Jesus, Lamb of God

The image of Jesus as the Lamb of God pervades Christianity. The lamb is a familiar symbol for Jesus, found not only in today's gospel[1] but also throughout the New Testament as well as in art and literature. The image of Jesus as the Lamb of God reinterprets the Jewish Passover narrative, which describes the angel of death in Egypt passing over Israelite houses marked with the blood of a lamb, killing only the Egyptian first born. Thus, we have the Agnus Dei, “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us,”[2] a part of Christian liturgies since the early fourth century.[3]

Biblical images and metaphors are often complex and confusing. For example, Biblical authors describe Christians as God's sheep, although they sometimes refer to Jews as sheep, even in the New Testament.[4] New Testament authors similarly describe Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the shepherd, two conflicting images actually found in a single verse in the Revelation of John.[5] These multiple and contradictory meanings warn us against adopting narrow or definitive interpretations; they also remind us that all analogies are imperfect. So, how are we to understand the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God?

Before becoming TV's Frugal Gourmet in the 1980s, Jeff Smith served as the Methodist chaplain at a small college near Seattle. One day, while driving across eastern Washington, a large flock of sheep being herded across the road forced him to stop. As he waited, watching the sheep, the phrase "Lamb of God" kept drifting through his mind. Seized with the notion, he leapt from his car, bounded up to the shepherd, and asked, "What does 'Lamb of God' mean to you?"

The stranger’s abrupt question initially startled the shepherd. However, sensing Smith’s sincerity, the shepherd looked Jeff in the eye and answered. "I know exactly what 'Lamb of God' means," he said. "Each year at lambing time, there are lambs and ewes who do not make it. Inevitably, on one side of the field is a ewe whose lamb has died. The ewe is filled with milk but will not nourish any lamb she does not recognize as her own. Inevitably, on the other side of the field is a lamb whose mother has died. That lamb will starve because no ewe will accept and nourish it. So, the shepherd takes the dead lamb and slits its throat, and pours its blood over the body of the living lamb. Recognizing the blood, the ewe will now nurse and save the orphaned lamb. Through the gift of blood of the lamb who has died, the living lamb is recognized and restored to the fold, nourished, and saved. That is the Lamb of God."[6]

That anecdote is a lens for understandings terms such as saved, cleansed, or washed in the blood of the Lamb. Our spiritual forebears tended to emphasize interpretations that wrongly and unbiblically presumed God's forgiveness of human sin required the blood of a sacrificial, unblemished lamb. Since God alone is perfect, divine forgiveness required God – or God's son, Jesus – to die on the cross, his side, hands, and feet pierced to spill his blood. Christian theologians developed two primary interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion. Expiation connotes the Lamb of God covering our sin with his blood. Propitiation connotes the Lamb of God's sacrifice satisfying the debt we owe God because of our sin. Today, those interpretations can sound very much like child abuse or masochism. In the Bible, blood may be either a literal term or a metaphor for life. As a metaphor or image, Lamb of God points to three complementary sources of life abundant that are both spiritually constructive and morally healthy.

First, lambs have high quality, very soft, wool used to manufacture expensive clothes. In Holy Baptism, Christians are clothed with Christ. The baptized puts on Jesus, the Lamb of God, becoming Jesus' disciple, patterning one's life on Jesus. We, the baptized, receive a precious new identity as God's sons and daughters.

Second, lambs provide observers delight and enjoyment. One spring, when Susan and I lived in England, we visited an historic estate near Cambridge. The car park was crowded but the house was nearly empty. Parents had brought their young children to watch the new lambs frolicking on the expansive front lawn. As Christians, we delight in Jesus, the Lamb of God; we want to spend time with him and to become better acquainted.

Third, lambs provide us food. In the Eucharist, Jesus, the Lamb of God, feeds us. In sharing the bread and wine – visible symbols of God's loving presence – we experience anew the intimacy and life-giving power of our bonds with God and one another. Efforts to interpret this mysterious and troubling, yet powerfully transformative image in more detail inevitably founder, either by reducing Holy Communion to mere symbolism or by making it sound like cannibalism.

May the Lamb of God clothe, enrich, and feed us that we, like Andrew, Peter, Clement and the other saints, may smell like God and enjoy life abundant. Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 19, 2020
Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] John 1:29-42.
[2]The one-line version was earliest. A current English version is:
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 337).
[3]Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 381.
[4]Matthew 10:6; 15:24.
[5]Revelation 7:14.
[6]Barbara Williamson, “Lamb of God,” The Anglican Digest, Lent 1995, p. 40.


Jay Croft said…

Sorry, but some things about the illustration bother me.

1. Jeff Smith was found to be a pedophile and was quickly booted from his "Frugal Gourmet" job at PBS. I liked his show but when he had children helping, in front of the cameras, I noticed that they did not look happy.

2. Can a ewe really smell blood and know where it came from?

3. The illustration is very detailed, complete with verbatim quotes. Did Jeff Smith really recall all that dialogue and pass it on?
George Clifford said…
Good questions. I'll respond to them in reverse order. I don't know if the quotes are exact - hence the source for the illustration that I cite and from which I took the anecdote. Ewes will not accept a lamb from another ewe as their own without some identification. I read somewhere that shepherds will rub the placenta of a dead or stillborn lamb on a lamb whose mother is dead to create the new relationship. Finally, I used the illustration even though I was aware of the problems with Smith. I'm opposed to our "cancel" culture in which sin, no matter how egregious, results in completely erasing a person. The anecdote in no way glorifies or praises Smith. Indeed, the anecdote is not really about him but about the lamb, ewe, blood and a nameless shepherd. I left him in both to be faithful to my source and as a small, indirect protest against our cancel culture which seems to me to be totally unchristian.

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