Finding the Golden Lamb

Finding the Golden Lamb    Podcast

Searching for a gold reef, the prospector Lasseter died alone in central Australia. Fifty years later a group of elderly Pitjantjatjara men told me stories of the original white incursions into their lands, including that of Lasseter. We tried to help him, they said, but he kept shooting at us, so we left him alone. Perception changes everything. It can turn an offer of salvation into a thing of death.

There is a sense in which we are blind to our perceptions, and ruled by them. Not only do they colour what we see, they almost define what we are able to see. But perceptions are never innocent. Perceptions serve a purpose. Perceptions are often about the preservation of privilege. They are an unconscious tool for keeping us safe, although sometimes I think we know...

In Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe relates the story of an intricately engineered fish trap in a purpose built weir, where fish, directed by the weir through a loop, would trigger a spring constructed from a sapling which flung the fish out of the water for the fisherman. This is what the invading colonist who observed this wrote:

I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow catch fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true. (Bruce Pascoe Dark Emu pp7)

Pascoe speaks of a potent mix of the "power of ... assumptions... of morally justifiable and probably inevitable... [ideas about] ... the advance of civilisation" but also of "the need for colonists to legitimise their presence." (Ibid 5)

If the colonist had seen the indigenous fisherman as part of a sophisticated culture then he could no longer justify seizing the land from an inferior being; he would become a conscious invader.

In theological terms this incident becomes, at base, an example of idolatry. Our perceptions are always part of a worldview carefully curated to keep us at the centre of things, both with respect to God and to other people, which is to allow us to remain as our own masters.  (And I deliberately use that gendered term to again illustrate the purposefulness of a 'natural' perception of superiority.) God works to subvert our idolatry in order to bring us to our full freedom as created and contingent beings made in God's image.

John's gospel says, in the beginning,

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man (ἀνδρὸς, not ἄνθρωπος), but of God. (John 1:10-13)

I begin exploring the Lectionary reading of John 1:29-42 with the reflection above, because there is an absolutely key issue in which our perceptions will blind us and damage us, or begin to free us. It is based in John's witness that

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

Gil Bailie says

The next day John points the disciples to Jesus: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. "Lamb of God" is a sacrificial reference. We often misread it because we don't realize who is demanding a sacrifice in the passion story and in this gospel. A sacrificial reading would be: 'God is in his heaven, and he demands that someone pay the bill. Jesus pays the bill, and the rest of us are off.' That's the sacrificial reading, and therefore he's the "Lamb of God."

The non-sacrificial reading of John's Gospel: Jesus, the Lamb of God, comes from the Father and returns to the Father; he is the lamb that God is offering to the sacrificial monster. Who is the sacrificial monster? Humanity. It is humanity's sacrificial predilections that are being exposed and deconstructed in the passion story, so that we can no longer blame it on God. We can no longer say God wanted that sacrifice. This is the Lamb of God: not the lamb of the human community given to God, but the Lamb of God given to the sacrificial human community. (Notes made by Paul Nuechterlein)

Many of us do not even realise that an alternative understanding to Bailie's first paragraph is even possible. Penal substitutionary atonement is the only meaning we have ever heard. But this perception, which I think changes the offer of salvation into a thing of death, is not entirely innocent.

True, I had no idea how I might read (which means: perceive and then reconceive) the story of the Lamb in another way. But troubled by the violence, and the inherent contradictions, of the story of a God who forbad child sacrifice and yet sacrificed his own child, I knew very well that to depart from the accepted understanding would result in a violent reaction from those privileged by the story. My subterranean self understood the potential for rejection and exclusion very clearly. I repressed my God-given perceptions of the contradictions in the text because I knew what it might cost me in friendships and community, and because I sensed that that searching for another meaning would involve long journeys into remote places which my faith might not survive.

