Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us. Amen.
If I had to pick a favorite, I would say it is the gospel of John. Of the four gospels, John’s is often referred to as the eagle’s eye, taking in the whole forest, the long view of things. The other three share some common early sources, and have a different way about them. The gospel of John is in a whole other realm, at times quite literally so, and its almost as if its later dating has given the storyteller more time to refine the plotline, to sharpen the fine points of the narrative.
The fourth evangelist takes great pains, right up front, to tell you what the gospel is about: Jesus. — Seems like you would know the answer to that one, right? The writer goes to great lengths to underline, highlight, boldface type the fact that John the Baptist is not what the gospel is about. He is not our focus, though he is all over the first chapter. But he’s only on stage because of his testimony about Jesus; he exits stage left as soon as this role is fulfilled, because as he incessantly repeats, this is not about him. It’s always been about Jesus.
I had the privilege to attend a rather unique seminary in Philadelphia. It was founded by a solid, German Lutheran, Henry Muhlenberg; it is historic in many ways; and it was staffed at the time by some theological and biblical giants in the Lutheran world. And yet, the people on my committee for approving pastors kept asking me: but why aren’t you going to the Gettysburg Seminary? It was closer to my hometown; it was where my great-grandfather went to seminary. It is a good seminary, don’t get me wrong, but what Philadelphia had to offer was a population of non-Lutheran students. Imagine that, students at a Lutheran seminary who were Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian; we even had a Roman Catholic for a while.
This resulted in many, many interesting conversations about faith, the Bible, and theology. First of all, it highlighted, underlined, and bold-faced typed the fact that Baptists always had their bibles with them in class and the Lutherans…uh, did not.
Which meant that the Baptists had the scripture verses memorized and we Lutherans, we had to look them up. (This taught me something about how we as a church need to get familiar with the book of faith and like soon!) But truth be told, the people in those classes that were not drinking the Lutheran kool-aid taught me a lot about what I actually believe. When you are constantly in conversation with others who look at the scriptures differently from you, you learn how to refine the plotline of God’s work in the world and sharpen the finer points of where you stand and will not do otherwise.
I listened to a newscast just a few days ago on the clergy that President-Elect Trump has assembled for the Inauguration, several of whom preach what is referred to as the prosperity gospel. I nearly fell over at the sound of that term, because this was the same gospel our own dear Martin Luther was up against 500 years ago this October. Some things never change.
The finer points of that gospel underlines, highlights, and bold face types that wealth is a sign you are blessed by God, because God rewards the faithful with financial abundance, as well as abundance in other areas of your life. If you just “get right with God,” if you follow Jesus and make sure that you keep climbing the ladder of success and thus the ladder to heaven’s glory, you will be blessed. And if you are not blessed, if you are in poverty, then you are not right with God. Apparently Jesus’ own words: “blessed are the poor,” were not in their bibles.
Something we often talked about in seminary was this very thing. Namely, that we know the gospels to be about Jesus, and we know that Christians as a whole say: we all follow Jesus. But then we have things like this news report. And the word Christian was said so much with prosperity gospel in that report it made my ears bleed. One of my professors would say, “Yes, we all follow Jesus. The real question is: which Jesus?”
There’s the finest point I know that matters in today’s world, in today’s life of faith, in the life of faith lived out by you and me. Which Jesus, is it, that we are following? Because Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Detroit, who preaches that Jesus will bless you with money if you just follow him—well, his Jesus and my Jesus don’t have much in common. Actually they don’t have anything in common. Because I’m with the biblical gospels, especially John’s gospel, where Jesus is called Lamb of God.
Jesus is given essentially a lot of names and identities in John’s gospel, its his specialty– Messiah, Son of God, the light of the world, the true Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, the Life, even the great I AM is in this plot line. Even the most holy, burning bush historic name for God is listed among the names for Jesus. But those don’t really interest me today, in 2017, with this 500 year struggle still going over which Jesus. What captures me today is in chapter one, its right up front, it cannot be missed: Lamb of God.
And really, that might not mean much at first, because unlike all those other titles for Jesus, Lamb of God was not a historical name that was waiting for Jesus to show up and assume it. There were some lambs in the first set of holy scriptures for sure: Abraham’s son Issac was almost one of them, almost sacrificed as a whole burnt offering and everything. And lambs are the key element to the Passover meal, as the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt and mark their doorposts with the blood of the lamb so the angel of death would Passover their homes. But no one was waiting for a Lamb of God to show up. A military Messiah, yes; a Son of God to replace the Emperor, yes; a Good Shepherd to gather the people back together, yes; but a Lamb? A fluffy little baby sheep? Something that vulnerable, the whole follow-Mary-wherever-she-goes, lamb? No one was waiting for that.
And yet, here he is in chapter one: the Lamb of God. And there he goes in chapter 18 to be crucified, on the day of preparation. Unlike the other three gospels, that puts him on the cross a day later; no here, see, here Jesus dies the same day the Passover lamb would have been slaughtered for freedom, for life, for the saving grace of God. Here the writer underlines, highlights, and bold face types the first and foremost title for Jesus: Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The vulnerable, suffering servant, who died that all may have life and have it abundantly.
This is the Jesus I am following, or at least trying to. And friends: which Jesus you are following matters. It matters when I hear that leaders in pulpits are telling those trapped in cycles of poverty and abuse that they need to just try harder to be blessed by God. It matters when I see those in authority threatening the most vulnerable members of our country, threatening to break up families, bullying those who cut an ocean in half just to find peace. It matters when I hear someone struggling with cancer who also struggles with the so-called “Christian perspective” that God is punishing them. Then my ears bleed all over again. So it matters.
Jesus is the Lamb of God in John’s book of Revelation–triumphant and victorious, make no mistake about it, but the storyteller again underlines, highlights, and bold face types something else about that Lamb: it is standing as if slaughtered. Having given all to the world that did not know him, he loved them even to death, serving the last and the least and the vulnerable until the rich and powerful had enough and put a stop to it.
That matters to me. It matters in how I react to a video by Hope Academy with a little boy walking two hours to go to school in Guatemala while my own kid rides 3 minutes in a comfortable minivan. It matters in how I respond and care for the vulnerable homeless women and children in the Family Promise program. It matters in how I give to New Hope in response to the growing food insecurity right here in our backyards.
An artist’s rendering of the Lamb of God images a lamb that has been pierced, its blood dripping down into a communion chalice. When I lift up the cup of wine and say: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin, we respond together in the words of John: Look! Here is the Lamb of God. And as we—all different people from different walks of life—shuffle forward together to drink that abundant life, I am struck by something else about this Jesus I am trying to follow. He gave water to a poor, shamed widow at a well at noon, and conversed with an educated, upper class Pharisee by night. And he loved them both. That Lamb of God.
And that, too, that matters.
Based on John 1:29-42 Look! Here is the Lamb of God