I am indebted to John Shelby Spong for giving me the words to articulate my own objections to the label attached to Jesus by a late first century writer also known as John. Most if not all of this sermon is derived from Jack Spong’s work. For more details I would refer you to Jesus for the Non-Religious and The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. We at Holy Cross were privileged to have Jack speak to us about both of these books. In fact a year before it was published, Holy Cross was the test audience for the material in The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. This sermon ought to have all sorts of footnotes, but I trust you will forgive me for simply confessing that I can no longer tell were Jack leaves off and I begin. Suffice it to say that this sermon is my feeble attempt to put Jack’s work into the form of a sermon.
When I turn the gospel according to John and read about John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, saying: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I want to scream, “NO!” I have come to believe that our images of God are far too narrow. As far as I’m concerned most of our ideas about God fall far short of every even beginning to describe who God might be. One thing I’m absolutely certain of is if we can imagine ourselves being more loving, more gracious, or more merciful that our theology suggests that God is, then we had better go back to the drawing-board and think again. The ways in which we have traditionally interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, paint a picture of a God who is far less loving, gracious or merciful than you or I. Nobody in this room, would demand a blood sacrifice of a lamb, let alone the blood sacrifice of their own child. So, the image of God that is based on this kind of theology must be judged as inadequate to the task of evening beginning to provide us with a glimpse of who our God is.
As we go back to the drawing-board, we ought to take a long hard look at how we arrived at this image in the first place. Thank goodness for the work of our friend Jack Spong who has enabled us to see beyond the literal to the more-than-literal meanings of the various ways in which the followers of Jesus have understood the life and teachings of Jesus. During the years that followed the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers were left wondering what it was all about. How could someone in whom they had seen the fullness of God, be taken from them in such a horrendous way? How could their God allow it? What were they to do? Over the years that followed, Jesus’ followers looked back at the life, death, and resurrection of Christ through the lens of their own religious experiences. Jesus’ followers were primarily Jewish and so it didn’t take long for the familiar Jewish symbol of the Lamb of God to be applied to Jesus as a way of making some sense out of his death. Today most Christians associate the symbol of the Lamb of God with the Jewish celebration of Passover. While the Gospel narratives do indeed locate the time of Jesus death during the celebration of the Passover, and there is indeed a sacrificial lamb involved in the Passover, the actual phrase “the Lamb of God” comes not from the religious rites of Passover, but rather the religious rites of Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement. Phrases like “the Lamb of God”, “died for our sins” and “washed in the blood of the lamb” can all be found in the religious rites of Yom Kippur.
On the Day of Atonement the Jewish people participated in rites that brought to mind their alienation from God. The word sin comes from the Hebrew for “missing the mark” and on the day of Atonement, the people would concentrate on all the many and various ways they had missed the mark in their relationship with God. It was a time of fasting and repentance. Repentance simply means to turn around, in this case to turn away from those things that separate one from God and turn towards God, in order to restore the relationship. Forgiveness simply means restoring to wholeness that which is broken. Yom Kippur was a time to be at one with God.
As an ancient people they practiced ancient customs, which are laid out in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus. The Yom Kippur liturgy required the taking of two animals; they could be either goats or lambs, but by the time of Jesus one was to be a lamb and the other a goat. These two animals were taken to the High Priest. The animals were required to be young, healthy males without a spot, or a blemish or a broken bone. Only the best of the best were to be offered. Since human beings were not allowed to enter God’s presence in their alienated state, they sought to gain access to God by offering a perfect offering. Animals were believed to be morally perfect because they did not have the freedom to choose to do evil and so they were seen as a perfect symbol to be offered to God in place of imperfect people. One of the creatures was chosen by lot to be sacrificed. After being slaughtered this lamb of God was placed on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the spot in the Temple where God was thought to dwell. The blood of the perfect lamb therefore covered the people’s access to God. They went to God only through the blood of the lamb.
The second animal was then brought to the High Priest. Holding its horns and bowing over it, the High priest began to confess the sins of the people. The symbol here was that as the high priest confessed, all the evil inside the people came out and landed on the head and the back of this animal, making it the bearer of their sins. They newly cleansed people celebrated their purity by saying curses on this sin-bearing creature and calling for its death. However, this animal was not killed at Yom Kippur, instead it was run out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people with it. The book of Leviticus calls this creature, “the scapegoat”.
