Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
`A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,` So writes Shakespeare. Well possibly - because once something is named it carries all sorts of expectations. In the case of the rose, thoughts of `visual beauty` and `sweet smells` come to mind. So what about the `naming` going on in today`s gospel reading? You probably noticed various titles - Lamb of God, Son of God, and Messiah - all being associated with Jesus. But we need to realise that before that these titles had other associations. Those of you who were here last week will remember me trying to share a clip featuring Northern Irish writer and theologian Pete Rolling - it was only after the service that I realised the clip hadn`t actually shown up on the screen - so apologies for that. In it he shares how so much of the Christmas story and the naming of Jesus is actually politically subversive with, for instance, the `Son of God` being a title ascribed at that time to Caesar, ruler of the vast Roman empire in the Mediterranean basin.
We hear the same title upfront in this first chapter of John`s gospel because the gospels are blatantly reclaiming it as belonging to someone associated with another far greater kingdom and actually being God`s servant on earth - the Isaiah concept of the Messiah. As I mentioned last week, Jesus only ever called himself `the Son of Man` or `the Human One` and possibly saw himself as a Rabbi or Teacher spreading a message of God`s love in a preliterate era by wandering from place to place preaching and teaching where he could.
But this realigning of existing theological terminology starts with John proclaiming `Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.` So what was the sin (not plural sins) of the world? Well through Jesus we learn this is not so much about personal morality as about social iniquity which ignores the plight of the poor, ostracises the disabled and the stranger, and resorts to violence in word or deed to another. This was almost the opposite of priestly Temple concepts of `sin` and a judgemental God needing to be appeased with ritual and the sacrificial killing of animals. The highpoint temple ritual involved the feast of Passover, celebrating freedom at the time of the Exodus triggered by the marking of the blood of a lamb on doorposts and death of Egyptians.
However, if you were a non-Jew, a foreigner, a woman, or a person with a disability you would not have been able to enter the Temple courtyard to participate in any ritual. So John is actually subversively realigning the Lamb of God as the suffering servant of Isaiah to focus on Jesus as undermining of the exclusive Temple to reaffirm God`s realm as being inclusive of all.
That such theological renaming was an important part of Christian proclamation is further underscored by the story of the renaming of Simon as Cephas meaning `Rock` which in Greek becomes Petros and in English Peter. So what`s the significance of all this? Back in the biblical times a person`s name usually said something about that person`s character or destiny. For instance Mary Magdalene`s name probably comes from the Hebrew word migdal meaning `great` and in the Greek Orthodox Church she is still called `The First among the Apostles`. Possibly the naming of Simon as `Cephas the Rock` was to distinguish him from Simon the Zealot but more likely it was an early church affirmation of both Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene as being key leaders in holding the community together after the crucifixion.
Interestingly within a decade or so, these followers of the Jesus Way were themselves being named as `Christians` from the Greek word christós, meaning `anointed one` itself a translation of the Biblical Hebrew term messiah. And those of us today who would name ourselves as Christians through baptism and confirmation into the body of Christ need to realise it reveals something about our character too. We must not let this naming be hijacked by exclusivists or apologists because it does carry the responsibility of making Jesus`s concept of a loving and compassionate God come to life in our own world.
This we can do by being present to others, especially in their times of brokenness and suffering, Indeed our key symbol of being in Christ`s community is sharing in the brokenness of the bread. But this call to do God`s loving will, is also about challenging the barriers and structures within our society that would alienate and marginalise people. Like for Isaiah there will be times when we`ll feel a lack of confidence in our abilities or a frustration with what`s happening. But Jesus assures us that, where love is being expressed and experienced, God is there with us.
And therein lies the power of naming ourselves as Christians for, in placing ourselves within Jesus the Christ`s understanding of God, we are freed-up from self-centredness to be able to focus on others, freed-up to ask what does a loving response demand from me in any given situation? To be`in Christ` means taking seriously Jesus`s command to love our neighbour and our enemy as ourselves - that`s an exciting and powerful challenge to take into the weeks ahead, but we can be assured that God`s Spirit will be there to guide and support us. Amen