Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year A):
This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on January 15, 2017.
This last Wednesday was the third anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Some of you met me when I was a Postulant, which I was when I first started working as the Director of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group. I then became a Candidate for Holy Orders and I specifically remember sitting in one of the pews here on my last Sunday as a lay minister, in June of 2013, a few days before driving down to Los Angeles to be ordained to the transitional diaconate at St. John’s Cathedral. Six months later, I drove to LA again to be ordained a priest on January 11th, 2014. And I actually had a profound dream the night before my ordination that has informed my ministry ever since. Remind me to tell you about that sometime. Today I feel the Gospel inviting me to reflect on my three years of celebrating Eucharist as a priest and specifically on one part of the Eucharist that I personally find to be especially powerful and provocative.
After praying the final doxology of the Eucharistic prayer (as I hold up the Bread and Wine and say, “All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ: By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever”), what do you then say in response? You say, “Amen,” which is called the Great Amen. Many liturgists argue that the communal saying of the Great Amen is the pinnacle of the Eucharistic prayer, when the bread and wine become fully consecrated by all of us. So always remember to say that Great Amen with lots of vim and vigor.
We then boldly pray together the Lord’s Prayer. And what happens after that? I then lift up the bread and break it. And according to the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer, after the breaking of the Bread, a period of silence is to be observed (page 364). Why do you think that is? The silence is not given as an option, but as an expectation: “A period of silence is kept.” This is also perhaps one of the most ignored rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer. I am guilty of often ignoring it myself. Why do you think that’s the case? You don’t have to answer that now, but I invite you to think about it.
After this silence, the priest has the option to say or sing one of the many Fraction Anthems. When I first began here as priest, we were using one in which the priest says, “We break this bread to share in the Body of Christ” and the people respond by saying, “We who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.” However, what does the Book of Common Prayer suggest for a Fraction Anthem? It suggests what is called the Pascha Nostrum, in which the priest says “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” with the people responding, “Therefore, let us keep the feast.” Many find this anthem to be somewhat archaic and unsettling because it contains language of sacrifice and seems to suggest that we have just sacrificed a Passover Lamb, upon which we will now feast. Often used along with this Fraction Anthem is the Agnus Dei, in which the priest says three times, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” The first two times, the people respond by saying, “Have mercy on us.” The third time, the people’s response is “grant us peace.” This anthem also seems to reiterate the idea that we have together sacrificed a Passover Lamb.
I will admit that I find some of this language and the theology often associated with it challenging and disturbing and yet, as I have been presiding as a priest for three years now, it is this breaking of the bread and the subsequent sacrificial language that I find to be the most powerful. I’m sure I will spend the rest of my life unpacking the multivalent meaning of these mysterious words, but this morning I’d like to start unpacking some of the meaning behind these ancient liturgical assertions that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us and that the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
In our Gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist refers to Jesus twice as the “Lamb of God.” This is the first title given to Jesus in John’s Gospel, after the Prologue. This is also the only time in all of Scripture that the phrase “Lamb of God” appears (so it is a hapax legomenon), which makes it especially difficult to decipher. New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders believes that “somehow, everything is contained, like the oak in the acorn, in this foundational identification [of Jesus as the Lamb of God].” So what does it mean?
