The Sin of the Worldby Jeff Krehbiel, January 15 2017
Second Sunday After Epiphany
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" John 1:29
I’ve never been terribly fond of Christian teachings that speak of Jesus death as the sole purpose of his life, as the Spiritual puts it, that Jesus was born just so that he could die. I particularly don’t like what is referred to as the “penal substitutionary” theory of the atonement, that Jesus died as our substitute to satisfy the wrath of an angry God. That’s not the God I believe in. I definitely don’t believe that it was the purpose of Jesus life just to die so that we could get into heaven after we die. To me, that robs Jesus of agency, and cheapens the meaning and purpose of his life.
Yet there is no question that soon after Jesus’ death, the early Christians began speaking about his death as a sacrifice for sin. In our passage this morning from the Gospel of John, written several decades after Jesus’ death, the gospel writer has John the Baptist refer to Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
In all of these formulations, the early Christians were struggling to make sense of Jesus’ death, something they had not anticipated and which caused them to re-think who he was. If Jesus were the Messiah, but had been killed, didn’t that invalidate their belief in who he was? So, using symbols that were a part of their theological world as first-century Jews, they came to a new understanding of who Jesus was.
Central to Jewish experience was the temple in Jerusalem where the people went to offer sacrifice to God. We sometimes bristle at the notion of sacrifice, but that was not so for the ancient Jewish people. The sacrificial system was understood as a gift from God by which God’s people could make amends, or atone, for falling away from God. A lamb in particular figured prominently in the Passover celebrations of Israel, in which God liberated the Hebrew people from their bondage in Israel.
Here John draws on both of these images to make a startling claim about Jesus’ death: That in his death on the cross, we who have fallen away from God are made right with God. That, just like the Passover lamb, in Jesus’ death we are set free from what holds us in bondage. In other words, Jesus did not die in vain, his death was not meaningless, his death did not mean defeat for all that he taught and stood for. Rather, his death meant victory and life for God’s people: Jesus was the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This was, of course, not a conviction that Jesus’ followers came to while he was still alive, but was a perspective possible only after his death. It was an insight made possible because of the very real presence Jesus’ followers experienced after his resurrection where they continued to know Jesus as a living reality in their midst. It was to this that the early followers of Jesus bore witness.
It also rises out of a very different understanding of sin. Jesus didn’t die to absolve us of the petty mistakes and foibles of human existence. Yes, of course, on a daily basis, we all do things for which we need to be forgiven, some larger than others. But the notion of sin in the Bible is much bigger than that. Jesus’ life and death was about overcoming Human Sin, with a capital “S.” The sin that Jesus overcomes is not that we lied to our parents or cheated on our spouse, as hurtful as those things can be. The sin that Jesus’ life and death overcomes is the mess we have made of this world, and our human tendency toward oppression and tyranny. Jesus’ death marks God’s solidarity with suffering people everywhere, and in his resurrection, God overcame the powers of death.
That’s not altogether different from the way we make sense of other human deaths. In the same way, after the death of Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, people struggled to make meaning of his death, to assert that he did not die in vain, that in his death he accomplished something of God’s purpose to which he dedicated and sacrificed his life. We do so because his life continues to have meaning for us, because even in death King continues to speak to our time, because after nearly forty years of reflecting on his life and death he has become more than just a flesh and blood person, but has been elevated in our collective experience to a symbol of reconciliation and non-violence and love. It is to this that we bear witness.
Kelly Brown Douglas, in her book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes:
“[Martin Luther] King in fact believed that Jesus’ liberating ministry, and certainly his crucifixion and resurrection, challenged all Christians to identify with the crucified classes of people in their own contexts and to protest any form of injustice. This was clear when King said in his first public address, delivered at the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, “We are not wrong in what we are doing…. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie.”
This is what we mean by salvation. I’ve shared before that the Greek word for healing is the same word translated salvation. Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, brings healing and wholeness into the world. This is what it means to be saved.
Throughout John’s Gospel people who meet Jesus are called to bear witness, to testify to what they have seen and heard. In our story this morning, John the Baptist witnesses to his two disciples, who then follow Jesus. One of them, Andrew, witnesses to his brother Peter. In the following story, Jesus finds Phillip without a witness, but then Phillip finds Nathanael and witnesses to him about Jesus. As Brian Stoffragen has written, often in John’s Gospel, a witness is needed to help others see Jesus. In fact, it may be that one cannot adequately follow Jesus without extending the invitation to others. The essence of our witness as Jesus’ followers, according to John, is to state what we have seen and believe and then to invite others to come and see.
I can’t think of a more important challenge for us this week, not only as we remember Dr. King’s birthday tomorrow, but as we prepare ourselves, mentally and spiritually, for the inauguration that will take place on Friday. This week of all weeks is a moment to testify about those around us and before us who have lived exemplary lives as Christ’s disciples. Surely there are few who have lived out Christ’s ministry of non-violent love more fully that Martin Luther King. King so fully lived out the ethic of non-violence that he caused us to do what few others Christians have done before or since, he led us to actually re-examine Jesus’ life, and to find in the Gospels a commitment to non-violence that was there all along but never fully recognized until we saw it lived out in King’s own life.
One person that I feel called to bear witness to is Congressman John Lewis. Among the many racist comments that our president-elect has made, I can’t think of any so egregious as calling John Lewis a man of all talk and no action. We would do well if our lives had half of the courage, commitment, compassion and integrity of John Lewis. To his life I bear witness.
This week, of all weeks, when we are feeling a mix of anger, anxiety and even disgust, I wonder if we can also change the question. What do you need to bear witness to this week? Who do you see bringing healing and wholeness into the world? What is saving your life right now?
© 2017 Jeffrey K. Krehbiel
Church of the Pilgrims
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037