Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Lamb of God
January 16, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , , ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 16th January 2011

“The Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world.” Such familiar words to us, but what on earth can they have meant to those who heard John say them? The Greek word used for “lamb” here, amnos, is quite rare in the New Testament: it occurs in Acts, where Philip is explaining to the Ethiopian the words of Isaiah, “he was like a lamb dumb before its shearers,” applying them to Jesus; and in the first letter of Peter, where he speaks of “the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain, namely Christ.” The other main place where Christ is referred to as the Lamb, the Book of Revelation, actually uses another Greek word, arnion.

To a first-century Jew, a lamb would inevitably be associated with sacrifice, where at Passover or at other times, but probably mainly in connection with Passover. But Passover was associated principally with deliverance from slavery, rather than forgiveness of sins. So I think linking the idea of God’s Lamb with the taking away of sin would have suggested something unfamiliar to the disciples. Can we work out what this may have been?

The idea of liberation, being set free, has always been, as it were, hard-wired into the Jewish psyche. The Exodus from Egypt, and the Return from Exile in Babylon, are key-moments in Old Testament history. Yet at the time of Jesus the Jewish people was still under foreign domination. Previous liberations had not lasted. There was a longing for a Messiah who would bring the definitive and final liberation. Not unnaturally, this was popularly thought of in political terms: the freeing of a particular people from oppression by other people.

But there is another theme in the Scriptures, namely, righteousness. Even in the hey-day of the ancient monarchy, between David and the Exile, the prophets spoke of God’s demand for justice among his people. Oppression need not be external, by foreigners, it could exist within the Israelite people itself: oppression of the weak by the strong, of the poor by the rich. The prophets stressed that the Law, the Torah of God, was not just about outward observances, but about inward holiness.

In his book on St Francis, G.K.Chesterton wrote: “There are many who will smile at the saying; but it is profoundly true to say that the glad good news brought by the Gospel was the news of original sin.” That sounds paradoxical: Chesterton meant it to be. Original Sin is nowadays regarded as a dreadful doctrine, imported into Christianity by dodgy characters such as St Paul and St Augustine. In Britain, particularly, there is a gut-sympathy with the British heretic so opposed by Augustine, Pelagius, who is thought to have taught the fundamental goodness of human nature, while Augustine taught that humanity is fundamentally corrupt, and in particular that it is all due to sex.

Actually, what Pelagius thought was that human beings can do the right thing if only they try hard enough, and that if they do wrong it is entirely their own fault. Augustine, following Paul, said that often we want to do what is right, but are prevented from doing so by factors not entirely under our control: impulses to anger, or greed or whatever within ourselves, as well as social conditions and attitudes outside ourselves. There are mitigating circumstances. And to me, that sounds more realistic and more humane.

Where does that get us? It gets us to the understanding that sin, moral failure, is itself a sort of slavery. We are not as free as we would like to be. As St Paul writes to the Romans: “In my inner heart I delight in God’s Law; but my lower nature follows a different law… Who will set me free from this mortal nature?” He gives the answer straight away: “Thanks be to God! It is through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Jesus the Liberator takes away the sin of the world. As God’s Lamb, sacrificed for us, he brings about the definitive Exodus from slavery: not political oppression, but slavery to our own lower nature. He is the Truth that sets us free. He is the bearer of the Holy Spirit, who shares that Spirit with us. John called the people to repentance, to turn back to God; but it is Jesus who renews us inwardly, and gives us the power to live Christ-like lives.

In the second part of the Gospel, two disciples follow Jesus and ask “Where do you dwell?” In return, they receive the invitation, “Come and see,” and we are told that they remained with him for the rest of the day. One of the two was Andrew, who went to find his brother Simon, and bring him to Jesus. (Jesus gives Simon a new name, Cephas or Peter, the Rock.) The experience of being with Jesus brings with it the desire to share that experience with others. Already it is not self-regarding, it is outward looking, missionary, evangelistic.

If I may summarise, then: Jesus is the Lamb of God, who by his obedience and self-sacrifice sets us free from our selfishness and sin, and unites us with God through the indwelling Holy Spirit. We, called to repentance and conversion of heart, must recognise both our own weakness and Jesus’ power. If we follow him and dwell with him, we shall want to share his love and forgiveness with others.

May we join Andrew and Peter in following Jesus, and bringing the good news of salvation to our own society. And may our Lady of Walsingham pray for us.

[Or, as I nearly said: Let us join Andrew in seeking Peter, and under the patronage of Our Lady of Walsingham let us follow Jesus and share his Gospel with the people of England.]

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