Toorak Uniting Church

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That puzzling Lamb of God

John 1: 35 – 42
Rev. Morag Thorne
19 January 2014

In the Western world, we are shocked and horrified when we hear of ‘honour killings’; that is, when a family or clan member is judged to have brought shame or disgrace on the family, and it is accepted that the only way for the family to regain their integrity and the respect of their community is to kill the person concerned. Fathers and brothers, particularly, usually carry out these killings, as evidence of their commitment to the moral values and stability of their community. As I said, we are shocked and horrified. It is not so long ago that our own society exacted heavy penalties from those who broke the rules – ostracism, exile, disinheritance – but we stopped short of ritual blood sacrifices.

Surely it is contradictory to think of God as a Father who would require the ritual sacrifice of his only Son? Yet, when we hear that John the Baptist called Jesus ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, I’m pretty sure we think immediately of the many images we’ve seen as Jesus represented as a lamb being sacrificed on an altar. We’ve seen these sacrificial lambs in stained glass, mosaics, paintings and I wouldn’t be surprised if they appear as tattoos, as well. Artists have been producing these images for at least a thousand years. It’s a bit of a jolt to realise that it is a very misleading image. So we are reflecting this morning of the puzzle that is the Lamb of God!

The sacrificial lamb appears as a very early image, around about the 4th century we think, but as long ago as the 8th century, theologians were trying to discourage it – not very successfully, we have to conclude.

This image might have arisen through the merging and mingling of the gospel stories that we all tend to do, transplanting and grafting images and inferences where they have no business being.

If we are going to know who Jesus really is as ‘the lamb of God’, we need to shear away some of the woolly thinking around the title. Some simple starting points:

First, only in this gospel of John is Jesus referred to as the Lamb of God, and only by John the Baptist. Neither Matthew, Mark nor Luke contain these words.

Second, what is translated as ‘takes away the sin of the world’ could just as well be translated as ‘lifts up the sin of the world.’ This might mean lifting up to take away, but it might also mean ‘lifting up’ in a way that makes it visible so everyone can see it. Jesus was innocent, like a lamb, of any crime or wrong-doing. So the cruelty of his death – the physical cruelty of the Roman Empire, and the manipulative cruelty of the Temple power-brokers – is self-evident. It cannot be ignored or denied, any more than the death or offensively unjust punishment of martyrs in our own time. It is the very wrongfulness of such actions that demand a response from us, that arouse our awareness and conscience, and move us to make, or perhaps break, commitments and allegiances.

This view of Jesus as the lamb of the God is reinforced later in John’s Gospel; not because the description is ever used again, but because of the emphasis Jesus puts on us knowing and seeing God in him, and coming to unity with God through our relationship and identification with Jesus. That message just doesn’t fit with the idea of Jesus as a ritual sacrifice, of God as wanting one, or of us ever attaining a loving, trusting relationship with God if ritual sacrifice were required.

Jesus’ own words in John chapter 3 (:14-21) would seem to support this view of his role in leading people to recognise what is right and what is wrong. He says "just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." So Jesus is recalling here that God provided a focus, a sign that the Israelites in the wilderness could look to as a way of choosing to trust in God’s word over the evils they were both committing and suffering from (Numbers 21:9).

He goes on "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into to the world to condemn it, but to save the world through him."

The Lamb of God also appears in Revelation 5:12 described in ways that assert its purity and innocence: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise." This Lamb was slain, not sacrificed, and is worthy because of its intrinsic virtue.

We will be sharing the celebration of Holy Communion in a few moments, and it probably hasn’t helped that we recall that Jesus himself, at the last supper with his disciples, talks of his blood being poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Even so, he does not link it with the ritual sacrifices of Temple and priestly worship. He is sharing the Passover meal (Exodus 12), remembering that those who entered into a committed relationship with God at that time were spared death, and released from slavery. Jesus evokes God’s loving promises of the First Covenant, and even points us toward his own resurrection, and ours, when he says he will not drink the fruit of the vine again until he shares it with us in heaven. (Matt 26:26-29).

In John’s gospel, at this Passover supper time, Jesus’ whole concern is to draw the disciples into the same close and loving relationship he shares with God. And to hearken back to our reading, this impulse – this dynamic of knowing Jesus - is shown immediately in Andrew. After his first meeting with Jesus he goes ‘first thing and tells his brother: We have found the Messiah. And he brought him to Christ.’ (John 1:40-41)

This clarification of our thinking about the Lamb of God is helpful. If we accept that the Lamb of God was not a ritual sin offering, we can understand why sin and suffering are still so very evident in our world. We have also come to see that it is the light of the goodness of Jesus that contrasts with, and shows up, the darkness of wrongdoing and cruelty. And we become aware again of the very attractiveness of and beauty of Jesus and the life he invites us to share.

We can only hope that this encourages us to keep on doing good where and when we can, trusting God’s grace, and understanding that Jesus should be glorified, not because of what he has done, but simply because of who he is – the lamb of God.



© Rev. Morag Thorne, 2014


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