Friday, January 20, 2017

Behold the Lamb

“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  St. John 1:29

I wonder if you have chosen your seat in church for a particular reason.  A few years ago, one of my parishioners told me that she had thought a good deal about it before settling on her choice. A dear friend, a rather holy woman, had once sat week by week in the pew in front of her.  She didn’t really hear that well, so being nearer the pulpit was useful.  But really, she chose the pew because it had the best angle for viewing both her favorite stained glass window and the Altar Cross. Seeing both those things allowed her to concentrate her mind when she prayed and helped her to feel that God was near.

I could understand just what she meant, because I too had a favorite seat, the rector’s stall at Saint Paul’s Church in Sharpsburg.  Because there I had a perfect view of the Lamb.  There was a tiny window in the wall of the chancel just opposite the rector’s pew, a lamb with a halo, bearing the flag of victory.  Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  No one could see it but me, but I saw it constantly, as I sat and listened to the readings, as I turned to the people to pronounce the Word of Absolution or to approach the pulpit to preach, as I turned to the Altar to pray.

I expect the Lamb was placed there as a reminder of that vocation sternly laid upon the clergy by Saint Paul, to “preach not ourselves but Christ crucified.[1]”  It urged me to call to mind that the Gospel I proclaimed spoke first of Him, that the forgiveness I declared was granted through His mercy, that the Sacraments I administered were effective through the power of His death and resurrection.  The window reminded me that it was He that the people needed, not me, and when they discovered true joy and hope, it would be because, at long last, they had finally seen Him.

John the Baptist urges his disciples to behold the Lamb.  He would go on, of course, to tell them to abide with Him, to listen to Him.  But twice he tells them to behold Him, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. 

There’s no accident about this, for beholding Jesus is at the heart of faith throughout St. John’s Gospel and his Epistles.  “The word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” sings the prologue, “and we beheld His glory.[2]”  The central miracle of the Gospel is the healing of a blind man, who comes to believe when He sees Jesus[3].  Near the very end of the Gospel, St. Thomas insists that He must see the risen Lord, and then He will believe.  When he has seen the mark of the nails, he cries out “my Lord and my God.[4]”  And of course, above all the other writers of the New Testament, St. John emphasizes that our final destiny, the goal set before us, is the vision of Christ in His glory.  “We shall be like Him,” he writes, “for we shall see Him as He is.[5]

When we look upon Jesus, faith is awakened in us.  We gain courage to do things we could have never imagined before.  We become one with Jesus when we behold Him, and thus we become like Him, sharing in His saving mission.

John the Baptist describes Jesus, the object of our vision, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Biblical commentators have spilled oceans of ink trying to distinguish exactly which symbolic lamb John the Baptist had in mind, as the stories and rites of the Old Testament are packed full of them.  Archbishop Temple suggested that the best way to tackle the question is to begin by pondering what is meant by “the sin of the world,” that Jesus has come to carry away or to take upon Himself.

“There is only one sin,” Temple wrote, “and it is characteristic of the whole world.  It is the self-will which prefers ‘my’ way to God’s, which puts ‘me’ in the centre where only God is in place.  It pervades the universe.  It accounts for the cruelty of the jungle, where each animal follows its own appetite, unheeding and unable to heed any general good.  It becomes conscious, and thereby tenfold more virulent in man.[6]

Among all those who have come into the world, Jesus alone was free of this “self-will that prefers my way to God’s.”  Only His life was given entirely to securing the general good.  The very first act of human worship, you may remember, was a sacrifice, two brothers who brought the fruit of their labors to God.  And the perfect offering, the one God looked upon with favor, was Abel’s lamb, the firstling of the flock[7].  Jesus’s life is that perfect offering, the One among us who fully expresses God’s purposes.

But the sin of the world is taken away only when that perfect life is surrendered for the sake of rest of humanity, so that the fullness of His life might become a source of life for others.  We think then, Archbishop Temple says, of the other great lamb of Genesis, the one God placed in the thornbush so that Abraham’s beloved son could be spared[8].   That lamb was slain so that faithfulness could see its reward and God’s preserving mercy could be fully revealed. 

Jesus is both priest and victim.  He is the one who gives His life freely because it is the life of complete faithfulness.  He is also the one who dies in great humility so that love, which always gives, might run its full course.  John the Baptist marks Him out and bids us to look and know and adore Him, the source of our life, the well-spring of grace.

But He also is calling us to become like Him, to be transformed by what we see.  For by nature, our vision is shaped only by the sin of the world.  We see God as a tool to be coopted for our little projects.  We see people as instruments in our struggle for mastery or the securing of our pleasures.  We look into the events of our lives, and we see danger and scarcity, competition and folly.

But to see Jesus, as the Fathers often say, is to have the eye filled with light.  Another world is revealed to us, a graced world, with our good and loving God standing at the center of it.  We see others as creatures of dignity, filled with the Spirit’s gifts.  In the events around us we see abundance and peace, opportunities for cooperation.  When I looked at the lamb in the chancel window at Saint Paul’s, I also saw the meaning of my own vocation, the power at work in me to make my labors fruitful.  It’s the same for all of us.  When we truly see Jesus, we feel the pull to spend ourselves for others, to answer His love for God and the world with the best we can offer.

To behold the Lamb of God in this way is not the action of a moment, but the work of the Spirit in us, across the course of our lifetime.  It’s why our hymns and anthems return so often to praise Jesus, His name is, as Newton’s great hymn confesses, “a never-failing treasury filled with boundless stores of grace.[9]”  It’s why we pray before the Cross, fixing our eyes on the great sign of self-giving love and victory over sin.  It’s why we bow low before the bread which has become, for us His Body, a foretaste of that unbroken communion to come.  Looking up in faith, we acclaim Him: “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace.[10]” 

[1] II Cor. 4:5.
[2] John 1:14.
[3] John 9:38.
[4] John 20:25, 28.
[5] I John 3:2.
[6] Temple, William.  Readings in St. John’s Gospel.  Wilton: Morehouse Barlow, 1985, 24.
[7] Gen. 4:4.
[8] Gen. 22:13,
[9] Hymn 644, Hymnal 1982, vs. 3.
[10] “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One.”  The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 337.

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