2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 1:29-42;
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD CHANGING HISTORY
Barely a week ago in the midst of a beautiful, sunny winter day, we began hearing news from Arizona of yet another horrifying bloodbath.(1) If you are like me, for a moment you sat stunned, trying to take it in. It’s hard to do more than shake our heads in disbelief. In fact, disbelief might be the best way to describe it. Today is our second Sunday in our Epiphany series “Heaven on Earth.” Yet didn’t we just witness another example of hell on earth? It’s the type of thing that shakes our belief that anything has gotten better since Jesus came to earth. It often seems like things have actually gotten worse, making it easy to lose hope and question faith.
What a difference from Paul’s newness of faith we just read.(2) He’s like a love-struck teenager who can’t stop talking about the person they love — like Tony in West Side Story, “Maria, I’ll never stop saying Maria!” Paul says Jesus name over and over and over — eight times in nine verses! He couldn’t stop talking about Jesus, because without Jesus nothing else made sense. He wanted the Corinthians to know — more than anything — what it would mean to have Jesus in the center of their lives, and in every thought.
Paul also wanted them to see that Jesus was not just the center of their own lives, but that he was at the center of the whole world — with a special place in history. Most of the Christians in Corinth were not Jews, but were ‘pagans’ who believed in gods and goddesses. They didn’t have the same view of their unique place in history the way Jews did — who knew through the prophets that history is going somewhere.
Jesus shifted the world. Things were moving in a new direction. Again and again Paul wants them to hear they were being swept up into the one true God’s — the God of Israel’s — wave of love and power at work for the whole world. They had witnessed it’s unveiling in Jesus, God’s son. That’s why Jesus is at the center of the picture for Paul.
Have we lost Paul’s excitement, especially about Jesus being at the center of history? Events like the Arizona shooting make that difficult. But I believe we can still get excited like St. Paul that God is changing the world through Jesus to rescue us from our terrible violence.
In John’s Gospel we hear a bold claim of Jesus’ place in the world. When John the Baptist sees Jesus coming, he declares, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John realizes the amazing power in declaring Jesus as the Lamb. It’s important to remember that up until this time, in every world religion, people were sacrificing both animals and humans on altars. Regardless of the religion, all the gods and goddesses shared one thing in common: they were wrathful and demanded blood sacrifice. So for their followers some acts of violence were SACRED! For eons, to appease angry gods humans laid their animals — even their own children! — on altars. These were their ‘sacrificial lambs.’
John the Baptist’s declaration was powerful — even unthinkable! It was no longer our lambs being sacrificed to God; it was the true God changing history, turning everything upside down forever. In Jesus Christ it is reversed: God sacrificed God’s lamb to us. Through Jesus, God reveals that we are the wrathful ones lashing out with deadly consequences. Even though most religions no longer practice ritualized blood sacrifice, don’t humans still commit blood sacrifice? People claim to know just exactly who God wants killed, and we are just the ones to carry it out. We’ll execute that criminal, burn that witch, go to war against god’s enemies. We make it our duty to exact the punishment against the enemies of our wrathful god.
But in one single declaration John the Baptist says, ‘No, God is not wrathful, God does NOT command us to kill. Standing here is God’s Lamb, sacrificed to take away our sin of wrathful violence by enduring it on the cross.’ With this, John the Baptist proclaims a complete and utter reversal of eons of human history in which humans justify violence against one another by their gods. In reverse fashion, the Lamb of God will endure the world’s violence so that the true God might raise him up as the promise of true Life. God is love, never wrath (1 John 4). God is life, never murderous death. God is light in which there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).
So in two thousand years of Christian history how did we get it so wrong and turn our loving God back into a wrathful God who wants us to kill? I think it helps to try and understand human nature in a new way.(3) From the beginning of time (100,000 years of homo sapiens!), religions centered on wrathful gods demanding blood; this became ingrained in all humans. I believe that’s the ‘original sin’ that Christian tradition talks about — a sin that has plagued every culture since the dawn of time. When we begin to understand the power that culture has to warp and twist even the Christian truth, we better understand how it becomes easy to revert back to that god of wrath.
In antiracism workshops I’ve experienced, trainers have referred to how racism has become “baked in” or part of our “cultural DNA.” Antiracism is countercultural. And that same “cultural DNA” of historical racism goes all the back to the beginning, so we begin to see how Jesus, the Lamb of God, is countercultural. Nonviolence is countercultural. As we begin to recognize how deeply some things are ingrained, we can begin to see how easily it can be to revert to cultural norms.
