I’ve been thinking a lot about lambs recently. Our friend Delia, who lives on a farm in nearby Los Osos, has a herd of sheep and they started giving birth during all these rainstorms. Delia has been out mucking through drenched fields tending the little sweet vulnerable lambs. Geez – not an easy thing!
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We Episcopalians are very familiar with these words as they are embedded in our liturgies. We often say them at the end of the Holy Eucharist. But these words are not found anywhere else in the bible – they are unique to this passage. In the book of Revelation there are references to the Lamb, but not to taking away the sin of the world.
I must admit to struggling with this idea. What does it mean to have a lamb who takes away the sin of the world. In my work as a prison chaplain, I often hear people refer to being washed or saved in the blood or something to this effect. But it just doesn’t feel right to me.
Let’s look at what the Hebrew Scriptures say about this.
In Exodus the last and final plague to strike the Egyptians was the death of all first-born sons both human and animal. But the houses of the Hebrews were to be marked by the blood of a lamb and therefore spared this tragedy. This is ritualized in the annual Seder at Passover. The Lamb was not intended to take away sins, it was sacrificed to keep the Hebrews safe. Then the body of the sacrificed Passover lamb had to be eaten by all those who were being saved. The body eaten and the blood used to save the people from suffering and death. It sounds strikingly familiar to the Eucharist.
The other story that is relevant here is from Leviticus. It tells the story of the scapegoat set apart each year to take away all the sins of the Hebrews. This was done by the priests who laid hands on the head of the chosen goat, confessed all the sins of the people over it, and then sent it out into the wilderness, set free to run into the wilderness and bear away all the sins of the people.
But this was always a goat, the scapegoat. Never was there a LAMB that took sins away. But notice that the goat was not sacrificed. Its blood was not shed. And in the Hebrew scriptures there are many passages about sacrificing animals to God. There are rams and goats and birds and lambs that are ritually killed.
The idea that God needs to sacrifice his beloved son in payment for the sin of humanity is, frankly, incongruent with the God of Love that I know from the teachings of Jesus and from my own life experiences. The idea that Jesus had to die for our sins is called substitutionary atonement.
I think this passage from John Phillip Newell’s Christ of the Celts says it best:
To speak about the cross as a revelation of love rather than payment for sin is not to suggest that this is merely a show. This is real blood. This is real self-giving. Jesus knew full well the cost of loving his nation and his religious tradition the way he did, enough to weep over the falseness of the city he loved and to cleanse the injustices of the temple at its core. This is real suffering at the hands of a corrupt religious leadership and an inhumane empire that would not tolerate the challenging implications of the law of love. But it is not a payment to God; it is a disclosure of God. It is not a purchasing of love; it is the manifestation of love.
Jesus was a prophet and like all prophets he stood up to the domination systems of his time. He called out the injustice he saw. He stood up to the power systems and for this he was killed.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the greatest American prophet, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his life of self-giving sacrifice and love and forgiveness. He stood up to the domination systems of his day, just as Jesus did in his. He followed the example of Jesus and led a movement of non-violent resistance to racism and injustice. And just like Jesus – he was killed for it. Both knew that they were risking their lives by standing up against systems of oppression just as the brave men and women in Iran are doing today – risking their lives by protesting the tyranny of the ruling regime.
The Iranian prisons are full, and these daring men and women are facing the death penalty in their desire to make a better world. It takes great courage to say NO to the dominating powers. To speak truth to power is a dangerous path. But it is what Jesus did and for this he paid the ultimate price.
I respect that some feel a connection to the idea that Jesus died for our sins. But the God of Love that Jesus illustrates in his life and ministry is a God who loves us just as we are. In our messy sinful state, and always has. This is what Jesus does. He loves us right where we are. And for me this feels like salvation.
As the brilliant teacher of our day, Richard Rohr says, “Salvation is much more about at-one-ment from God’s side than any needed atonement from our side. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God!”
God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we can do will either decrease or increase God’s eternal and infinite eagerness to love!
The Reverend Sister Greta Ronningen +