Lamb in Liturgy

Midweek Lenten Sermon #4 – March 18, 2015
Pastor Monte Stevens  –  North Riverdale Lutheran Church  –  Dayton, Ohio

 Mark 8:34-35

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, you will save it.

“Lamb in Liturgy”

We have been learning about lambs in our sacred scripture. Or maybe a better way to express that would be to say we have been learning how our Jewish brothers and sisters used different types of lambs to make sense out of Jesus – who he was and what he was about.

We have studied both the Passover Lamb and the Lamb of Yom Kippur and the related scapegoat–who took the sins of the people away.  In John’s Gospel he says of Jesus … “He is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

When Christians today, hear that, they agree and will think that what John and other followers of Jesus meant by that is that Jesus died on the cross for me, that Jesus took my place, that he took my sin upon him and his death atoned from my sins.  This is one type of atonement theology.  It is known by several names like “substitutionary atonement”  or “penal substitution.”

Much of Christianity accepts this and refers to it by shorthand. They use the shorthand phrase, “Jesus died for my sins.”  What is always good to do – although your mom taught you to never talk about politics or religion – is to ask someone what they mean by that.  What do you mean when you say, “Jesus died for my sins.”

What is usually meant by this, is that God sacrificed his son, Jesus, on the cross because someone needed to pay the price for sin.  So Jesus, being perfect, was a perfect sacrifice, to appease God’s wrath and anger and this death was necessary for God to forgive his children.  And God allowing his son to die for us, allowing his blood to cleanse us, just shows how much God loves us.

This has been a very powerful theology for many people over the centuries and many lives have been dramatically changed because of it.  Please hear me, when I say, that this is the theology that I grew up with and causes me to tear up each and every Good Friday.

In short it is a theology all wrapped up in the “blood of Jesus.”  And this theology is woven throughout our liturgy and our hymnody.

Tonight, I would like to call your attention to the substitutionary atonement theology in our hymns and liturgy – that Jesus substituted his life for mine – Jesus substituted his blood for mine.  I also ask you to begin to reflect, with me, if this theology makes sense and is this what the gospel writers and Paul were trying to convey.

Although I have mentioned this before in Adult Forums and from this pulpit, you might not know, or remember, that many biblical scholars think this theology did not exist for the first 1000 years of Christianity, or if it did it was a minor theme.

It was only when a man by the name of St. Anselm of Canterbury, in 1098, wrote a book trying to explain his understanding of God, Jesus and Salvation that this type of atonement theology first appeared in Christianity.  And once it did, it became very popular and became Orthodox and is still popular today.

But the first 1000 years of Christian theology is very different from the 1000 years that came after Anselm. Add to this that Christianity broke apart in 1054 – into the Western Church and the Eastern Church.  Fifty years after the break, is when Anselm, came up with his “substitutionary atonement ” which is still so influential in the Western Church as our liturgy and hymns show.

But the Eastern Orthodox Church had, and still has, a very different atonement theory mostly known as Recapitulation Atonement.  They don’t believe Jesus took their place. (Just “Google” Eastern Orthodox Atonement Theory.)

As a child growing up in the church I heard Western/Anselm Substitutionary Atonement Theology and found it meaningful.  But I no longer do, mainly because of the type of God that you have to believe in for this theology to work.

I have shared with you on various occasions that my view of God has changed numerous times as I have grown on my journey with God.  I once was a substitutionary atonement type of guy, but I no longer am.

You may not realize that there are various types of atonement theology – not only in the New Testament – but from some of our best theologians.  Anselm, who was one of the best theologians of his day in 1098, gave us substitutionary atonement.  But our best theologians of today have moved past substitutionary atonement.

Many people and pastors stay in substitutionary atonement theology because they have never heard of anything else or don’t know any other options.  Or their pastors or seminaries have never told them, and I don’t think any TV preacher even knows anything different.

Many people have left the church because they can no longer believe in a God who requires his own son to be killed or would need blood to make things right with humanity.  They will say, “What kind of parent, let alone what kind of God, would save the world by killing his son?  Is God so angry and vengeful that the only way to appease him is the blood of his son?  Is that the God you want me to worship?  Would you allow your child to be killed – allow his blood to be spilled?”

When you think that you have to believe this to be a Christian many are choosing to not worship a God that would allow that to happen, or require that to forgive his children.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Let’s first take a trip through some of our hymns and liturgy to see this theology in print.  Some of these hymns are hundreds of years old – some of this liturgy reaches back to medieval Christianity and earlier.

There are many hymns but let’s start with # 98 in the Lutheran Book of Worship (your green book).

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For sinners such as I?

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, Thine—
And bathed in its own blood—
While the firm mark of wrath divine,
His Soul in anguish stood.

Or hymn #306

Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed his blood for me.
Died that I might live on high,
lives that I might never die.

Or hymn #327

Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the waters and the blood,
From the riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
cleanse me from the guilt and power.

Not the labors of my hands’
can fulfill the laws demands,
Could my zeal not respite know,
Could me tears ever flow,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save and thou alone.

And verse 3 of How Great Thou Art

But when I think that God, his son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

And I could give you 50 more hymns which have this theology of substitutionary atonement woven into the text of the hymn.  Now don’t get me wrong these are some wonderful hymns and I love to sing them, but I am at a different place in my theology.

