Simon and Andrew are seekers, followers of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and mentor. They are part of a reform movement within Jewish national life, a movement that seeks to restore the faithfulness of Israel to the mission of God. In the synoptic gospels, the movement’s direction and the heart of the matter is described as “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God”, and Jesus is the focal figure who proclaims and enacts that kingdom and its ethic of love and justice. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus inaugurates something; his death and resurrection come to be understood as the embodiment of the sacrificial love in which the kingdom is founded, and the vindication of that love in the resurrection.
In this fourth gospel, the focus shifts from “the Kingdom” to “the Lamb”. Much of what formed us as disciples in the church of the last several centuries has taken its cue from this shift, interpreting Jesus almost exclusively in terms of the atoning sacrifice (the lamb) of God – God’s self-offering in the Word incarnate. “For God so loved the world….”
In much of western Christianity, however, God’s self-offering has been distorted by a lens of guilt and punishment; we have offended against “the law” and the just judge must sentence us. But the just judge makes a sacrifice of his son to endure our death sentence. It’s all so objective, so cold, and so distant from any real understanding of the sacrificial death of Jesus.
A more ancient way of understanding Jesus as God’s self-offering – the lamb of God – is in terms of covenant broken and restored in a divine-human act of cooperation. Because Jesus who dies on the cross is not the disembodied Word, but the Word become flesh (as John has taken pains to describe him the opening words of his Gospel) the cross becomes a meeting place at which the divine and the human join in sacrifice. That word, “sacrifice” does not mean “giving up” or “enduring pain”, but “making holy”. In this act of shared – of covenantal – love, human holiness is restored in the mending of the divine-human covenant.
I’ve found that’s how it actually works, by the way, in human relationships. There is not, in my experience of harm inflicted or endured, some objective “law” that has been broken, but instead a relationship that has come apart. Every time I’ve imagined that someone has needed to “make it right” with me, it has turned out that “making it right” is something that involves both sides of a broken covenant. And every time I have tried to “make it right” with another, it has become clear that, without that other’s willing participation, including forgiveness, the relationship remains torn. Torn relationships cannot be mended from one side or the other alone, but only in a shared commitment to mend together, in a matrix of remorse and forgiveness – of justice and love – that is costly to both sides. This commitment to justice on the part of the offender, and to love on the part of the one who is wronged, is the basis of reconciliation, of the restoration of a covenant torn by carelessness, fear, or greed.
It is also, of course, the ethic of the kingdom, the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and embodied as he mended the torn covenant and restored the holy purpose we share with God. For God so loved the world….