The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s035g14  Sunday 2  19/1/2014

'who takes away the sin of the world'  John 1.29

I want to start by saying that Jesus rarely, if ever, talked about people’s sin - that was by and large the preoccupation of the devout and the orthodox and by extension the common people who were manipulated into religious exercises to attempt to deal with it.    I am grateful for a recent conversation with a good friend and colleague Jenni which brought the realisation that when people came for baptism by John, they were 'confessing their sins’ voluntarily.  (1)  There is no suggestion that John required this, it was what people presumed was expected of them.   The ordinary man or woman in the street is only too well aware of his or her failures and deficiencies; it takes religion and the spiritual micro-managers to magnify these into sins that require ritual remediation.   Jesus’ words to the micro-managers were: ‘If you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.’ (2)  But as I said last week, we who are religious have to deal with the fact that Jesus’ vision of heaven, inspired by what John the Baptist was doing, is where all are welcomed except those who bring their exclusive religion with them. (3)

So when John says: 'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ he is NOT saying that Jesus brings a different remedy to quieten the consciences of the religious, but an acceptance and inclusion regardless of perceived (or unperceived) sin and forgiveness.   Jesus has taken from the world the need to worry about sin.   The spiritual micro-managers are put out of a job once and for all.

The next thing I want to say is that when John says Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’ there is no reference to the Cross, perhaps (if we take John’s chronology) three years away.   When John says this, Jesus has said and done absolutely nothing.   He has only appeared on the periphery of John’s activity in the wilderness and been baptised by him.   For John, Jesus’ baptism is about confirmation of a previous word of God and seems to have not been particularly evident to anyone else.   John’s job was to tell others what he saw - so presumably what others missed.   It is so understated that even Jesus may have been unaware of what John saw.    John is saying that Jesus’ just coming into the world takes away the sin of the world.

So the spiritual micro-managers are put out of a job and Jesus immediately chooses his first disciples, though if we read the words carefully, the disciples actually choose to follow Jesus.   Jesus merely welcomes and accepts them.   The only one Jesus sort of ‘ordains’ is Simon whom he renames Peter.   Now if Jesus wanted evangelists, people interested in religion, people who recognised that he was the Messiah - he would surely have chosen Andrew to be the chief disciple.   Jesus knew he was a disciple of John and the one clearly articulate enough to invite his brother along.   No!   We know of Simon the fisherman from other gospels, about as far from a spiritual micro-manager as one could get!   He was inarticulate, had no interest in religion and had made no profession of faith.  He was just a hanger-on-er-er!   I can well imagine Andrew being miffed - you’re choosing HIM!

Which leads me to recall that Jesus doesn’t train the disciples, no theological seminary for them.   At one stage they even have to ask Jesus to teach them to pray!  (4)    Theological qualifications and spiritual expertise get in the way of seeing the crowds coming and being welcomed and accepted - other than those who brought their religion of entitlement and superiority with them.

The first disciples come and are accepted and welcomed by Jesus and this paradigm continues as crowds flock to Jesus and are accepted and welcomed by him.   The disciples don’t have to evangelise or cajole or network - they just witness others doing the same as they themselves did, coming and being welcomed and accepted.   This coming and being welcomed and accepted happens completely regardless of sins, status, gender, faith, age, theological and biblical knowledge and when and with whom people share their intimate affections - things with which spiritual micro-managers concern themselves.   All the disciples have to do is to not get in the way of other people coming and being accepted and welcomed.   Even in this they were, of course, not entirely successful, most notably when parents brought their children to Jesus. (5)    And I would not be writing these things if I didn’t think that many in the church continue to spend an inordinate amount of energy worrying about sins, status, gender, faith, age, theological and biblical knowledge and when and with whom people share their intimate affections, and so blind themselves to the vision of heaven - the affirmation and inclusion of all.

Of course we know that the spiritual micro-managers did not disappear, they continued to dog Jesus’ footsteps and continually questioned Jesus' affirmation and inclusion of all people: 'When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”’  (6)    And in the end the spiritual micro-managers had Jesus killed.