While I believe Jesus’ death on the cross was a tremendous sacrifice and changed the world, I no longer believe that God needed Jesus’ blood shed to either forgive sin or save us.

But let’s go onto our Liturgy that we use each week. On communion Sundays, we sing the hymn of praise, “This is the feast.”  We are praising God here.  What are we praising God for?

This is the feast, the Victory of our God.
Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain,
whose blood set us free to be people of God.
This is the feast the Victory of our God.
For the lamb who was slain has begun his reign.

Have you ever noticed that I changed the theology in this hymn of praise?  I changed one word. I changed blood to love.

Listen to how it sounds now.

(Original ) Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.
(New) Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain, whose love set us free to be people of God.

It’s one word, but changes the theology away from substitutionary atonement to what I call participatory atonement.  His act of unconditional love allows us to love unconditionally.  It’s not his blood that sets us free, it’s his love – the love we saw all through his teaching and preaching – that sets us free to be the people of God and participate in what God is doing through Christ.

And then each communion service we sing …
Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.
Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.
Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.
grant us peace, grant us peace.

And this is where it gets tricky in both liturgy and hymns.  How you interpret the words makes a big difference.  Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world.  This is a line straight out of John’s gospel.  (John 1:29)

I have been introducing you to different Jewish lambs these past few weeks so that we might have a better understanding as to what the first followers and Jesus meant when they used this lamb language.  Which lamb that we have learned about took away the sin of the people?

It was the lamb of Yom Kippur.  There were two lambs and the second one was the one that through an elaborate ritual.  The priest took the sins of the people and ritually placed them onto the lamb and then they would drive that lamb out into the wilderness.

This is what God told them to do according to the text from Leviticus.  They drove the lamb out into the wilderness.  But did they kill it?  Did they sacrifice it?  Did they need blood for the sins to be removed?

The answer to all of those questions is No.  But in and through this ritual the people knew that God had forgiven their sins and they were atoned before God.  They were one with God.  Remember that is what atonement means AT-ONE-MENT

When the first followers of Jesus experienced Jesus they felt drawn into the presence of God.  Well, the God who dwelled in the Temple also dwelled in Jesus.  That’s what the Yom Kippur Lamb was a symbol of.  As you remember, it was the one day of the year their sins were removed and they entered into the Holy of Holies and stood in the presence of God.

Jesus’ first followers felt like they were in the presence of God every time they were with him.  The lamb did this on Yom Kippur and Jesus did this every day.  By saying he was the Lamb of God they were using this symbol to express this experience. Since sin is what kept them from being in God’s presence and when in Jesus’ presence they felt forgiven and loved, he became the lamb of God that took away their sin so that they could experience the fullness of life.

But this happened while Jesus was alive – before his death – before he bled.  But after his death on the cross, it became even a more complete symbol as the blood of the lamb had also been used in the ritual of Yom Kippur.

So the lamb of God language in our liturgy works for me in its original Jewish context.  But as soon as that language is used to support a substitutionary atonement theology, it’s not longer true to its Jewish roots, nor supports an image of God I am comfortable with.

The lamb of God was slain.  Jesus was crucified on the cross.  But not so that his death and blood could appease an angry and wrathful God so that I might be forgiven.  Jesus forgave people before his crucifixion.  God forgave people before Jesus.  What the lamb of God (Jesus) did was to draw people into the presence of God like no one had ever done before.  What has been accomplished through ritual was now experienced in a person.

I find my Atonement, my AT-ONE-MENT, with God through Christ, but it doesn’t happen through Jesus’ blood, as St. Anselm wrote about it.  But rather through the love that he offers – to all who choose to follow him.

We have learned to read the scripture, through the theologians of the past, especially St. Anselm and St. Augustine.  Their theology has found its way into our liturgy and hymns. That has been good for many – and may still be good for you.  But there are many, me included, who are no longer fed by this theology.

Some of our best theologians today are guiding us in new theology, new atonement theologies, new understandings of Jesus – his life, his teaching, his death, his cross.  Some will recover the meaning of the Jewish symbols like lamb of God and build upon them.  Others will choose other teachings of Jesus or other symbols like “Being Born Again” as in John’s gospel, or being the Second Adam in Paul’s writing.

The WHY of Jesus dying is central to Christianity, and Anselm gave one reason that made sense to him.  It was for him a transaction for man’s sinful nature – substituting JESUS for me or you.

Was he right?  Is that still helpful on your spiritual journey?  That’s for you to decide. And for you to continue a process of biblical study and reflection as to why did the Lamb of God, as some chose to call him, die?  Why was he crucified?  What did his death mean and what did it do?

If you listen closely, from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, I will be sharing how I view Jesus’ death, what it meant then, and for us today.

The Spiritual journey is just that – a journey – and I offer to be your guide as your journey takes twists and turns.  As God’s spirit speaks to you.

As a gathered community there is nothing better than keeping Jesus front and center, to talk about who Jesus was and is.  What was his life about?  What was his death about?  For how we understand him, leads to how and what we follow and sacrifice our lives for.

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Mk. 8:34)

For me, it’s all about the Lamb’s sacrificial and unconditional love – setting us free to be the people of God.