I am a city boy, and I when the Bible talks in agricultural images I am pretty much at a loss. So in this evening’s Gospel, when John the Baptist looks at Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”—my first association with lambs is, of course, the recalcitrant sheep in the movie Babe. Who can ever forget “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe?”
Aggressive sheep and sheepherding pigs aside, John’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God feels, in this context, pretty startling. In the version of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew’s gospel we heard in church this morning, John the Baptist confines his opinions to a simple expression of his own unworthiness when compared with Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). But in tonight’s account from the Fourth Gospel, John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” For city folk like you and me, what can that statement possibly mean?
In the religion of Israel, as in many world religions, animals were used as sacrificial victims. Especially if I wanted to atone for a wrong I had committed, I would bring the best animal I could find (and afford) to the Temple and sacrifice it in the belief that my own guilt would be transferred to the animal. Poor people sacrificed pigeons. The more affluent sacrificed higher quality victims. A perfect lamb was considered the best possible offering.
So when John sees Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” he is referring to a whole tradition that the people who followed him would understand. Even at this opening moment of his ministry, Jesus is identified as someone whose death will have consequences for the human community. He is more than a teacher and a healer. He is more than a prophet. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
I have always been interested in the way Christian symbols have developed over time. In the earliest days, of course, the Christian symbol was the ikthus, the fish. Christianity was an underground movement, and the Greek word ikthus served as an acronym for the Greek words “Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior.” The fish symbol was like a secret handshake, a way of identifying yourself as a Christian in a hidden, subversive way.
A bit later on, as the Christian community emerged into public life, its primary symbol became the lamb. If you think about lambs, you realize that they are not only spotless and pure. They are also innocent. They are not a threat. As the church emerged into a suspicious Roman world, it wanted to show how peace loving and non-threatening it could be. “We may not worship Caesar as a god, but we’re not going to overthrow the established order either.” What better symbol than “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? When you look at early Christian archaeological sites, you see symbolic lambs all over the place.
But in the fourth century, after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity not only legal but the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church rather quickly moved to a new symbol by which to represent itself. Being a dedicated viewer of the series Mad Men, I can imagine the decision-making process as a Madison Avenue-style exercise in marketing. The fish? Too mysterious. The lamb? Too wimpy. We’re not skulking around the catacombs anymore! We’re the official religion of the civilized world! We need an image that subtly projects power and influence. How about using the cross?
That version of imperial Christianity’s marketing strategy may sound a bit sarcastic, but I actually believe that the disappearance of the Lamb of God and the emergence of the cross signaled the church’s transition from a movement to an institution. A world historical religion couldn’t possibly use an innocent victim to symbolize itself. It needed a visual representation of an instrument of state power to show who was really now in charge.
The great Lenny Bruce once observed, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” As snarky as that observation sounds, it reminds us that Jesus died at the hands of state power, and it suggests that we Christians should always approach power—the power of the state, the power of business, power of our own—with a huge dose of skepticism.
In coming to John the Baptist and submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus was saying a couple of things that we his followers need to hear today. The first is that he submitted himself to someone else. Jesus’ first public act is not an exertion of power but an act of submission. Religious people like to talk about God using the language of power and authority: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might.” But this first moment of Jesus’ ministry suggests that Jesus understands God rather differently than you and I do. Just as Jesus submits to John, so the God we know in Jesus is manifested more in weakness than in power. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus demonstrates his credibility not by a miraculous demonstration but by an act of submission. We who follow Jesus are called to a similar kind of humility. Before it was the cross, our symbol was the lamb.
That’s the first thing we need to hear. And here is the second: Jesus begins his ministry the way you and I begin ours, by being baptized. It is not an accident that Jesus goes through the same act of initiation that you and I experience as his followers. One of the ways we talk about the church is to call it the “Body of Christ,” and what we mean is that in baptism you and I become one with each other and with Jesus. Baptism is an act of commissioning, and it’s also an act of solidarity. You and I, together, are Christ in the here and now. On my own I am not Christ, and on your own you are not Christ. But together, we are. In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus not only demonstrated God’s powerless humility. In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus showed himself to be one of us, our brother in the struggle.
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” On this, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Jesus comes to John for baptism. In submitting himself to that washing, Jesus has both humbled himself and dignified us. If he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, by virtue of our baptism you and I are, too. You and I, together, are Christ in the world. You and I, together, are the ones called to empty ourselves in love for the service of those who hunger, who suffer, who mourn. You and I together, are the ones who will bear forth God’s transforming love to the world.
Jesus’ baptism is our baptism. His ministry is now ours. The best image for that ministry is neither the secret fish nor the tortuous cross. As John the Baptist saw when he said it, the best image for our shared ministry is the lamb. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus was baptized and so are we. So: “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe!”
Let us, together, live the baptized life taken on by Jesus, so that all humanity and all creation may be transformed into the image of the heavenly city toward which we are walking with the Lamb of God. Amen.