And the spiritual micro-managers dog St Paul’s footsteps all the way to Rome as I described last November (7) so that he says: 'God gave them up to degrading passions’ (8) reflecting Isaiah’s condemnation: ‘you rulers of Sodom’ (9) 

As I re-read this passage two things jump out at me - the first is how utterly passive Jesus is in all this.   It is all about others, John the baptist and his witnessing to Jesus and the disciples who attach themselves to him.   The second is Jesus’ first words in John’s gospel, which are ‘Come and see’.   Again this focuses on people trusting their own intuition and seeing the vision of heaven in the acceptance and inclusion they and others receive.   There was nothing for Andrew, Simon and the other disciple to see, other than the place where Jesus was staying - no monastery, temple or cheering crowds.   They would see ordinary people flock to this passive Jesus, the one who welcomed, affirmed and included all.

And this picture of the passive Jesus continues, in perhaps the most extraordinary of stories, the changing of the water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana. (10)   The story is all about what others do, Mary with her unwelcome request, the servants and the steward.   Jesus does nothing except to reluctantly direct the servants to fill the jars and draw the wine from them.   There is no abracadabra, no prayer, no demand for faith.  The steward has no inkling that a miracle has even occurred - he says to the bridegroom: ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.   But you have kept the good wine until now.’  (11)   No miracle was seen, just odd hosting.

Come and see, not what Jesus was doing, but others responding to affirmation and inclusion.   Jesus did not want a cult following, he wanted all people to be affirmed and included in the name of the real God, not marginalised, alienated and condemned as religion has so often done.   Perhaps it is too late to turn the church around - we have so many centuries of abuse for which to make up.   But there are of course, multitudes on the fringes of the church, the silent majority who instinctively know what God wants and cross their fingers behind their backs when reciting ancient creeds and hearing demeaning sermons, and get on with life the best they can.

If we find people not coming, it is clear that they are afraid, they are wary 'of false prophets, who come .. in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’  (12)    Here also we find a clue to the passivity of Jesus.   He does not want to take autonomy away from anyone.   That is what ravenous wolves do.   He wants, as Bishop Spong so eloquently puts it, a world where religion doesn’t get in the way of anyone 'living fully, loving wastefully, and being all that God intends us to be’. (13)

If our ‘Come and see’ is about an invitation to a church service, bible study, or whatever, how do we know that others are not there out of habit, intellectual lethargy, sense of duty, fear of criticism, loyalty to a leader, maintaining their place in a church community, preserving whatever 'as it was in the beginning ..' or climbing the greasy pole of spiritual or ecclesiastical advancement?   It doesn’t matter how ‘successful’ an activity might seem to be - if there is an inner circle and an outer circle, it is not the gospel of God.

I have often pondered why there are so many divisions within the church but I begin to see that differences are not just inevitable but life giving, because the faith journeys of others complement our own, and both parties to a conversation find faith affirmed but also their own faith relativised.   It is when we make our faith absolute and deny or demonise difference that all are diminished.

Recently I read an interview with Dr Elizabeth Drescher about those who describe themselves as ‘no religion’ and the statistic she gives is that: '70 percent of people who identify as Nones come from a Christian background.’  (14)   For those for whom church attendance is determinative of their ‘christian’ status, this is a very worrying figure.   Yet if we view these people as ones who have found their sin taken away, we would do well to be listening to their journey away from ‘christianity’ for we can be certain that this will be illuminating.  In her words we will find 'a deeper understanding of spiritual pluralism and of the dynamics of personal and spiritual change over the course of a much longer lifetime’.   We might find ourselves in communion with people who believe that the Word 'who takes away the sin of the world’ has come, and find ourselves freed from formalism, dogmatism and perpetual penitence which are hardly good news or attractive to modern thinking people.

Come and see .. others.   Come and experience living without worrying about sin and enjoy the resultant interconnectedness of people!

(1) Matthew 3.6
(2) Matthew 12.7
(4) Luke 11.1
(5) Mark 10.13
(6) Mathew 9.11
(8) Romans 1.26
(9) Isaiah 1.10
(10) John 2.1-11
(11) John 2.10
(12) Matthew 7.15
(13) Sorry, I don’t have an obvious reference to this quote.