Anatomy of a Murder

Whodunnit? It’s the question asked of every murder mystery. Perhaps it’s Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with the lead piping; or maybe it’s Miss Scarlet in the dining room with the candlestick. But “whodunnit?” is not a question that is asked very often about the death of Jesus: either we don’t think about it, or we assume that we know. But if we take a closer look, we might find that the answer to “whodunnit?”, that is, who demanded Jesus’ death, is not exactly what we assume; yet whodunnit has enormous implications for our faith.

At first glance, tonight’s story doesn’t seem to have much to do with the mystery of Jesus’ death. Yet his death, and whodunnit, is at the heart of the prophet John’s declaration: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The gospel writer, also called John, goes on to use this motif to shape everything that follows. So what does it mean? The answer is layered and various, and what John the Baptist meant by it is probably not the direction the gospel writer took it. However, with these provisos, let’s take a look at how the gospel writer, at least, explores the image of the lamb of God.

Back then, lambs were used as sacrificial animals. What this means is that, very loosely, if you had sinned, you went to the temple and confessed. Then you gave blood to God as some sort of restitution or payment for your sin. But, of course, you didn’t want to shed your own blood, or your children’s. Therefore, you purchased an animal to take your place. It could be a dove, a lamb, or, for a really big sin, an ox. A priest would slaughter the animal, and sprinkle the blood on the altar; God was understood to be satisfied; and you no longer had to worry about your sin.

So that was the system then, and it still shapes how many people think about the Lamb of God even now. The idea is this: The sin of the world is an affront to God, and it makes God furious. Therefore, God must be appeased by blood. But, because God loves us, God sent his only son to be slaughtered in our place, and to make us right with God. Many of us have encountered this understanding of the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God; it is called the sacrificial reading, or substitutionary atonement.

Of course, once you stop and think about it, this reading doesn’t say much good about God. It suggests that God is so angry with us that he wants our blood to pour out in rivers; but will accept the blood of a dove, a lamb, or an ox instead. And yet, for some reason, God decides to substitute the blood of his own son, the Human One, for the blood of the animals that are being killed at the temple—and this blood will calm God’s terrible rage once and for all. The problem is, this doesn’t look much like love. Instead, it makes God look like a vindictive and violent psychopath.

And this approach isn’t consistent with some early church understandings, nor does it match other significant stories about God. For example, it directly contradicts an earlier story, told at a time when child sacrifice was widespread. In this context, a man named Abraham was preparing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, as a gift to God. Abraham ties up the boy, raises his knife—and in that terrible moment God speaks: Stop! Do not kill the boy! And then God provides a ram in place of the son. So, could the God who once replaced a son with a ram now be replacing a lamb with a son, and his own? Could the God who once turned Abraham’s violence away from his son now be demanding the murder of his own son to satisfy a blood-thirsty rage at the sin of the world? I don’t think so.

How else can we read it? Well, that’s where we need to look at whodunnit: who, exactly, demanded the death of Jesus. To do that, we need to turn to the end of John’s gospel. There, we find priests plotting; there, we find Caiaphas, the high priest, described as “the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people”: one person killed to unite the crowd. One scapegoat. And there, we hear the crowd screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” What we do not find is God demanding death. Instead, it is us: ordinary people, and ordinary human systems, which seek unity by scapegoating, and find catharsis, or the release of strong emotions, through violence. So the answer to whodunnit is not God. It is humans: humans demanded the death of Jesus; and humans continue to shed the blood of the innocent even now.

This pattern of scapegoating and catharsis is the sin of the world. This is the sin which leads to endless destruction and death, the sin which triggers sectarian and racial violence, even genocide. Scapegoating and catharsis is what leads to the stoning of adulterous women all over the world, the hanging of gay and lesbian men and women in Saudi Arabia, the incarceration of indigenous youth in Australia. This is the sin which demonizes Muslims and rainbow families, and which finds voice in political campaigns where ‘Aussie battlers’ are united against migrants, against dole bludgers, and against inner city elites. This is the trigger for aggressive flag-waving, shouts of “Australia: Love it or leave it”, and riots on our beautiful beaches. This is the root of all rivalry between friends and neighbours. This sin tears relationships apart and poisons the air with toxic gossip. And when we in the churches claim that God is an angry God who requires the blood sacrifice of his own son, then we reinforce this system of violence, the violence which leads straight to a human-created hell, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Barwon Prison, Manus Island, Nauru or just the vindictive misery of our own neighbourhoods.
It’s into this world, a world riddled with this sin, that Jesus came. He came to interrupt these age-old patterns and to show us a way out. He reminded us that God wants mercy, not sacrifice. In this approach, then, Jesus is not the Lamb sacrificed to God. Jesus is the Lamb of God, just as the gospel says: the gift of perfect love, always innocent, never naïve. Jesus is love given to us in human form, to reveal and disarm the violence. Through his ministry of teaching and healing, through his love and forgiveness even of those who called for and participated in his death, Jesus reveals the sin of the world: the violence of humanity. In word and action, Jesus shows that the love of God is so great that, rather than retaliate against our violence, it chooses to suffer and forgive.

In John’s gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the Passover lamb: he is killed at the same time as the lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover meal. And just as the blood of the Passover lambs led to Israel’s escape out of slavery in Egypt, so too does Jesus’ life, death and resurrection lead to liberation, for he shows us a way out of our own slavery to violence. When we follow Jesus to the cross, we leave behind the ways of sin and death; we leave behind violent retaliation; and we find abundant life. When we surrender to him, and abide in his love, we are liberated from anxiety and rivalry; we are liberated to love freely, and to live fully.

So, my friends, what are you looking for? A sense of unity through strong group identification? Tight boundaries? A chance to disciple our own children, and serve ourselves? The assurance that we really get Jesus, unlike those who preach substitutionary atonement and every other theological misstep? If your expectations are along these lines, then I’m afraid you are still living under the sin of the world, the sin which leads people to erect high walls, make comparisons, and turn away from outsiders and those who leave the group. These habits may offer a temporary sense of safety and belonging, but hearts shrivel, life diminishes, anxiety rises—and Christ finds more hospitable places to dwell.

If, however, you are seeking life in all its fullness, a wholehearted life, a life which rejects the sin of the world, the sin of scapegoating and violence: Then come to the table. For by revealing the sin and by showing us a way out, the way of love and forgiveness, the Lamb of God truly does take the sin away. And when we eat this bread and drink this wine, we dwell in him, and he in us. We enter into God’s life, and our lives overflow with Spirit. So come to the table, and dwell in him. Come to the table, forgiven, loved, and free. Come to the table, and find abundant life. Come, and taste that God is good. Come, come and eat. Amen. Ω

A reflection on John1:29-42 by Alison Sampson presented to Sanctuary, 15 January 2017

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