Indeed, I think a part of me also knew what I now see clearly. "God is in his heaven, and he demands that someone pay the bill. Jesus pays the bill, and the rest of us are off." When I surrendered this self-serving 'get out of jail, free' card, everything changed. Life became my responsibility. I needed to reconceive just about everything I knew— I say this most seriously.  Walter Wink says that the Myth of Redemptive Violence, among other things, is lazy. In Bailie's words, it lets us off. And for clergy, this is huge. For we are called not to give into fear, but to enter into the exhaustion of not being lazy, and to allow the ideology of Empire to be subverted within us by God, so that we might reconceive a life being freed from idolatry, and construct a new conception of God which could allow our people to perceive God in new ways. I think a part of me understood the cost of this very well and, was well... lazy.

The Text

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me."

Here, John W (the Writer) makes it clear that John B (the Baptist) is subordinate to Jesus. This heads off the cultural perception that the one baptising is the master, which given this extra emphasis in John W compared to, say, Matthew, suggests the followers of John were using 'the master is the one baptising' as an argument for their cause.  And the words "was before me" are a clever reminder of verses 1 and 2: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God."

Bailie notes a difference of one letter which is just one part of the enormous task of reconceptualising our faith.

At my church, we lift the elements and say, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." John 1:29 has the singular "sin," "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It may seem a quibble, but I think it takes us [to an] interesting question: which is it, the "Sin" of the world, or the "sins" of the world? ... If Jesus' death took away the sins of the world, it's not altogether obvious, if you look around. He does make possible the forgiveness of sins. But it raises a question about taking away: "sins" or "Sin"? (Baillie Ibid)

In speaking with my own congregation I note that sins tend to be a list of moral failings which we conveniently list for our own purposes of deciding who is in and out, or who is good and who is bad. We have a couple of epigrams to remind ourselves: When a Dutch Reformed congregation paid a visit to a church in the Netherlands, the Dutch men were so scandalised by the American women's makeup, they nearly choked on their cigars.  And my friend Ann from North Carolina who married an Australian with Lutheran connections once said to me: "In North Carolina drinking is a sin, but tobacco is fine. In the Barossa, it's a sin to smoke, but wine is good!" These show the arbitrary nature of sins.

But Sin is that human characteristic and inevitability that always seems to devolve into failure and violence despite our best intentions, most careful planning, and deepest loves. Sin leads to individual sins, but to focus on the sins is to miss something much deeper, and far more troubling, about ourselves.

John the Baptist continues:

31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.' 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I 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." 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.'

Or, "I am not making this up. God has shown me." Perhaps the key point in these verses is that the content of Son of God has nothing to do with gender, nor with a virgin birth.  It comes from the cultural understanding of kings and authority. If you have seen the one designated as the son of the king, you have seen the king. The authority of the king rests in the son. If the son acts, the king will act in the same manner. It is not only a case of like father like son, but also, like son like father.

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!' 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

John B is himself evangelist here. And there are two disciples, a true witness, for the sake of we who come after. And here is their witness:

38When 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?'

We can never overstate the depth of Jesus' questioning of us.  He will never stop asking, and if it seems he has, it tells us that we have stopped listening, and have sought safe harbour as we anchor ourselves in some appealing idolatry. 

The English translation of the text almost hides the two level (at least) narrative so typical of John W.  On the surface it seems Jesus asks a simple question. Underneath he is asking them about the very basis of their lives, and they are asking him where he abides or remains, rather than which motel he has booked for the night. (ποῦ μένεις; ie pou meneis?)  This is the same word which Jesus will later use in the calling and command of Chapter 15: "4Abide (μείνατε ie meinate) in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me."

39He said to them, ‘Come and see.' They came and saw where he was staying, (ποῦ μένει, καὶ παρ' αὐτῷ ἔμειναν) and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.

This is the only way. Come and see.  If we will not follow and abide in him, live in him, live like him— all of which are bound up in the menai of where he is staying, we will not see clearly.  Our clouded, self-serving, and partial perceptions, are only undone when we are immersed in a reality which is different. Discipleship is not intellectual assent. Intellectual assent is a bare beginning; indeed, discipleship, immersion in the place where Jesus is staying often precedes intellectual assent. Intellectual understanding, a re-conceiving and re-understanding of what is being observed, is often something which happens much later in our conversion.

