Suffering for the Kingdom
(Readings: Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34.)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel passage this Sunday John the Baptist describes Jesus as the “lamb of God” – an image in Scripture with many layers of meaning. It was drawn originally from the Old Testament and of course during Mass we use John’s very words to describe Christ present in the Eucharist.
The New Testament writers applied the image of the sacrificial lamb to Jesus because throughout his ministry he refused to give into destructive human emotions and motives: hatred of enemies, the desire to respond to lies and violence with lies and violence of our own. The way of God’s Kingdom – as Pope John Paul repeated on World Peace Day – is not to respond to evil with evil but to overcome evil with good.
So to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries…
"Look," John said, "there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."
That image of Jesus as the Lamb grew out of the Old Testament: there was a long history behind it. At the time of the Exodus, when Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, they had been saved from the destroying angel by sprinkling lamb's blood on their doorposts. Jewish people still commemorate that event every year in the Passover feast, when they eat a ritual meal with lamb as a vital part of it.
But there's another Old Testament image of the Lamb that the gospel writer is using here, and that's the image used by the prophet Isaiah. The lamb, and the suffering servant, are used for the same person: the prophet, the spokesman for God, who carries out his vocation to announce God's message regardless of how unpopular or isolated it makes him. The Lamb is a symbol for the servant of God who suffers out of love of God and for the sake of being obedient and faithful to God's will.
That's the image that John the Baptist is applying to Jesus in the gospel this Sunday. During his ministry, Jesus was every bit as vigorous and forthright and passionate as any of the prophets before him. There was nothing timid or meek about his confrontation with the religious leaders.
But on the other hand Christ was never abusive or violent. His protests and denunciations were never an act of self-assertion. Inevitably Jesus' preaching of God's Kingdom led to him being killed, on the cross. His faithfulness and obedience to God didn't lead to a great victory as most people would see it, either then or now. It led to defeat and shame, it led to him being killed - like a sacrificial lamb.
There was a reason why in a sense it had to be like that. Jesus' ministry and the whole proclamation of God's Reign that was at the centre of Jesus' ministry, was an assault on the Kingdom of Satan. That was how Jesus saw it himself - an assault on the power of sin and evil. And of course in that kind of spiritual warfare, the cause of the Kingdom would have been totally lost if Jesus had returned evil for evil, or retaliated against lies and hate with the same methods or tactics.
God's Kingdom can only be advanced by responding to evil with good, by responding to lies with truth, by responding to hate with love. Jesus did that consistently, and didn't deviate from it even when it meant that he was certain to be killed.
Our circumstances are less risky, usually, but basically the same thing applies to us, and our commitment to God's Reign. It's a measure of how converted we are to the Kingdom that the same things that made Christ angry, should make us angry. And like Christ, we'll find that on occasions we'll have to be courageous in protesting against injustices or even just sticking our necks out for certain principles.
But it's also I think a measure of how converted we are to the Kingdom that we avoid any kind of self-assertion or self-aggrandisement. We have to be ready to surrender our rights, even what we might see as our legitimate rights. We have to be prepared to allow ourselves to be taken advantage of, rather than try to fight against sin and evil by their own means.
To repeat one of the points I made last Sunday: it's at that stage, very often, that many Christians part company with Christ. But there's a good example of that sort of dedication to the Kingdom in the struggles of some of our fellow Catholics in the countries in Latin America and South America. After years and years of economic exploitation - not only by local businesses and landowners, but very often by western companies - and after years of political repression, these Christians began to organise their resistance, inspired by their reading of the Bible, and by Jesus' teaching about God's Reign.
But as their efforts met with lies and violence and torture by the powers that be they didn't respond in kind. They responded with prayers for their persecutors, with appeals to them to repent, but never with violence and hatred. When we give in to those motives, there's no chance of the Kingdom being fostered or built up. It only increases the amount of sin and evil in the world.
That's what I'd take to be the main lesson of the readings this Sunday. Being disciples of Christ means being courageous and prophetic messengers of God's Kingdom. But it also means being ready - like Christ - to be the lamb of sacrifice, servants ready to suffer out of obedience and faithfulness to God.