The themes of unity and division continue to be central in John 3:22-36.
The disciples of John the Baptist approach their leader concerned that Jesus appears to be gaining more followers than John. Although they have removed themselves from the sensibility of the established religious hierarchy of their day, the disciples of John the Baptist have not traveled far from the mindset of the Pharisees.
They are still preoccupied with discussions of external observance.
Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. (John 3:25)
And, John’s disciples are still following the Pharisees by dividing the human community into competing camps.
They came to John and asked him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ (John 3:26)
John, who has truly taken to heart the blazing unitive vision he experienced in Jesus, has moved beyond the Pharisaic religion of external observance and division. He has reached such a place of detachment that he is able to perceive that all of life comes from God. Life is not divided into good, better and best. All life is a gift. Life is not a possession we hold as property. Our only task is to receive the gift of life and rejoice and enter into the fullness of that gift with thanksgiving and celebration.
The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. (John 3:29)
Having become a “friend of the bridegroom”, John the Baptist no longer identifies with a particular brand of religious observance or with a set of outcomes he is demanding from his religious practice. John has discovered the freedom that comes from having directly encountered the living reality of truth and light. He has nothing to promote; he has no agenda to force upon the world. He is able to fade into the background without regret, resentment, or envy.
In response to his followers’ unhappiness at the ascendency of Jesus over their master,
John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’ (John 3:27-30)
At the end of John the Baptist’s bold declaration of freedom he states simply that Jesus, “must increase.”
The Greek word “increase” is “auxano“; it means to grow, or augment. It is the word we would use when speaking of the natural life process unfolding in a plant or an infant. John the Baptist is saying that there is a natural process of faith by which the qualities of love, light, peace, and unity will grow. He understands that in order for this to happen, “I must decrease”.
The I that clings to externals and focuses on division and separation must diminish. The I that demands that my ways is the only way and that you must join my side in order to be saved, must decrease.
The I that is Jesus (i.e. love, truth, light, peace, goodness, wisdom, purity) will increase, as the I that is self-obsessed and narrowly focused on my little group and my particular religious system decreases. The unitive vision of all things held in the crucible of God’s love will begin to emerge as I am able to let go of that small I that is so tied to the external world and that sees division in all of life.