Someone has said we only see clearly with the heart— with our deepest, total self.  Our intellectual understanding, the conceptions which shape our perceptions, as it were, is always party to self-deception. It is always vulnerable to being an idolatry, a preservation of self from the fear of acknowledging our maker; that acknowledgement which will always destroy the proud independence of selfhood which is the desire to avoid death. Our more honest heart always tells us, and reveals to us, that we are afraid, if we will listen. Follow him, abide with him, to come home to your heart.

And at the end all this, the penny drops! I realise the text says that the Spirit remained on him. No prizes for guessing the root of the word ἔμεινεν! (emeinen) John B witnesses to the reality of Jesus' abiding relationship with God which is later conceptualised in the fellowship of the Trinity.

40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah' (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought him [NRSV inserts Simon for clarity] to Jesus, who looked at him and said, 'You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas' (which is translated Peter).

This is the Christian witness.  Anointed is the translation of χριστός; that is christos,  or Christ. Simon is a Greek name, and we are to understand that Jesus names him Peter. IThe pun works like this: the word for rock in Aramaic  is kepha) and in Greek it is petra. (NRSV footnote) The point of the renaming is that  

as is known from the OT, the giving of a new name has a direct relation to the role the man (sic) so designated will play in salvation history. (Gen 17:5, 32:28) (Raymond Brown The Gospel According to John pp80)

Brown is of the opinion that Matthew lays out this role in a "more polished" fashion "for Matthew explains the relation of the new name ("rock") to Peter's role as the foundation stone of the church." He says that John "stresses only that the name came from Jesus' insight into Simon." (Ibid) One of the things in the text that the English translation hides, is that John W tells us Jesus 'only' noticed (θεασάμενος, Brown is careful not to say saw) the two disciples, but that John ἐμβλέψας Jesus in verse 36, and that Jesus ἐμβλέψας Simon, in verse 42.  The word emblepsas means to see or watch with insight.

There's a problematic translation in this part of the text, too.  It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. (ὥρα ἦν ὡς δεκάτη. Literally, the hour was about the tenth.) If NRSV had said it was about the tenth hour that would carry some of the portent of the sentence.  It is no mere incidental remaining because of sloppy editing by John W. It is meant to convey meaning. It's the number of hours since daylight; that is, since 6am.  Brown notes that given the significance of ten as an OT number, and its Greek associations with perfection, that John W is quite possible telling us this is the "hour of fulfilment." That was Bultmann's reading. (pp 70)

I can't help but note there are three of "the next day" in the text of John 1 and that John 2 begins with "on the third day." Brown says that the common exegetical practise (when he was writing) was to count three days after Nathaniel and Phillip's meeting with Jesus, which would make six days in total... which sounds to me a lot like an echo of the week of creation which John W references in the beginning of the Gospel.

The Lamb
 I'm quoting Gil Bailie a lot here, because he says this stuff with succinctness I can't quite mange. Bailie notes the question which quietly bothers many of us. "We have always understood that we are forgiven by the blood of Christ..." but just how this works is a mystery. Many of us grew up with a theory of atonement in which

God was angry at our sins and ready to punish us for them. Somebody had to take the rap. In a strange, sort-of-gymnastic move, God became human in order to take the rap himself. Or that the Son took it for God, and for us

but became uncomfortable with it as we realised its violence. And as we noticed that the God who forbad child sacrifice seemed to be doing just that. Bailie also notes

The Jews have a point when they say this looks like reversing the Abrahamic move. Abraham moved from the sacrifice of his son to something less troubling. They say, ‘You Christians look like you're going in the other direction: you see God sacrificing his Son.'

We puzzle over how using violence to solve violence can work. That's the question Wink addressed in the classic article The Myth of Redemptive Violence. This is even deeper and more difficult than it seems, for if indeed we are drawing back from the revelation to Abraham to a God who demands sacrifice, then all our puzzlement and distress over how this violent world can be the creation of a loving God is undermined by the violence of God. As Bailie says of Anselmic atonement

The problem for this atonement theory is that it leaves in place a vengeful God who demands that someone be punished for sin. This is not a God who conforms to the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection. We have to begin from the revelation in Christ and then go back and reckon with our understanding of God. The question remains: how can Jesus's blood have brought about our forgiveness.

