On Friday evening I joined the Confirmation students to a local board game cafe. Upon arrival I realized I was out of my depth because I know little about boardgames apart from the standard few I grew up with. I don’t know if you’ve been to a board game cafe but this one has over a hundred games to choose from. There are broad categories but I didn’t really know where to start. Thankfully there was a board game expert who could guide me in choosing a board game for a broad spectrum of teens. I am thankful I didn’t choose a complex strategy game that takes six hours to complete for example.
We began playing a game called Concept. The simplicity of the name belies the complexity of the board on which it is played. It’s kind of like Pictionary only instead of describing a word with drawings you describe it with concepts. You place tokens on a large board describing various kinds of adjectives that describe the word. For example with the word “bee” you could select “animal,” “yellow,” “black,” “small,” and “pointy.”
I was not the strongest player at this game. I was slow both to describe concepts and to guess them. The kids would say, “Add another description on the board.” I couldn’t fathom adding another description that made any sense. On their rounds the others would guess the concepts sometimes within seconds. Good for the kids to spend time together and for me to get to know them better.
One feature of the gospel reading today is the multitude of concepts about Jesus. We could imagine a Concept board game for describing adjectives relating to Jesus. There are at least four ways Jesus is described in the first seven verses alone. First John the Baptist calls Jesus Lamb of God. Second John calls Jesus Son of God. Third the disciples call Jesus Rabbi. Fourth the disciples call Jesus Messiah. Let’s look at these four concepts or names Jesus.
First Jesus as Lamb of God. We are used to seeing the iconic imagery of Jesus described as a lamb. Commentator Jillian Engelhardt explains that Jesus as lamb is not about ritual sacrifice in the way we often think of it. But rather it’s about the story of the Passover lamb in Exodus. Israelites who told by God to put blood from the lamb for Passover on the lintil of their door so that they would be spared the last plague in God’s response to Pharaoh’s unwillingness to let the Israelites go. It’s a story of God intervening to keep God’s people safe.
Today outside of a church we are more likely to see Reformation iconography of Jesus as the Lamb of God on an album cover for music by J.S. Bach. Perhaps the St. Matthias Passion for example. It’s interesting how in very secular areas whether the Pacific Northwest or Northern Europe this iconography can be found everywhere and music praising Jesus as lamb remains popular in Classical music circles for example.
The difference for us is that instead of it simply representing a historic high water mark for music and art, Jesus as the Lamb of God remains a mystic vision we continue to experience. Consider the ways in which Jesus remains our protector in times of pandemic, times of climate crisis, times in which marginalized people continue seeking liberation from tyrants and bullies.
Second Jesus as Son of God. We hear Jesus described as Son of God in a lot of our doctrinal statements including the creeds. Sometimes this name washes over us because we hear it so frequently. But the reality is that in Jesus’ own day this was a controversial statement. Plenty of prophets had been said to be sent by God or had served as agents of God. It is unheard of to say that a human being is also a part of the Godhead. That Jesus is God. And so we witness the ways in which the Gospel of John is writing a theology of Jesus as Son of God.
The prologue to the Gospel of John talks about the Son being in the beginning with God the Father. And then later connecting Jesus with the Son. For John the Baptist it matters a great deal that God becomes human. That God takes the risk of coming close, of living and suffering among us. At moments when we despair that God has forgotten us. That God is far from us, we remember that God became human to know what we are going through. So that no human experience would be alien to God.
Third the disciples call Jesus Rabbi. We hear within the gospel text that Rabbi means “teacher.” Jillian Engelhardt helps unpack this odd exchange between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus ask them, “What do you want?” And the they call Jesus “Rabbi.” At first glance it sounds like a non sequitur. But it could also be a shorthand for the disciples saying they want Jesus to teach them. After all that’s what a Rabbi does. He teaches. It also signals the kind of relationship Jesus and the disciples enter into. It’s also a humble role for the Son of God to be playing. To be an itinerant teacher, spending his time teaching these fishermen. But the immediacy of the disciples’ response also reveals they already know who Jesus is. Their response is one faith. Recognizing that the Rabbi, the Son of God is in their midst, and they want to learn from him.
We too seek to learn from Jesus. We engage in Christian faith formation. Seeking to deepen our understand of Jesus. If you’re wondering whether I would take this opportunity to plug the By Heart faith formation discussion group once more. Absolutely. Still time to join the conversation. Talk to me after worship.
