Lamb of God
Romans 5.8 While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!
Paul's best-known words occur in one of the set readings for today. Having
written in his letter to the Romans about the fulfillment of God's promise
through the Jewish nation, Paul goes on to examine what it means to "get
right with God." It seems that this comes through Jesus' death on the
cross "while we were still sinners ..."
How is it
possible for a man's death to put anyone right with God - much less the
death of an obscure prophet two thousand years ago? That at first sight
appears utter nonsense(1 Corinthians 1.23). And what sort of God requires
anyone's death as payment for sins? To many in the 21st century that's an
appalling concept. It doesn't make sense.
first Christians did make sense of it.
Jews. For them the idea of sacrifice was central to their way of life - as
it was throughout the known world of the time. A general belief was that
"life is in the blood" (Deuteronomy 12.23). When an animal was killed at
the altar there was a supposed substitution of the animal's life for the
sins of the person or community. That was how people got right with God.
On the Day of Atonement sins were symbolically placed on a goat which was
then driven into the desert (Leviticus 16.20): "The goat will carry all
their sins away..." and make them right with God.
Not surprisingly, similar ideas came into play when early Christians
sought to make sense of the death of Jesus,. What more natural than the
time-honoured metaphor of sacrifice? The image of Jesus as the sacrificial
"Lamb of God" who makes us right with God was easily understood by all,
both Jew and Gentile.
But how are we to
understand the death of Jesus today? We no longer sacrifice animals to get
right with God. We no longer ritually place our sins onto a goat or any
other animal. Such ideas would be totally unacceptable to most people in
Westernised societies - though similar practices survive in some parts of
the world to this day.
All of us, however, can
still recognise in the giving of life something ultimately heroic. A
parent dies for a child; a lover gives up all for the beloved; a soldier
tastes death for his or her country; a mother nurtures her family.
Likewise, Jesus died selflessly to prevent his friends being hunted down
and killed by the Roman authorities. This sort of sacrifice is the giving
up of life for what is intrinsically worthwhile, for people and ideals
which really matter. Its value is plain to us all - something which always
has, and always will be, worthy of our admiration, gratitude and
But I for one can't work out how
the death of Jesus 2 000 years ago can possibly directly affect me today
except in the most distant manner. Not only is the image of a sacrificial
lamb no longer relevant to me, but my mind doesn't grasp the mechanism of
substitution involved in older interpretations of his death.
Despite that, it's a fact of life that Jesus started something. Just as we
say that the Beatles or Elvis Presley "started something" in the world of
pop music, so the death of Jesus started something. Julius Caesar, Karl
Marx, Abraham Lincoln and a host of other great leaders all "started
The "something" that Jesus started by his death was, it
seems to me, a way of life which loves other people to the death without
regard for the merits of the receiver. Jesus died for his friends even
though few would have said, either then or later, that they were worth the
sacrifice of so great a person.
This is the revolutionary truth which
has powered the Christian faith for two millennia, despite all its
accretions and absurdities. Many Christians don't like it because it might
call them out of their comfortable pews. Many others ignore it because,
instead of killing or exploiting others for their own gain, they would be
dying for the gain of the other.
Recognising this sharpens the challenge
of Lent almost unbearably. If we are to continue what Jesus started, then
repentance becomes something much more than emotionally-charged conversion
to believing this or that doctrine, or submitting to this or that
ecclesiastical authority, or becoming part of this or that denomination.
Repentance in Lent isn't only being sorry for failures to love (though
it's partly that) - it's about a radical turnabout towards the possibility
of sacrifice for no good reason except love of the other.
sacrificial repentance is for each of us depends upon our situations. A
few may find themselves facing literal death for no good cause except
other people. The vast majority of us face not the giving of life, but the
giving of time, or effort, or compassion, or our own priorities for others
who by most measures are not worth it. That's what Paul meant, I suppose,
when he said that Jesus died for sinners - for people who are troublesome,
irreligious, foreign, poor, unhealthy, of the wrong class or tribe and the
like. Or even our enemies.