In the final scene of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, as John tells the story, the Roman Governor turns to the people, and says, “Behold the Man” (Jn. 19:5 KJV). Or, as the Latin Vulgate renders it: “Ecce Homo.”
This phrase loses something in its modern renditions. “Here is the man” doesn’t carry near the power of “Behold the Man.” When you hear this phrase in the King James, you can feel the tension in the crowd. There he is, the governor, standing before the people, holding in his hands the power of life and death, and turning to the people, as if he’s presiding over the arena and inviting them to decide: Thumbs up or thumbs down? Which is it?
It is only the Second Sunday after Epiphany, and we’re still contemplating the revelation of God’s presence in the world. Good Friday seems so far off, and yet this Good Friday scene stands behind the testimony of John the Baptist. Even as Pilate shouts out with all the imperial might behind him – “Behold the Man” – the Baptizer also points to Jesus and says “Behold, the lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.” Again, I use the King James, because it adds drama to this testimony.
Both the Baptizer and Pilate bear witness to the centrality of Jesus to the mission of God. Here in our text this morning, we hear John call out: There is the Lamb of God. He is the one we’ve been waiting for. He’s the one who bears the Spirit of God, the one who existed before me, and therefore, is greater than me. My ministry, the Baptizer says, must now recede into the background, as Jesus picks up God’s mantle. He is, as Isaiah proclaims, the servant of God who not only redeems Israel, but offers “a light to the nations, so that [God’s] salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6).
Because God’s presence has been made manifest in our midst, we are invited to join the Baptizer and even Pilate in bearing witness to this light that’s shining in the darkness. With them, we can declare to the world – “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
1. THE PASSOVER LAMB REVEALED
When we hear John the Baptist speak of the Lamb of God, what comes to mind? Does your mind go to Psalm 23, where the Good Shepherd brings the sheep safely through the dark valleys into the safety of the meadow? Or, do you think of the parable, where the Good Shepherd goes off looking for the lost lamb and then brings it back to the safety of the flock? These are comforting images that are deeply ingrained in our minds and hearts, because they speak of God’s compassionate care for the people of God. But these aren’t the images present in this particular case. No, when John points out Jesus and calls him the Lamb of God, he has in mind the Passover Lamb, which is sacrificed as a reminder that God spared the Hebrews so that they might become the people of God.
So, when John points out Jesus and calls him the “Lamb of God,” he want us to understand that Jesus is the one whose sacrifice provides the way of salvation. This might be a disturbing image for some, even though it’s long been part of the Christian testimony that stands behind our Table Fellowship. We come to the Table each week to take part in the Passover celebration, knowing that Jesus is the Passover Lamb through whom we are made one with God.
You can see how John’s witness ties together with Pilate’s. Both are saying something similar – here is the one whom God has chosen to be the Passover Sacrifice, and in John’s theology, this is a sacrifice of atonement. That is, through his death, Jesus brings God and humanity back together into a relationship that had been damaged by human sin. Or, as we read 1 Peter 1, Jesus is the one who ransoms us from the evil one by offering his precious blood, “like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Although we don’t have time to go into depth here about what this means, I need to say up front, that we must let go of the idea that Jesus dies on the cross to appease the wrath of God, even if that is an image that has been passed down through time. But if Jesus doesn’t appease God’s wrath through his death on the cross, then how should we understand this image of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?
2. THE SUFFERING SERVANT
One way to interpret this text is to go back to the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah. In Isaiah 53, the prophet speaks of the innocent one, who like a silent lamb is led to slaughter. He becomes, the prophet writes, a sin offering for us, so that through his righteousness, the many are made righteous, and the Servant does this by making intercession for the transgressors.
In context, the prophet is speaking of the Jewish people who suffered greatly during the exile, but out of this exile God forged a new people. The alienation that existed before the exile is taken away, so that a new relationship can emerge. And so, Jesus doesn’t die to appease God’s wrath, but instead he dies because we lay our own iniquities upon him. We make him, to change the image slightly, the scape goat, who carries our transgressions, and in the midst of this, the Lamb of God intercedes for us, that we might be reconciled with God and with one another.
3. FOLLOWING THE LAMB
If we will receive this word from John that the Lamb of God is present with us, seeking to restore our relationship with God and with one another, even if we struggle with some of the language, how then should we respond?
The answer, I believe, comes in the closing verses of our text. The Baptizer points Jesus out to two of his disciples. He tells them – there’s the Lamb of God, the one we’ve been waiting for, and without asking for permission, these two disciples leave John behind and go to Jesus.
One of these two disciples of John is Andrew, the brother of Simon, who quickly realizes that his old team is folding and he needs to join the new one. There is no time to waste, and when he comes to Jesus, he asks: Where are you staying? Jesus knows that Andrew isn’t just curious about where the Lamb of God lives, and so he responds: “Come and see” where I am staying. That is, come and join with me in the work of God, and Andrew, who is the patron saint of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – so to speak – joins with his still unnamed companion in following Jesus. But this isn’t the end of the story.
You see, Andrew has a bit of witnessing to do himself. Having seen the light, he goes and gets his brother and says – “We’ve found the Messiah.” And so Simon follows his brother’s lead, and comes to Jesus, who says to Simon: Your name was Simon, but now it will be Cephas or Peter. Because you have chosen to follow me, you will have a new identity. It’s interesting that in John’s gospel, it’s Andrew who makes the good confession, but it’s Peter who gets the call.
What then does it mean for us to hear the Baptist’s witness? Will we join Andrew and Simon in following Jesus? And if so, what does it mean for us to join up with the Lamb of God?
Could it mean that God is calling on us to follow in the footsteps of the Lamb of God and lay down our lives for our neighbors? And if so, what does that mean? What I hear in this call of God is an invitation to experience “agape love,” as it’s defined by theologian Tom Oord. He defines agape as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.” That is, “in spite of the evil done, agape responds by promoting good.” Therefore, even though the death of Jesus results from an evil act, God has chosen to use this act to promote that which is good. (Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology, Chalice, 2010, p. 56).
In trying to understand what this means for us, I think it’s appropriate that this is Martin Luther King Weekend. Dr. King was a prophet, whose tragic death at the hands of an assassin, issued in a call for the people of America to tear down the walls that divide us – whether these walls are defined by ethnicity, color, or poverty. Dr. King seemed to understand what it meant to be a follower of the Lamb of God, and he also understood that if he continued in his ministry of reconciliation, his life might be taken. But he was willing to take that risk, because he understood that this is the way of Christ, the Lamb of God. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was murdered while celebrating Mass in his Cathedral is another person who bears witness in his own life to the reconciling presence of the Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the World. Dr. King, Archbishop Romero, Andrew and Peter, all understood what it meant to walk in the footsteps of the Lamb of God, and in doing so, they too became suffering servants in whom the Light of God shines brightly in the world.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself experienced suffering and death in service to his Lord, put it “when Christ calls, he bids us come and die.” What then does it mean to testify to the one who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Perhaps our response should be that expressed in the Episcopal liturgy of my youth. After the priest consecrated the bread and broke it, the priest would lift up the broken bread and say: “Christ our Passover has been Sacrificed,” and we would respond: “Alleluia, Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us! Alleluia.” In making this statement, we recognize that we who have experienced estrangement from God and from one another, have been reconciled through the Christ, who is our Passover Lamb. Therefore we can shout “Alleluia.”