The Apostle Paul as a way to relate the death of Jesus to the people’s hopes and dreams for Jesus used the use of this Yom Kippur symbol. Paul insisted that the death of Jesus was not without meaning, since his death, like the death of the sacrificial lamb, was for our sins. The Gospel according to Mark added to this Yom Kippur connection by interpreting the crucifixion as a “ransom” offered for many.
Jesus like the sacrificial lamb is seen as paying the ransom required and thereby making further punishment unnecessary. The identification between Jesus and the sacrificial lamb was complete by the time the 4th Gospel was written some 70 years after the crucifixion, when the author of the Gospel of John portrays John the Baptist referring to Jesus with words taken directly from the Yom Kippur liturgy: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World.” It is from these writings that some of the Christian theories of substitutionary atonement have been derived.
To this day many Christians believe that though you and I deserve to be punished for our sins, that God sent Jesus to absorb that punishment as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. The Jewish disciples of Jesus understood the identification of Jesus the symbolic Yom Kippur sacrifice as a symbol of the human yearning to be at one with God. It was their way of saying that the death of Jesus was not a tragedy, but was a free and complete act of human self-giving. In offering his life without the need to protect defend or preserve his selfhood, they were saying that in the death of Jesus they had caught a glimpse of who and what God is. They had experienced in Jesus life fully lived, loving extravagantly, as having given them the courage to be fully themselves, fully human.
The death of Jesus was therefore originally interpreted as an act of ultimate self-giving that greatly enhanced life. The trouble is that over the years the tradition developed that allowed us to loss site of the symbolism as we literalized their interpretation. More and more of our theology portrayed God as having demanded the blood sacrifice of God’s beloved child in payment for the offences we are guilty of. While Jesus goes willingly to his death, God is still the one who requires payment. Which begs the question, why? If God is so great, if God is so full of grace, if God is so merciful, if God is so loving, why can’t God simply do what God demands of us and forgive, not once but 70 x 70, without demanding any sacrifice?
The projection of a literal sacrifice for sin depends upon a pre-Darwinian understanding of creation. So is it any wonder that for those of us who inhabit the 21st it has become almost impossible to continue to literalize the stories our ancestors told and believe that because somebody ate an apple at the beginning of time, we have all been cursed by the very God we are asked to worship as a loving and forgiving parent. Darwin’s theory of evolution helps us to see the Creator’s hand in our evolution as we become more and more fully human.
So, becoming one with God is not about blotting out the stain of original sin, but rather evolving into our fullness as creatures grounded in the Creator and source of our being. This is what I believe it means to imitate Christ. To look upon the cross and see Jesus living fully, loving extravagantly, whole and complete and yes having his life taken from him the very way so many have had their lives taken from them, wrongfully. There I see an image of God, weeping because we have yet to fully evolve into all that God created us to be.
In the portrait painted in the gospels of the cross, we see a human life so whole that on the cross he can give his life away. When betrayed Jesus loves the betrayer; when denied and forsaken he loves the deniers and forsakers, when persecuted and killed, he loves his tormentors and killers. The dying Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness to the soldiers who drive the nails. Jesus speaks a word of encouragement to the thief who is portrayed as penitent. Jesus speaks a word of comfort to his mother in her bereavement. This is a portrait of what humanity can be when delivered from our survival mentality, complete and whole so that the life, love, and being of God can flow through our life. It was that understanding of Jesus, I believe, that I believe urged his disciples to cry out that, “God was in Christ!” This is how God becomes human.
Jesus did not die for our sins. Jesus revealed a God who calls and empowers us to step beyond the survival mentality that warps our potential and to become so fully human that God’s love can flow through us to others.
Our theology must expand our images of God. If we can imagine ourselves as being more loving, more gracious, or more forgiving than the portrait of God painted by our theology, then we must recognize our theology for the idolatry that it has become and dare to ask the tough questions trusting that our God is big enough, loving enough, gracious enough to bless us in our quest. Remembering always that, if God is the source of life, we worship God by living. If God is the source of Love, we worship God by loving. If God is the ground of being, we worship God by having the courage to be more fully human; and thus the embodiment of the Divine.