for a long time. It apparently has a chiastic structure to it, or rather a nested chiastic structure (almost like a four-sided mandala, visible with the next layer) based on the number seven and perhaps the days of creation. Like a mandala, it was designed for contemplation. Thus, if this is true, 1:19-51 and 20:19-31 are the seventh layer and correspond to the Shabbat, the seventh day of creation. This is too much to demonstrate in a single post, but perhaps it is enough to lead us to the importance of today’s Gospel text.

The Holy Spirit (which is passed on to the disciples in chapter 20) rests (μένω, “abides”) on Jesus at his baptism and John the baptizer says that: “The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain [again, μένω, “abide”] is the one who baptizes in (ἐν) the Holy Spirit.”

This is followed by the disciples, when Jesus asks them what they were looking for, asking him in turn, “Where are you staying [μένω, “abiding”]?” He says, “Come and see,” which we could interpret as an invitation to continue reading, or rather, to enter, the rest of the gospel story. The text says, “They came and saw where he was staying [μένω, “abiding”], and they remained [μένω, “abided”] with him that day.”

To abide, rest, remain, stay, dwell, etc. alludes to the seventh day, the day of rest, when the Divine reposed satiated with satisfaction in the beautiful (טוֹב, pleasurable; LXX: καλός, beautiful, lovely) creation. John’s Gospel offers to take us there if we too would but “come and see.”

We can get caught up with John the baptizer pointing to Jesus and saying “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” the agnus dei. We tend to associate this image with various ideas of atonement through a vicarious sacrifice, none of which, by the way, is in John’s Gospel, or any of the others. It’s not even, to be honest, in Paul. It’s basically an anachronism that we habitually read into New Testament and assume is there.

So we naturally read “who takes away the sin of the world” as a reference to the forgiveness of sins, and we often misread the text to say “sins” instead of what it actually says, namely, “sin” in the singular number. In the singular, sin has to do with the whole problem of sin, the world’s turning away from the divine Wisdom and going off on its own.

But the “Lamb of God,” while it has paschal connotations (Exodus 12), is, in the first century, an apocalyptic image. In Revelation 5 the Lamb who was slain, who ascends the throne of God, is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, who has “conquered” by proving himself worthy. This is Jesus in John’s Gospel. He does not approach the cross passively but rather as an active agent. He is not the sacrificial victim but rather “Christ the Victor.” He is the Lamb of God who conquers on the cross and undoes the sin of the world — whatever that means (we have to come along and see) and however that happens (for that, we also have to come along and see).*

Another animal image is the pigeon (the dove in our translations). The Holy Spirit (which, though neuter in Greek is feminine in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac), sometimes a maternal figure — God the Mother — is literally a pigeon — not just a metaphor — in the other Gospels. Here a pigeon, a member of the animal kingdom, embodies the Divine self. While the dove might also be an apocalyptic image like the lamb, it could be an allusion to the Song of Solomon, where “my dove” refers to the goddess herself (who courts the king), a pair of doves preening refers to the fluttering of the goddess’s eyes, and a dove’s cooing is a sign of spring. The goddess here of course is the Holy One of the First Temple, the one who makes us אַשְׁרֵי (ashrei, happy: namely, the Asherah), or Lady Wisdom.

The Holy Spirit, the Divine as Lover, has strong Sabbath connotations. For Jews the Sabbath is herself a bride who comes to us on the seventh day — “Come gather to greet Shabbat the Queen. Come, O Queen, Come, O Bride!” Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is the bridegroom. It’s an important motif. Here is the bride.

Come around again now to this invitation to “abide,” to rest, to enter into Shabbat with Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This is where the Gospel progressively takes us until in chapter 20 Jesus breathes himself into his disciples as the Holy Spirit, the queen, the bride who woos us. This is the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” that John the baptizer proclaimed in verse 33.

John 1:19-51 is then an invitation to the rest of the Gospel. Let’s “come along and see!”

* While the Agnus Dei here at the beginning of the Gospel seems to be an allusion to Christus Victor over the sin of the world, connected one way or another to the ascension scene in Revelation 5, John’s Gospel mostly seems to view the crucifixion of Jesus in terms of childbirth.

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