Fourth a disciple calls Jesus Messiah. In Hebrew Messiah means anointed by God. Engelhardt notes that a longed for Messiah was prophesied by Israel when they were in the Babylonian captivity. They were an occupied people and longed for a Messiah, someone anointed by God, to come and liberate them from their captors. Here the Gospel of John plays on these motifs, predicting Jesus is the one who will liberate God’s people.
Here we need to be careful around the risk of Christians appropriating Jewish traditions. We count Hebrew scripture among the books of the Christian Bible, but we do so with respect of those who came first. So we talk about Jesus as Messiah, but not in ways that erase or undermine Jewish interpretations of the same ancient texts. That is something we are just now learning. We are increasingly familiar with cultural appropriation of Indigenous traditions for example. And now we think about ways in which we interpret Christian texts that are rooted in Hebrew scripture. Partly it’s about proceeding with love and humility.
We also call Jesus Messiah. As we know people join singalongs to Handel’s Messiah leading up to Christmas. Including lots of folks who would not consider themselves practising Christians. So the name Messiah is a cultural touchstone. Who is Jesus as Messiah for us today? That is a question for you to take home and sit with. Ways in which Jesus continues serving as a liberator for people who are suffering, people in need.
A Story: MLK
Thinking about these different names of Jesus I want to offer a story to see how they are not simply abstract theological concepts, but concrete guideposts for Christian life. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday in the US, but also recognized as a modern Christian prophet in much of the world. If he were alive today he would be turning 93 years tomorrow. We have members of the church community older than this. The story of MLK remains living history because many of the people who witnessed his actions when they were students are still alive..
As many of you know, Martin Luther King Jr. has a special place in my heart given my ten years living in Southern Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley in a town called Lexington, Florentien and I helped create the first annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Parade back in 2017. Tomorrow they will celebrate their 7th annual parade. As I’ve shared before we ran into all kind of tensions and threats organizing this parade in a deeply racist area that attracted white supremacist groups marching through the town that weekend. They would pay homage to Confederate generals and white supremacy. We walked to remember Dr. King and standup for justice and freedom.
I recommend reading Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” sometime. It’s not very long and is available for free online. Just type in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and it will pop up. A great thing about this short letter Dr. King wrote while actually in jail for taking part in non-violent direct action, is how his words still ring true today. He wrote the letter for well meaning white pastors and church folks, calling them to wake up and if not join Dr. King’s struggle directly, at least not to impede it through spreading false rumours.
To take just one of the names of Jesus we looked over, Jesus as Messiah, as prophetic liberator, resonates in the struggle for racial justice. Dr. King preached Jesus who God sent to liberate African Americans all people experiencing injustice. Dr. King called white churches to worship the same Jesus as liberator. To open ourselves to a Jesus who saves not only souls for heaven, but saves the lives of next door neighbours who are being persecuted by the unjust laws around racial segregation.
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King addresses white Christians directly in the following way: I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr.) This was written in 1963, so no that long ago. And while our direct struggle in Greater Victoria may not be the same, the need for Black Lives Matter organizing reveals many of the same issues around segregation persist here as well.
We are also acquainted with issues around racial segregation with Indigenous neighbours. As we read from the Calls to Action of the Truth & Reconciliation Report and how little progress we’ve made on them over the years, we know that there is much work to be done. That people not distant from us warehoused Indigenous children in residential schools. We know that we aren’t far from the same kinds of horrors Dr. King spent his life and ministry fighting against.
Nevertheless we can learn theology, study scripture, and continue following a Jesus who is Messiah. Whose very being is setting free people from grave injustice. We too can participate and are participating in this work. As we welcome refugees, as we support the Shelbourne Community Kitchen addressing food insecurity, as we work towards Truth and Reconciliation, as we strive to be a queer-affirming congregation, to name some of the emphases at Church of the Cross. Good to for us to hear the words of modern day prophets like Dr. King who challenge us to follow Jesus as a life-saving Messiah.
Wrapping up we give thanks for all the names of Jesus. A reminder of Jesus’ four names in this short gospel reading.
Jesus as Lamb of God.
Jesus as Son of God.
Jesus as Rabbi.
Jesus as Messiah.
We also remember that Jesus as liberator and teacher continues to be active in our midst. Action that includes racial justice and listening to the words of prophets like Martin Luther King Jr.
I thank you for playing this adapted game of Concept with me this morning. A game of interpreting scripture, of guessing at and studying adjectives and attributes of Jesus. Things that I struggle to understand that kids grasp intuitively. My prayer is for us all to see these things in the way kids approach something new with wonder, curiosity, and joy.
I pray that God grant you gifts of wonder, curiosity, and joy as you continue to deepen your faith. A faith in which Jesus has already gone ahead to meet you and welcome you in love. Amen.