Lamb of God

Sunday 20th January 2008
Year A, The Third Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
John 1:29-35

There are certain objects which become iconic, which purport to sum up a place or a culture: the statue of Liberty, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower; The Mona Lisa, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, The Scream; the Blue Peter Badge, the Dalek, the Teletubby. From the Taj Mahal to the Playboy bunny, PR companies sum up a complex set of ideas in a single image or logo. So if we were looking at our world today, we might sum it up in a series of corporate logos from Coca Cola and McDonalds to Tesco and M&S.

What if we were thinking of a logo for Christianity? The obvious first choice, the one we actually use, is The Cross; but two others are the subject of today's Gospel, the Holy Trinity and the Lamb of God.

Let me just say a very few words about the Trinity as it makes its first explicit appearance in John's Gospel. Many of you will have heard me say before that the Doctrine of the Trinity, like all other Christian doctrines, is approximate and provisional; It is a way of talking about the mystery of God using the limited resources of human language; but in spite of the specific warning of Gregory of Nyssa about taking the idea of the Trinity too literally and the more general warning from John Calvin, of all people, that The Bible is written in 'baby talk', we have clung fiercely to the Trinitarian ideal because it says something essential about the Godhead we worship: that it is both outside and inside history; that it is dynamic, more like a verb than a noun; that it is pluralist or multi faceted. And so although the actual formulation might be questionable, the truth at which it aims is not. We might do better if we were to get past the 3-in-1 logo to think about what lies behind it.

The same logic applies to the Lamb of God. The message on the tin, largely designed by Isaiah, is very simple: the pure but helpless lamb of God in the person of Jesus, the second person of the Christian Godhead, was slaughtered as the result of which the sins of humanity were taken away; we say this while the Priest is breaking the bread, the body of The Lamb, just before it is distributed. What do we mean by it?

The first part of the proposition, the physical logo of the lamb, is easy enough. The lamb is helpless, it is beautiful to look at and, having been touched by its helplessness and having admired its naive beauty, we kill it. I chose the last phrase carefully: it was not a specific group of people at a specific time that killed Jesus, our Lamb; it was not the religious authorities nor the Jewish people. It was the sinfulness of humanity that could not live alongside the purity of Jesus; the murder was a collective act of inevitable incompatibility. In that sense the Incarnation bore within it the inevitability of collective murder; it was bound to happen.

It was the Resurrection that transformed the significance of the murder for humanity. The Resurrection tells us that the power of God, through Jesus, to save us from falling away from God, ensuring that we become enfolded within the Creator from whom we came, that the power of God is greater than any individual or collective abuse of our freedom to love that we can imagine. The Resurrection says that as God made us imperfect so that we could choose to love, the imperfection in which we were necessarily made will not count against us.

In the light of this interpretation of the Resurrection, as the sacred guarantee of our salvation, it is difficult to see the Crucifixion as the defining act of Christianity. The Lamb of God did not actually take away the sins of the world, The Lamb simply put human sin back into its proper divine perspective. The sin which was committed against Jesus could not have been more serious nor more comprehensive; the whole human race contrived to kill The Lamb and yet, and yet, we are not individually and collectively damned, condemned to exist eternally apart from the Creator. And the significance of the murder is that, had it not taken place, we could not know the ultimate extent to which we are saved; we would never know, we would always be in doubt, of the price we have to pay for the freedom with which we were created, which is our essence, which defines our being as humanity.

Now I do not imagine for a moment that this theology was in the mind of John the Baptist and I doubt that it was even fully in the mind of John the Evangelist. What they more likely had in mind was the classical Jewish notion that animal sacrifice is a way of atoning for sin, an idea summed up in our word Scapegoat, the animal that bears the collective sin of the Jews at the feast of Yom Kippur (cf Leviticus 16); but although flocks of sheep and goats were mixed, the Prophets all specified their guardians as Shepherds and so it was the lamb that become the emblem of the helpless flock in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and, above all, in Isaiah.

Let us, then, look behind the logo of The Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. The reality is much more mysterious and magnificent than the rather mundane idea that the death of Jesus somehow wiped the slate clean. We know, for a start, that it didn't. We are in a relentless struggle to keep ourselves in a forward trajectory towards God; the exercise of our freedom is onerous. The Resurrection of Jesus tells us that perseverance will be rewarded but I doubt that any of us have a strong sense that earthly sin was really absorbed, set aside, counted as nothing, discounted, whatever term you want to use, because of the death of The Lamb. To take this statement literally is to treat The Bible like a mathematics textbook, to accept the formula on the tin without sampling the contents.

We might rather say that the innocence of The Lamb and the immensity of our crime were apparently disproportionate, that The Lamb was bound to be the helpless victim, but that in the Resurrection the tables were turned; The Lamb was triumphant and the immensity of our crime was put back into its proper place. The Lamb of God did not so much take away the sin of the world as take away any latent sense that such sin might triumph over God's Creation. To think that it might triumph is a very strange idea; but there are Christians who think of Christianity as almost entirely earthly and not cosmic, who think that God behaves in the way that we do, who think that divine justice is derived from human accountancy. It is this narrow lack of vision which wants us to take the Agnus Dei literally instead of considering it in the context of the Divine mystery of salvation.

We should not be seduced by the logo or the icon, no matter how pleasing, familiar and, yes, even addictive. We need to get behind the slogan to the glorious reality that not only were we created to choose but, by the death and Resurrection of The Lamb, we were told that our necessary imperfection will never count against us.