So when did Christians begin to revert to those old religious and cultural norms of a God who demands violence? We can’t say for sure, but there was a pivotal time in history when the god of wrath again takes center stage in the Christian church. It’s when St. Anselm articulated the doctrine of atonement at the time — and I don’t think it was a coincidence — that the Western Church was launching its First Crusade against the Muslims in the Holy Land. Christians needed God to revert to being a wrathful god of violence to justify the Crusades, so St. Anselm re-interpreted the Christian story. He explained that our wrathful God rightly punishes us all for our sins with death; but because God is gracious as well as wrathful, God lovingly sent Jesus as a sacrifice to satisfy god’s own wrath. Jesus stepped in to take the punishment so we could have NEW life after death.
This “doctrine of atonement,” still popular today, lays waste to John the Baptist’s simple declaration that Jesus as God’s lamb came to reverse everything. According to this popular doctrine, Jesus reversed nothing, but was merely sent to be another sacrifice to the same age-old wrathful God. Nothing changes. And Christians who follow this doctrine follow in the same footsteps of darkness as all other peoples.
But there are new winds of truth blowing through the church once again, questioning the doctrine of atonement down to its foundations. We’re beginning to see Christians once again proclaim the true God who is love and never wrath, life and never murderous death, light and never darkness. God’s Spirit is blowing in fresh ways that give me hope, even in the face of terrible tragedies. On this weekend of celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, we can also celebrate as Christians the wind of the Spirit beginning to blow new practices of Jesus’s disciples — practices of standing up against the evils of human violence like racism, but armed only with the weapon of God’s powerful love, armed only with the call to suffer the violence and never return it.
We are invited to celebrate this season of Epiphany as we continue to explore these renewed practices of our faith, as we follow Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount to, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 16, 2011
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
This sermon, and its premise that Jesus as the Lamb of God changes history, may raise as many questions for you as it answers. So the following tries to anticipate some of those questions.
If the change is about not justifying human violence by calling on a wrathful god (turning it into sacred, divine-commanded violence), then why haven’t we witnessed more change in the subsequent two thousand years of history? Shouldn’t the change brought about by the Lamb of God be more dramatic?
This is the first big pay-off of switching to an anthropological context. “Recorded history” is only three to four thousand years. Anthropology is set within a context of “evolutionary history,” which is 100,000 years for homo sapiens, and several millions of years for our extinct hominid ancestors (Neanderthal, homo erectus, etc.). That puts a different spin on what we mean by “dramatic” change.
For example, if we consider René Girard’s premise that ritual blood sacrifice is central to the evolution of homo sapiens, then the complete cessation of ritual sacrifice right from the outset of Christianity (replaced by Holy Communion) is a very dramatic change indeed. Stopping a deeply ingrained human practice that’s more than 100,000 years old is quite a turn-around! It’s a revolutionary change. But other aspects of the needed change — like doing away with the wrathful gods of sacrifice, once and for all — are going at an evolutionary pace, happening over centuries and millennia, not overnight. Two thousand years is a blink of an eye in evolutionary time.
OK, so the change is slower (evolutionary) with our experience of God. We keep ‘importing’ the deeply ingrained human experience of God as wrathful and punishing back into Jesus’ experience of God as love. But what’s the evidence that Jesus at least understood? Isn’t the New Testament full of talk about judgment?
This is where we have to go back and read with new eyes. Yes, there are words of judgment, but they are words of self-judgment — in other words, that we humans will suffer the consequences for our actions. Jesus leaves God out of it. The crucial example is Mark 13 (and the parallels in Luke 21 and Matthew 24), where Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Read it carefully. Jesus never says God will destroy it. He knows it will be someone like the Romans. Jesus is prophesying that if his people insist on thinking their wrathful God wants them to wage a military campaign against the Romans, there will be ‘natural’ consequences. In the tradition of the prophets he uses language of nature, too, like the moon turning to blood. But this is like you or I saying, “Hitler covered the earth in blood.” Or, “It was an earth shattering experience.” We don’t mean it literally. We mean that our world was seriously rocked. Yet when we have our wrathful-god-spectacles on, we hear Jesus and the prophets saying that God is going to bring judgment and the end of the world. Read the words again. He doesn’t say that.
This is a good spot for bringing in a very important passage which makes it clear that, even if we are hearing and understanding at an evolutionary pace, God has worked a revolutionary change in the cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Easter morning the world begins again with God’s loving power of life made visible in the Risen Christ so that it begins to shed light on everything, past, present, and future. The Resurrected Jesus is walking with two disciples on Easter evening. They are despondent, so much so that they still can’t wrap their heads around reports that Jesus is Risen. That doesn’t make sense to them. Why would God raise someone who had suffered such a humiliating defeat at the hands of their enemies?
Then Jesus said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27)
And a short time later he repeats this message with the eleven disciples:
Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)
We have to undergo a process of rereading Scriptures with a wholly different God in mind, a God who lovingly suffers our violence rather than dish any out, a God who forgives rather than seek revenge (or “punishment”).
