Epiphany II, Year A
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The LORD called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, "You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
and my reward with my God."
And now the LORD says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength–
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Thus says the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
"Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).
In the quotes from Gil Bailey, Paul helps us see the way that we have systematically misunderstood what it means for Jesus to be the “Lamb of God.” We have done this largely by failing to attribute the demand for blood to the correct party, us. In the now-overused words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” Jesus’ sacrifice was designed to expose our bloodthirstiness, our enslavement to the sacrificial mechanism, not to satisfy a God who sits on the throne demanding yet another scapegoat. By making our sacrificial system and its falseness visible, Jesus takes away our “sin,” our “missing-of-the-mark” and leaves us without a viable victim. (Of course, we continue to seek out a victim whose death will satisfy, but in the end we always fail.)
The question that all of this discussion leaves unasked, though, goes something like this, “Well, if God wasn’t satisfying God’s wrath, or righteousness, or honor in the death of Jesus, if Jesus wasn’t the lamb offered to God, then how is atonement achieved?”
This question needs to be asked outright, and answered in a straightforward manner if we are to deal with/preach to our congregations meaningfully. They have lived most of their lives with the vicious, transactional God whose punishment Jesus had to bear in one sense or another. We can surely show them that this is not so, that Jesus died to satisfy our demand for blood, but that isn’t enough.
The most powerful, life changing moment in any Christian’s life is the moment of catharsis. Mimetic theory treats catharsis as a culturally bound phenomenon, of a piece with the murder of the scapegoat, and therefore, something to be treated with suspicion at best. Yet, without this experience of catharsis, of a peace that washes away our anger and fear, the Christian message is little more than another call be a “do gooder.” Or, in this case, a non-do-badder (one who merely eschews sacrifice). It does not account for the overwhelming capacity for love and reconciliation that most Christians feel in the wake of this catharsis, nor does it give a theological groundwork within which to channel this incredibly positive energy. Christians know that the atonement brings this catharsis, and they hunger for it. To reject catharsis wholesale because it has been a part of the false sacrificial system that has crept into Christianity is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What we must re-claim, if our proclamation is to be anything but dry to most of Christianity, is the powerful moment wherein the individual recognizes her/his reconciliation to God by virtue of some act of God’s. To do this apart from traditional sacrificial thinking will be difficult, but it can be done.
To put it bluntly, we need to lead our people to the Cross, help them experience their own violence as they hammer home the nails, and in the same moment, hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness. Without the violence, this time directed at God, the moment will forever lack power. Catharsis demands violence. If we shy away from that demand, our Gospel will remain a mental construct that lacks the power to change hearts. We must preserve the violence, and at the same time, claim it as our own. Then, as we rail in frustration because our mimetic desires cannot ever be satisfied, and at the same time weep for the murder we are committing of an innocent victim, Jesus can offer us a new way out of the trap, that of limitless forgiveness.
When we have taken full ownership of our own violence, and know ourselves even then to be fully loved and forgiven, there will be nothing we cannot forgive, no wound that can stand in the way of love.
But we resist this path with all our might. Even those of us who preach peace, perhaps we most of all, refuse to see our own murderous natures and the deadly results they yield. We want to think of ourselves as having emerged from that web of sin, and in that desire, we entangle ourselves even more deeply, driving our mimesis, our scapegoating further into the unconscious. And the violence we store there in the dark bubbles up in the most dangerous ways, ultimately robbing our proclamation of any validity.
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away your scapegoat! Go, and hang him on a Cross, that you might finally be truly reconciled!”
There aren’t any significant historical/cultural issues that aren’t adequately dealt with elsewhere.
This isn’t Good Friday. The Anthropological section of this week’s reflection on the Gospel sounds more like something you’d preach in Holy Week!
Still, we do well not to leave the whole of this shift for one day on the calendar. The impacts of this shift in atonement thinking is so vast, and the way that our old, sacrificial theologies have insinuated themselves so systemic, that we need to take every opportunity to preach an alternative when we can.
This week, the part of this shift that seems most accessible is the naming of our old, violent, atonement thinking. I think that if we do a good job of painting the picture of the God of the Violent Atonement, we can convinced our congregations to expel him from our churches with relative ease. The “good news” of this sermon is, “God isn’t like that.”
Of course, that will leave the question, “Then pastor, what is God like?”
We may even want to name that question without trying to answer it. We have a short Epiphany season this year, and Lent is not far off. Leaving this empty place for them to ponder for a bit might not be a bad thing. That gives us several weeks in Lent within which to begin to fill in those blanks, to lead them to Good Friday, to the hammer, to the nails.