“Look!, [John the Baptist] said. ”There’s God’s lamb! He’s the one who takes away the world’s sin!” -John 1:29
“God is angry with us every day,” someone exclaimed to me the other day.
And if truth be told, there was a time in my life when I really believed this, too- or at least the way I often unconsciously related to God embodied this view. Within the recesses of a stern, muscle-flexing, fire-and-brimstone presentation of the Gospel, in which we were all “sinners in the hands of an angry God” (to quote the nineteenth century preacher Johnathan Edwards), God seemed a bit like a crotchety, old grandfather with an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder, seeking often violently and unpredictably to stamp out my inherent sinfulness…and I? I could never measure up. I had to be on guard not to tick God off. Which ultimately meant abiding by a “gospel” of constant guilt and sin management.
I am still recovering.
John the Baptist’s language for Jesus as “the lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world is, therefore, problematic for me, in the same way that so much of the Bible’s language around sacrificial “blood offerings” to appease an angry, bloodthirsty God is. Why does the God of the Old Testament seem so beholden to these violent demonstrations of repentance? Why couldn’t God ask Abraham to do something other than sacrifice his own son? Why not have Abraham plant a tree instead- or a forest, for that matter? Or, if this were not costly enough, why not demand that Abraham give away all his possessions to the poor? How is it, moreover, that this same God can in turn sacrifice His only Son as a kind of peace offering with all humanity- a way to “atone” for our erring ways and, in turn, restore our relationship?
These questions linger. But whereas for many of us today, sacrificial language is archaic and disturbing at best, for John the Baptist, this way of describing God’s work would have resonated deeply: “the blood of the lamb” was the distinguishing mark of rescue for God’s people, Israel, in their flight from captivity under Egyptian rule; and it was this miraculous liberation that the annual celebration of “Passover” signified. It is not a coincidence, then, that in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death occurs on the very day of Passover. Jesus for the Gospel writer is the sacrificial lamb who takes upon himself not just the sins of the Jewish people but of the whole world, thereby fulfilling God’s prophecy that Israel will be a “blessing” to all the nations.
But how do we retrieve this very uncomfortable imagery of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb for our time? I would propose that one way is by consulting other places in Scripture. Later in John, Jesus is also the Good Shepherd who “lays down” his life for the sheep. In the act of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross, the Shepherd identifies so closely with His sheep that He takes their place. Jesus stands in for the most vulnerable, misguided, wayward, bleating lambs among us who have “gone astray,” or gotten stuck in the bramble or are up against a wall with a wolf breathing down their neck, and Jesus says, essentially, “I am in your court.” And this identification with us, precisely because it is God (as opposed to just another human being) acting as both Shepherd and lamb, is life-giving.
There is another way to reconstruct this language of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Enter again Mechthild de Magdeburg. In a brilliant, speculative move, Mechthild imagines a dialogue at the beginning of time between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit- a conversation in which the Son and the Holy Spirit cajole the Father into creating human beings out of the Triune God’s overflow of divine love, knowing full well what may come of this act of love (the Fall and human beings’ willful disobedience) but desiring it out of love, anyway.
Later, Mechthild imagines the convening of another “council,” this time to decide what to do about “the filth” that human beings have since made of the gift of being formed in God’s image (III, 9). This time around, the Son, again supported by His Advocate, the Holy Spirit, kneels before His Father and asks for His father’s blessing to “take bloody humanity” upon Himself, so that He might “atone” for “human guilt” by “anointing humankind’s wounds with the blood of His innocence” and “binding all human beings’ sores with the cloth of wretched disgrace” (III, 9). Here again God must be persuaded to redeem us, and God is. “Love wins,” so to speak.
Within Mechthild’s imaginative framework, then, the “Lamb of God” is no helplessly bound sacrificial child led off to slaughter by a sadistic father: Jesus actually subverts our often mechanical, guilt-and-fear-laden approaches to sacrifice, and instead by His own free choice, without any coercion from the Father and purely as an act of great love and power, becomes the divine Scapegoat, the One whom we are invited to blame for our existential “guilt” and aimlessness. And this Jesus, according to Mechthild, must come to our defense within the Triune God Itself. This Jesus must convince an undecided Father about the necessity and glory of His mission.
This, I suspect, is the beginning of what it means to proclaim today that Jesus is the “Lamb of God”: God’s outpouring of love freely given for us, as a kind of covering or olive branch for all the ways that we in our existential guilt can project all kinds of things on God and one another. Now we don’t have to walk around thinking that God is angry at us all the time.