Frances writes about this weekends readings:-
How can it possibly be that John the Baptist remarks twice in this brief gospel, (John 1:29-34) that I did not know him myself when referring to Jesus? But surely we want to say – he’s your cousin, how can you not have known him? If one looks at it another way, thinking about the theological significance of Jesus we have John’s earlier statement there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world…. and then a little later, he existed before me. Clearly John recognised that the Lord was to be the sacrifice rescuing humanity from sin and as the scriptures tell us John preceded him in birth he must imply something of Jesus eternal origin. At the end of our reading he tells us that he is a witness that Jesus is ‘the Chosen one of God’. Why then these very odd statements about not knowing him?
It must be that John the Baptist was making a statement about a deeper kind of knowing, something which is explored at great depth by John, the Beloved Disciple and the writer of this gospel. It may be that as John the Baptist leaves our story early on in the gospels due to his execution by Herod Antipas he did not live to appreciate the extent of Jesus life and ministry of which the other John leaves us such a stunning account, or, equally well, that he had been given the language of the messiah but did not comprehend how Jesus would interpret it. It’s a bit like the difference between writing a book and reading it where there can be quite a gap between the intentions of its author and the perception of it by its readers, or, similarly the difference any teacher knows between the average students that make up the majority of their classes and who will not challenge him in any serious way and the few you know beyond any doubt to be shining examples who will go far, carrying on the exploration of your subject and leading it on to great heights, in ways you never dreamed could happen. Put sadly and more negatively, there are people as St Augustine sadly remarked that you think you know who then do something awful, making you realise that you didn’t really know them at all. For some of us this may indeed be our own perpetual state – we don’t understand ourselves at all either. Getting to know the self and others may be a lifelong challenge.
Of course John the Baptist ‘knew’ Jesus, but he also had the humility and insight to recognise that he didn’t really know him at all. Since John was an ordinary Jew and elsewhere in this gospel he denies that he himself is either the long awaited messiah or one of the great prophets returned from the dead and since he was arrested and executed on political charges it is highly likely that his expectations of Jesus would have fitted contemporary messianic hopes for a revolutionary messiah who would rid the state of its enemies. One can have expectations and express them in contemporary language yet recognise that what the person you have put your hopes in will do with that expectation may be very different from your own. John knew that Jesus was special, so ‘special’ that he was the ‘Chosen One of God’, and yet he died without any real inkling of the true path of the messiah or of the momentous movement, the Church that faith in him would lead to.
No, like the famous Servant of Isaiah’s great songs (Isa 49:3, 5-6), John was there to be a forerunner; he like the servant had a task to perform, a message to proclaim. As that servant discovered, servility was not the whole of Israel’s call, it was purposed by God to be the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. One can be a faithful or unfaithful servant and the faithful one is the one who listens to the master’s voice and obeys his commands. John did not allow the authority of his message to exalt himself or get in the way of the message but was prepared faithfully to play his part in history without seeking to control it or subvert it; the little he knew of Jesus was enough for him.
We see something of this faithfulness too in our reading from 1 Corinthians (1:1-3), where Paul and Sosthenes worked for the conversion of the pagans and had to grapple with their frequent moral failings as they were taught by the apostle and his fellow workers and came to appreciate the significance of the gospel message. It is quite certain that Paul, the carefully trained Pharisee convert to Christianity would have been appalled by the frequent lapses of the Corinthians and there must have been times when, of his own preference he would have thrown in the towel and legged-it back to the security of Judaism. Yet this is not what he did, rather, in trust and faithfulness to the gospel he allowed it to lead him in ways he would not personally have chosen. In the end, of course, he died a martyr’s death for the Christ he had come to love above all other things and of whom he became such a magnificent spokesman.