Jesus the lamb
EASTER 4 | 1 Jn 3:16-24; Jn 10:11-18
An additional reading from the Gospel of John: Passover was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making God’s house a marketplace!” — John 2:13-22
The gospels are full of stories about cranky Jesus, grumpy Jesus, irritated Jesus, but only once do we see him really lose his cool—when he grabs a whip and drives the moneychangers from the temple.
The “why” of it is not immediately apparent in the text. When Jesus shouts out, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!” he was probably objecting to the fact that livestock was being sold right there on the temple grounds. But what really ticked him off, though, was the corruption in the practice of money-changing.
But money-changing is always a swindle, isn't it? Have you ever really paid attention when you exchanged money in the airport? You are not getting a fair shake, there. Every time you exchange your dollars for euros or pesos, those folks in the little booths are keeping a pretty fair percentage for themselves.
Whenever you exchange money, someone is making a profit. But why were the moneychangers in the temple in the first place? Because it was considered unholy to pay for temple services with money bearing the likeness of the evil gentile tyrant with his boot on your neck, a.k.a. Caesar. You have to pay for temple services with holy money—you know, money with Moses on it or some darn thing.
And there were lots of temple services – if you didn't bring an animal to sacrifice, you had to buy one there. You have an entry fee, and probably a use fee for the temple, and then you had to pay for the priest’s time and services. All of that is bad enough, but then to get shortchanged while exchanging your denarii for temple shekels? That just adds insult to injury.
But that's not the worst of it. If you were a person of means, that’s one thing. But if you were poor—if all you can manage is the price of admission, and you’re being swindled just for entering the building—how is that of God?
It was the same then as it is now—money flows uphill, and the system is rigged to make sure it stays that way. What made Jesus so mad is that the temple—the place of worship so dear to his heart—was rigged that way too.
In the other gospels, the cleansing of the temple happens near the end—it is the inciting incident that kicks off the crucifixion narrative. But in the Gospel of John it happens near the beginning of the gospel, because John sees the corruption of the temple as symbolic for the entire religious system Jesus’ life and teaching are seeking to counter and correct. To that end, John spins out his entire gospel as an elaborate alternative narrative.
It would be easy to write a dissertation on this topic, but instead I’m just going to skip to the end, where John shows us a sacrifice that doesn't even take place at the temple—implying that God has no more use for it. John shows us a sacrifice after which no more sacrifices are necessary—because Jesus is himself the lamb, and there’s only one of those. But here’s the biggest reversal: in the old temple system, after the sacrifice, what happened to the carcass? It provided food for the priests and their families—who lived very well indeed. They were, at the very least, well-stocked with mutton.
But instead of mutton, the lamb of God feeds us himself. John's Jesus talks about giving himself as food for the world. He even fries fish for the disciples after his resurrection. And right here at this table, every week, Jesus gives himself to us as food for our souls. This lamb is given not just for the sustenance of the pastor and his family, not just for the rich, not just for the good, but everyone, everyone, everyone—no matter what your income, no matter what your character, no matter what society thinks of you. The feeding of the 5,000 is an enacted parable for the bread come down from heaven—there is enough to feed every soul that hungers. This lamb, this sacrifice, can feed the world.
Now, let me just say quickly that I am not a believer in the substitutionary atonement. I don’t believe God needed Jesus’ sacrifice in order to forgive us. But it is undeniable that early Christians saw Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that did away with the need for the temple sacrifices, and they saw Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who went willingly to his death to accomplish this.
We do wrong to focus only on his death, however. That was just the dramatic ending of a life-long sacrifice. Every day of his life, Jesus gave himself for us and to us. Every day he went forth he sacrificed his time and effort for the good, for the salvation of others. Every day Jesus was like that lamb on the altar, not given to appease the wrath of his Father, but given to feed the souls of everyone he encountered. And not just the clergy, but everyone, from the highest to the low—because everyone, from the highest to the low, are spiritually impoverished. Everyone has a hungry soul.
And so, day in and day out, Jesus gave himself: he taught, he scolded, he healed, he loved. He gave everything he had to give, every day of his ministry. In his letter, John says this is what love looks like, and THIS IS HOW WE KNOW what love looks like: Every day, Jesus gave his life TO us and FOR us.
This is not an idea or a doctrine or a bunch of pretty words. John is countering some in his community who are saying that Jesus was an angel or a spirit being who only seemed to be human. So John is using this sacrifice language deliberately because it’s meaty, it’s fleshy, it’s full of gristle, blood and bone. John is saying that in Jesus God came to us in the flesh, and gave himself to us in the flesh, and gives himself to us still, in the flesh. Not symbolically, but actually. Not metaphorically, but really. Jesus had an animal body, and he LAID THAT BODY DOWN.