Although scholars have puzzled over this phrase for centuries, they tend to agree that the author of John’s Gospel has at least three Hebrew Scripture references in mind when he says “Lamb of God.” The first reference is to the Lamb that was substituted for Isaac when Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22. The second reference is to the Passover in Exodus 12, in which God commanded the Hebrews to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on the lintel of their door so that the Destroyer would pass over the house and not kill the firstborn son of the house. (This ancient ritual is actually not too unlike what we did last week when we chalked the lintel of our door and prayed for God’s blessing and protection over this building and community for the new year. And I’m glad we did since it may have helped protect the church from being flooded by the storm that passed over on Tuesday night). The third reference is to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 who bore the suffering of an entire community and who was described as being “led like a lamb to the slaughter” (53:7). In all of these cases, the lamb is a vulnerable being who effectively combats violence and protects innocent victims. The lamb in Genesis saves the life of young Isaac. The Passover Lamb saves the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of Hebrew children in Egypt. And the Suffering Servant saves an entire community. The lamb combats violence not through more violence but through completely non-violent self-giving. Violence cannot drive out violence, only non-violent self-giving love can do that; or in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
The author of John’s Gospel associates Jesus with the vulnerable and wholly non-violent lambs of Scripture that effectively halt violence and protect victims by giving of themselves. As I have said before, in Jesus, God reveals Godself to us as a vulnerable human being protecting other vulnerable human beings. And just like the lamb on Mount Moriah, the Passover Lamb, and the Suffering Servant, Jesus’s non-violent self-giving love tragically resulted in his death. Many others have followed in this same path of non-violent self-giving love and have met the same fate. This weekend we honor a contemporary “Lamb of God” in the person of Martin Luther King Jr., who was committed to peaceably protecting all victims. In fact, it was while working to protect victims of extreme economic inequality and dangerous working conditions in that Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. A vulnerable human being protecting other vulnerable human beings through non-violent self-giving love. These are the Lambs of God that take away the sins of the world.
And we are called to be these Lambs of God. We are called to imitate and emulate MLK by standing up for the vulnerable around us, even if that means risking our own safety and well-being in the process. We have an opportunity to emulate MLK and be Lambs of God next Sunday afternoon by packing 10,000 meals for victims of extreme hunger. There is also an opportunity this Saturday to emulate MLK and be a Lamb of God by participating in the Women’s March which will be held in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, a march that stands for justice, respect, and inclusion for all. I will certainly be there, wearing my clergy collar, representing all of us and I encourage you to join me as well.
As Lambs of God, we are not some docile community of bleating sheep. We are SAINTs, Subversive Agents Inspiring Nonviolent Transformation, as I spoke about on All Saints Day. And the reason we are able to risk our own safety for the sake of others is because we are fed and nourished each week by the divine Lamb of God who gives himself fully to us, who breaks himself open in the bread that we share, who pours himself out in the wine that we drink, who takes away our sins and the sins of the world and who invites us to abide and rest in him.
Our Gospel reading this morning includes the first words that Jesus says in John, which are a profound question: Ti zeteite? (John 1:38) What do you seek? What are you looking for? The disciples respond by asking about Jesus’s abode. And Jesus says, “Come and see. And abide in me.” In order to be SAINTs and Lambs of God in this world, we must abide in Christ. It is only by abiding in Christ that we can tap into that divine resurrection power that made a solid rock out of Peter, that made MLK continue trust in the power of love even on the day he was shot and killed, and that can make all of us shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory (as our Collect says). And it is by resting and abiding in him that our deepest desires are satisfied. As Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
(And when it comes to this sacrificial language, I still have a hard time with it. Popular theology asserts that God needs bloody sacrifice in order to appease his wrath; and there may be some truth to that. The Bible seems to suggest that. And yet I have a hard time with that. And as we were praying the Psalm together, I felt like the Psalmist, perhaps David, was wrestling with those same questions. And he says, “You do not desire this kind of sacrifice. You do not demand the killing of animals or child sacrifice or human sacrifice, which is common in many primitive cultures.” But there is a different kind of sacrifice that we are called into. And I think the Psalmist moves into this when he says, “Here I am. I am willing to do your will. No matter what that means. I am giving myself fully to You, God, and to the vulnerable around me, to protect them.” That’s the sacrifice I believe we are called to as SAINTS, as Lambs of God. And that’s how Christ offers himself to us. And that’s how he feeds and nourishes us each Sunday.)
So when I break the bread at the altar, let us observe the silence for a moment and let us enter into that resting and abiding in Christ, in the One who breaks himself open for us, in the Lamb of God who takes away our sins and the sins of the world and who nourishes and empowers us to be Lambs of God in our world today. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.
 Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, 153. She also says that this identification functions as “a Johannine hermeneutical sword for cutting through [the] Gordian knot [of Jesus’ death as being simultaneously evil and salvific. Schneiders, 167.