It takes learning to reread all of scriptures, but let me give two other examples of specific passages which seem clear to me. The first example is the first five recorded sermons, all given by Peter and recorded in Acts. They have widely diverse circumstances and address different issues. But all of them also relay the core message:
“…this man … you crucified and killed…. But God raised him up….” (Acts 2:23-24)
“…and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:15)
“…by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.'” (Acts 4:10-11)
“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30)
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him….” (Acts 10:39-40)
This is the crucial insight of the cross and resurrection which is changing history. Human beings began for many millennia with the notion of gods that command us to do violence, so that the responsibility for much of our violence lies with the gods. We dish out just the right dose of violence so that we can live in peace. But the Lamb of God means to reverse this so that we can finally see that the responsibility for our violence has been ours all along. God the Creator, the giver of life in the first place, has always and only been about life.(4) We kill. God raises to life.
The second example that has been crucial for me has even recently been enhanced by the brilliant work of New Testament scholar Douglas Campbell, in his monumental book The Deliverance of God.(5) Once again, St. Paul’s magisterial Letter to the Romans holds the key to what is shaping up to be a time of great change,(6) a new Emergence within the Church of Christ. Paul gives us exactly what we are claiming for the Lamb of God: an explicit putting away of the god of wrath, once and for all.
What would have been clear to Paul’s original audience, however, has been problematic for many generations of Christians, until Campbell came along and unraveled a knot in the interpretation. After an introduction, Paul opens the body of his letter with these important words, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). To us it seems clear that, ‘Here’s Paul spouting the age-old stuff about a wrathful god.’ But Campbell has shown that it’s actually the beginning of the opposite, Paul beginning to argue against the wrathful god. What we don’t know, which the original audience did know, is that in Rom. 1:18 Paul is voicing the view of an opposing Teacher whose position he will begin knocking down in Rom. 2:1. What is lost to us is that Paul wrote all his letters to be read out-loud, so Paul didn’t have to write in the text that 1:18 is now the voice of his opponent. He simply had to train the person who would perform it to literally use a different voice. (Have you ever taken on the voice of a TV evangelist, “Believe and be saved by JEEE-sus!”?)
You might immediately object, “How can we know that?!” We can’t, for certain. But Campbell builds a masterful argument over hundreds of pages that we can’t duplicate here. Let me simply quote Campbell on this crucial matter of a ‘sea-change’ in how we experience God through Jesus Christ:
In short, Paul seems to be stating in v. 18 — in a suitably pompous manner — that the initial and hence essential content of the Teacher’s position is a vision of the future wrath of God — of God as retributively just. And Paul does not think that this is the essential nature of the God of Jesus Christ. So he contrasts the Teacher’s programmatic theological claim quite deliberately with the initial disclosure of his own position — his gospel — which speaks of the saving intervention of God and hence of the divine compassion (vv. 16-17). Paul is stating here compactly that fundamentally different conceptions of God are at stake in these two gospels.(7)
Thanks to Campbell’s thesis that Rom. 1:18-32 carries the voice of an opposing Teacher, it is even easier to see the significance of something I’ve noticed for years (with the help of Robert Hamerton-Kelly and James Alison(8)) before encountering Campbell. Paul, after using the phrase “wrath of God” in 1:18, uses the word “wrath” by itself thereafter (in eleven subsequent uses). He stops pairing it with “of God.” When he begins to argue against the teacher in Rom. 2, for example, he says, “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). Paul is crystal-clear that we human beings are the ones who have a problem with wrath. The “day of wrath” will simply be a day when the wrath we have stored up for ourselves comes to roost. What about “God’s righteous judgment”? Will God pile on with God’s wrath? No! Paul’s entire argument in Romans is about the God of unconditional grace that we meet in Jesus Christ. On the countless terrible days that our wrath comes to roost (June 6, 1944, and Aug. 6, 1945, to name but two), we can at least thank God for the grace we receive in Jesus. In short, the Letter to the Romans is all about “God’s righteous judgment” revealed precisely as loving mercy, not wrath.
One important note before we move on. If you happen to check my facts on this “wrath”-in-Romans business, and check your NRSV concordance, you will find in your NRSV Bibles the words “wrath of God” in Rom. 5:9 and 12:19. Here’s the thing: the word “God” does not appear paired with “wrath” in Paul’s original Greek text. The translators put it in! Presumably, because we human beings are usually wearing our wrathful-god-spectacles. So even when it’s not there in Paul’s text we see wrath connected to God because we’re conditioned to do so. My point is that it’s time to replace wrathful-God-spectacles with the loving-God-spectacles that we receive from Jesus Christ. Then, we can begin the lengthy task of rereading the whole Bible.
When we do reread the whole Bible, won’t we find loads of stuff about a wrathful God in the Old Testament?
Yes, but that’s why Jesus comes to finally give us loving-God-spectacles: so that we can learn to ‘interpret in all the scriptures the things about Jesus’ (Luke 24:27). We can see, for example, the increasing use of the formula: “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).