In other words, harking back to verse 34: like son, like father. Jesus shows us a non-vengeful, non-punishing God. We need to listen to Jesus and re-learn about God.

Bailie comes back to the distinction between Sin and sins as he outlines the process in which the scapegoat is discerned.

All the things that spin out of envy, rivalry, jealousy, pettiness, covetousness, greed, hatred — all the things that spin out of mimetic desire. We get in mimetic entanglements. [Draws picture of a swirling vortex.] It's the stuff of everyday life, creating the worlds we live in. It's its own reality.

At a certain point in the vortex, accusations arise and begin to focus. More and more people get drawn into the accusations, polarizing folks against a scapegoat. "Conviction" means you take a convict. Swirling down to the center of the vortex, something magical happens. The miracle is that when all of those sins polarize and designates the one on whom to blame it all, it's all turned into righteous rectitude, without anyone ever feeling the first moral misgivings. It's the little machine for turning sinfulness into righteousness, without anyone having to realize his or her own sin.

We're ready for defining the distinction: "sins" of the world are all those little things swirling into the vortex. The machine itself is the "Sin" of the world. It's the thing which makes all cultural worlds possible. We look back and it all has a rosy glow. We see "the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air."* Jesus comes to take away the Sin of the world. [*He is quoting The Star Spangled Banner.]

When I realised he was quoting a national anthem, it gave me a new understanding of the force of his words. And a new understanding of the idolatry and violence of nationalism.

I am still, after years, working out, and being worked on by, the implications of the insights which Bailie presents so succinctly.  In my congregation we remind ourselves that when Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, he does not seek revenge. He is not like the nobleman who went to a distant country and on his return said "But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence." This is Luke 19:11-27, and that parable quite possibly reflects the revenge of Herod toward his rivals who petitioned Caesar that he not to be made tetrarch.  We are shocked, of course, but Herod was simply a more extreme version of the violence and revenge which has formed us all, and which affects each one of us. But when Jesus returns from a far country he says, "Do not be afraid," and "Peace be with you" to the very people who were not only his rivals, but who were complicit in his death as the innocent scapegoat. He shows us a new way of living. He models a new way of being human, and a new way of understanding what it means to be Messiah, and a follower of the Messiah.

Brown notes that in Mark's gospel, Peter realises half way through, that Jesus is the Messiah. He must now learn what this will cost him.  In John, the disciples know at the beginning, and Peter's name change takes place at the beginning, but comes later in Matthew. John's account has been "reorganized" and "there is a gradual deepening of insight and a profounder realization of who it is that the disciples are following." (pp77) This is healing; it is God's slow subversion of our idolatry to which we open ourselves when we follow Jesus and remain or abide with him.

And we are in the place of the disciples in John. As I have struggled to reconceive what it means to be a Christian when it is we who demand sacrifice, when it is we who must have a lamb, when it is we— me— who could simply follow Jesus instead of crucifying him, everything is changed. Everything looks different. 

When I first read John's gospel nearly 50 years ago, the text bemused me.  Slowly I learned that there were two layers to the text, a surface story and then the deeper message. And now I find, below these, a deep reality, something real which fills and transcends my intellectual need to make sense, and which is changing me.  Letting go of the punishing God and accepting that I am the fearful, desperate, punishing one, has been a key part of that healing. As I've played with the text this morning I've been reminded of the old story where the people became tired of waiting for Moses and for God, and constructed a golden calf.  And realised again that my past insistence on a certain view of scripture and atonement was my own idol, born of impatience and fear. May the living slaughtered lamb continue to lead me! (Rev 5)

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

For a 'shortish' but penetrating analysis of the sacrificial lamb I suggest James Alison's 2013 Concillium article,  which is also posted at  We didn‘t invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: unpacking Girard’s insight

Also on One Man's Web
John 1:6-8, 19-28 - John the Button Presser: A Sermon (2017)
John 1:29-42, (43-51) - Now is the time (2017)
John 1:29-42 - 'scaping the Goats (2014)
John 1:29-42 - Beholding the Lamb of God (2011)
John 1:29-42 The Sermon Draft: Behold the Lamb of God (2011)



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