When I minister at my Lutheran Church in the morning, I follow their rubrics, and so when I distribute communion I say, “The very body of Christ keep you in eternal life” and “the very blood of Christ, shed for you.” I do this not because of some literalist doctrine of transubstantiation—Lutherans don’t believe in transubstantiation, although be my guest! Instead, I say these words because, in this action, we see what Jesus really did AND IS REALLY DOING. He has given himself to us completely, not out of self-interest, but entirely out of a conscious self-giving.
Martin Luther says that sacrificial self-giving is the very definition of God. This giving is WHAT GOD IS. We humans are born with self-serving love, but the action of God in our lives, the ministry of the Holy Spirit to us, is to convert our self-serving love into self-giving love. This is theosis, the conversion of our wretched human condition into the glory of God, the subsumation of our human life into the divine life.
And to see what that divine life looks like, to see what self-giving love looks like in actual practice, to see what it looked like when God gave all that God was to us and for us, we only need to look at Jesus. Because he gave all that he was and had, and he continues to give all that he is and has to us—in every meal of the Eucharist, in every moment that the atoms in the universe don't fly apart, in every moment that one breath follows another. The gift of life, the infusion of the Spirit, the sustenance of all things, the conversion of isolated and cold hearts into loving and serving souls, the holding and loving of all things, and the eventual redemption and restoration of all things—this is the ongoing ministry of Jesus to us and for us.
Let us not assume that this is a cheap giving. It is a costly giving, as symbolized by Jesus on the cross. And Jesus is still giving his life. The cross is emblematic not of something that happened once, but something that is happening still. Jesus is still giving his life for the world. This is what love looks like.
But John isn’t done. He is saying that it isn't enough to simply trust Jesus and receive his life—sorry Paul, sorry Luther. It isn't enough to simply love Jesus. Because if we really follow Jesus, that conversion of self-serving love into self-giving love happens in us. If we really love Jesus, it changes us.
John says we know for sure that we abide in Jesus and he abides in us by this: he gives us his Holy Spirit. And then what? Then, as we follow Jesus, we go where Jesus tells us to go—into the places self-respecting people wouldn't be caught dead in. As we love Jesus, we start to love what Jesus loves—especially those our society points to as unlovable.
But John goes further. It isn't enough to go, it isn’t enough to love, because real love is embodied, just like Jesus. It’s fleshly, just like Jesus. Real love involves sacrifice, just like Jesus. Real love means laying down our comfort, our time, and even our lives for the sake of those polite society wouldn’t give the time of day to—just like Jesus.
You want to know what it means to follow Jesus? There is, right there in John’s letter. “Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Does that mean we have to let ourselves be murdered to follow Jesus? No. Far from it. But it means that if we follow Jesus, we must love IN THE FLESH. This is what James was getting at in his epistle when he said, “What good is it if you say, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?” (James 2:16). We must help in compassionate and embodied ways. We must sacrifice of our time, of our convenience, and if it comes to it, then yes, we must stand up for others at the cost of our own lives.
Is it costly to follow Jesus? It costs everything—your money, your respectability in society, it may even cost your life. But if we give ourselves for the life of the world, as Jesus did, he promised the same vindication that was given to him. For the one who “has the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again” has the power to raise us up too.
This was not a popular message in Jesus’ time, and it is not a popular messaging in ours—but it is exactly what our text is saying, and it is exactly the testimony of the early church and the Christian tradition. This is our heritage, this is our treasure, and this is God's promise. “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25).
Death’s power to hold us has been broken, because Jesus is risen. Evil’s power to enslave and abuse us is an end, because Jesus is risen. We do not have to be afraid to put our bodies between the powerful and the weak, because Jesus is risen, and if we abide in him, and he abides in us, his power is our power, his life is our life, his resurrection is our resurrection. Because he has given all that he is, all that he has, to us, so that we can give it, in turn to others. Let us pray...
Jesus, thank you for giving yourself to us
In your teaching, in your loving, in your living and dying alongside us.
Let us receive your gift symbolically and actually at your table,
And through your Spirit convert our self-serving love into the self-giving love that you are.
Move us, too, to give our lives for the world—to give our time, our compassion, our attention, our money, our labor, our care and concern, and when necessary, our lives. For your life and our life is one life. And since you withheld nothing from us, let us withhold nothing from you. Amen.