The whole point of prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures is to move the audience to repentance, to choose a different path in life. Think about Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The visit of the three ghosts is not to predict punishment for Scrooge. Their purpose is to show him the current trajectory of his life. He is on a path to nowhere but meaningless death. Their visits are an act of mercy that he might choose a different path toward a meaningful life in loving community with others. Remember from earlier Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is not about a punishing God. It is about the trajectory of their lives if they continue to choose the military option of standing against enemies. The difference with the Hebrew prophets is that they still see this whole merciful enterprise as directly God’s work. So they call natural consequences “punishment.”
But there’s lots more gruesome stuff than prophetic warnings!
Yes, there is also simply the terrible, wrathful God present. We can’t get around passages like Deut. 7:1-2, in which God basically commands genocide under Joshua’s leadership:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you– the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you– 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
But Jesus can get around it by giving us another parallel version. In Matthew 15, we see Jesus encounter a “Canaanite” woman. Matthew is borrowing from Mark’s story here, but he has changed Mark’s ethnically correct description of the “Syro-Phoenician” woman to the anachronistic “Canaanite” woman (akin to our calling a modern day “Norwegian” person a “Viking”). Matthew in chapter 15 is narrating for us the mission of God’s new Joshua (“Joshua” and “Jesus” point to the same name in Hebrew) going into the same land but being all about revealing God’s mercy, rather than a God of “no mercy.” This is an example of being able to reread the Hebrew scriptures from the perspective of Jesus.
Moreover, at this point in our conversation we should also be at the point of being able to appreciate how difficult it is for human beings to take off the wrathful-gods-spectacles. If we’ve noticed thus far how hard it is for Christians even after Christ came — how often have Christians claimed the same wrathful God in slaughtering our enemies?! — we should be able to appreciate the difficulty of doing so before Christ came. There is the anthropological pressure of 100,000 years working against us. So, yes, the Hebrew Scriptures are less perfect in their revealing a God of mercy. They are, in some sense, an anticipation of the perfect revelation in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
But they are also much more than an anticipation. First of all, the voice of the victim begins to come through in amazing ways, through Job, the Psalmist, and especially the Suffering Servant Songs of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 53 being the prime example). Even in the Bible’s first book, we see things like Abel’s blood crying out from the ground to God against his murderer. (Contrast this to the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus in which Romulus is judged to be right in killing his brother for trespassing — the mythological justification for Rome’s killing the trespassers upon its imperial boundaries.) Finally, the story of Joseph and his brothers is almost a perfect precursor to the Gospel. Joseph is the lamb slaughtered to his brothers’ jealousy, as they sell him into slavery and tell Jacob he’s dead. But by many twists in fortune Joseph becomes the Secretary of Agriculture to Pharaoh in Egypt, where his brothers come cowering before him, begging for food during a famine but expecting revenge.
But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Gen. 50:19-20)
On the cross of Jesus Christ, even though we intended to do harm to him, God intended it for good. There are many moments in the Hebrew Scriptures where we glimpse the true God of mercy whom Jesus finally helps us to see for good.
Most importantly, it is absolutely crucial to see how the Hebrew Scriptures provide the foundation for the revelation which otherwise could not happen. That foundation is the covenant to Abraham and Sarah, a covenant of love between the true God and a Chosen People.
Think of it this way. If we accept the evolutionary history of human creatures growing into false religions based on wrathful gods for hundreds of thousands of years, then how could the true God, if there is a true God, ever begin to reverse that entrenchment and get through to us? Wouldn’t it at least take a relationship with someone over a very, very long time? I think that’s essentially what we have recorded in the Bible. It’s the family history of the true God choosing to begin somewhere with someone, patiently and lovingly having a conversation over centuries in order to finally be seen and heard for who God truly is, the power of Love who creates all Life.
1. Referring to the January 8, 2011 shooting by Jared Loughner in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people, including Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, and leaving 14 others injured, including his primary target U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
2. I owe the following image and point about 1 Corinthians 1 to Tom Wright in his book Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004).
3. Based on the work of René Girard, further referenced in the FAQ section below.
4. This is why the early apostles so quickly placed Christ right back to the beginning with God at Creation: John 1:1-5, Col. 1:15-20, et al.
5. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.
6. Ibid. Campbell’s book helps to make this clear by giving us a rereading of Romans that shows how the last great time of change was off track with its theme of Justification which, for the most part, has yielded a conditional message of grace – in other words, no grace at all. Campbell points the way to reading Romans as a message against exactly that kind of conditional grace to instead tell the story of God’s unconditional rescue mission in Jesus Christ from the clutches of sin and death
8. The basic insight for this reading of “wrath” in Romans comes from two ‘Girardian’ friends, Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 101-103, and James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 126-128.