Sunday, 19 January 2020

The Lamb of God

Address given at St Flannan's Cathedral, Killaloe on Sunday 19 January 2020, the 2nd after Epiphany

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
Beginning with these words, in today’s reading from St John’s Gospel (1:29-42), John the Baptist publicly testifies to the great truth about Jesus, which had come to him as he baptised Jesus the day before – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

And pointing to Jesus, the Baptist says to two of his own disciples the next day, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ One of them is Andrew, who after spending a day with Jesus goes to find his brother Simon Peter, to tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’.

Jesus as the Lamb of God is such a familiar image, isn’t it? We’ve all seen those icons of Christ as a lamb holding a cross. And we still sometimes use the Agnus Dei during communion, which I remember from my childhood in the ancient chant, ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us’.

The image is so familiar that we often don’t realise how strange it is – the Son of God represented as a vulnerable lamb. Wouldn’t a noble beast like a lion be more appropriate for the Son of God? CS Lewis in his Narnia books chose Aslan, a fearsome lion, to represent the Christ-like character in his stories, rather than a lamb. Jesus chose to describe himself as the Good Shepherd, not as a lamb. So why does the evangelist have John the Baptist describe Jesus as the Lamb of God?

The image of the lamb had layers of symbolic meaning for Jews at the time of Christ.
It would remind them of the old story of the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12). The Israelites are told to sprinkle the blood of a lamb on the doors of their houses, as a sign to the Lord to pass over the house without killing the firstborn within. The firstborn of the Egyptians die and the firstborn of the Israelites live. The Passover Lamb protects and saves the Israelites and they escape from Egypt.

It would remind them of the daily sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem of ‘two male lambs a year old without blemish’, one in the morning and one in the evening, as an offering to God (Numbers 28:3-4), an offering intended to turn God’s wrath away from the sins of the community.

So the lamb would have represented reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sins – atonement in the language of theology. The English word originally meant ‘at-one-ment’, being in harmony with someone.

And the lamb would also have represented uncomplaining gentleness. Jeremiah writes, ‘But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter’. And Isaiah writes of God’s suffering servant, ‘Like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter … he did not open his mouth’.

Today we are horrified by the cruelty and injustice of sacrificing living animals to God. It also horrified the prophet Isaiah (1:11-17), who told the people of Judah that God did not want their animal sacrifices, but rather wanted them to ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. But his words were ignored, perhaps because of vested interests - the privileged status and livelihood of priests would have depended on sacrifices continuing, and sacrifices were no doubt cheaper and easier for the well-to-do than Isaiah’s alternative. Jewish practice of animal sacrifice did not cease until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD.

Jesus taught his disciples that God would pardon their sins if they truly repented. In perfect obedience to God’s will, he submitted to a cruel death upon the cross although an innocent man. Perhaps it’s not so very surprising that his disciples, the first Christians, should identify Jesus with the sacrificial lamb, as John does, and as Paul did too.

As the years passed, Christians came to see the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the final and complete atoning sacrifice, taking their sin away, reconciling them to God, and making further ritual sacrifice of animals unnecessary.

The imagery of Christ as the sacrificial lamb lived on after animal sacrifice ceased.
Christians have always meditated upon it. And many have pondered how Christ’s death on the cross reconciles us with God – how atonement works. Theologians have come up with innumerable theories.

There’s ‘ransom’ atonement. In this theory Adam and Eve are held to have sold humanity to Satan at the time of the Fall; Justice requires that Satan be paid a ransom to free us from his clutches; God pays the ransom on our behalf through Christ’s death; Justice is satisfied and we are freed from Satan’s grip of sin and death. I can’t accept the dualism of this theory. I believe in one God, and I do not believe in any kind of anti-God like Satan.

There’s also ‘substitution’ atonement. In this theory the debt humans owe for their sin is not to Satan but to God himself; human kind deserve God’s punishment for sin; God’s Justice means that God cannot simply forgive the sin without exacting punishment; but God takes the punishment on himself by sending his Son to die on the cross in our place as a substitute; and this cancels out human sin, allowing us to receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God. This theory repels me, because it makes God appear to collude in the unjust punishment of Jesus, rather than being the loving, forgiving and merciful Father that Jesus revealed to us.

And then there’s ‘moral influence’ atonement. In this theory Jesus’s self-sacrifice on the cross shows us how to deal with the consequences of sin, and also demonstrates God’s love for us; we respond with repentance, and receive God’s forgiveness; we are reconciled to God and transformed by the Holy Spirit. I find this a much more satisfactory explanation of atonement.

But all these musings of theologians are like smoke compared to the real experience of atonement.
Human attempts to define the purposes of God must always be inadequate, and we should not let differences of opinion about atonement divide us one from another.

John the Baptist is pointing to the reality of atonement when he says of Jesus, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. Overhearing him, Andrew approaches Jesus, who says to him, ‘Come and see’. And after spending time with Jesus, Andrew goes to find his brother Simon Peter, and tells him‘We have found the Messiah’.

The reality of atonement is, I suggest, personal experience of Christ’s call and our response. As the Lamb of God, Jesus calls sinful people like me and you to ‘Come and see’. When we respond, when we truly repent, our sins are forgiven. We are reconciled with God. And we pass on this good news to others.

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