“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:21)
This is how John the baptist introduces Jesus to the people at the beginning of John’s gospel, and it’s also how John, the writer of the gospel, wants us to see Jesus on the day of his resurrection.
As we take a second look at John 20 this week, I invite you to consider the description of the angels that Mary sees in the tomb. In chapter 20, verses 11-12 we read, “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.”
For Mary, who would have been steeped in knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, and for the original hearers of the gospel, they would have immediately recognised this as a picture of the mercy seat that sat above the ark of the covenant (read Exodus 25:17-22). Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the Mercy Seat seven times with the blood of an innocent animal. John is declaring to us that Jesus is the innocent and spotless lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the one who sits enthroned on the mercy seat (see also Revelation 5).
John continues revealing this theme in the rest of the chapter. “Peace be with you” is not just a feeling of non-anxious presence in our souls, it is also a declaration that those who had declared themselves God’s enemies in their rebellion to his ways, have now been offered peace.
Do you remember the day you heard the good news that Jesus had atoned for your sin and that God was offering you forgiveness through Him? I do. The news brought me to tears. It still does.
Somehow in my understanding of Jesus up until that point, I’d reduced Jesus to a moral teacher that showed us what God wanted of us, and how to live his way. The problem was, I already knew just how far short of that calling I’d fallen. I knew I didn’t live that way. I knew I wasn’t worthy of a relationship with God, and certainly knew I had no business being part of a Christian community. I could never measure up. What if they found out who I really was? Jesus as a merely moral exemplar or good teacher among many wasn’t good news at all. I knew I’d have still fallen short of an exemplar or teacher half as moral as Jesus! I knew the weight of my own sin and lived under the burden of my shame every day. No amount of trying to “be a good person” could atone for that.
The good news proclaimed to me in the church building that day was that in Jesus, God was offering forgiveness for my sin. I didn’t have to earn it, I didn’t have to even understand in full the hows and the whys and the whats of it all. It was a proclamation that through Jesus’ death and resurrection my sins had been forgiven.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see! Perhaps you needed to hear that again today?
Perhaps you want to respond to that news for the first time? Now’s a good time! There’s no magic prayer or words for this. It may simply mean saying, “thank you God. I believe.” Got questions? Call me!
(There'e a beautiful scene in the movie Two Popes where Pope Francis talks about the character of God to have mercy, but his own inability to forgive himself. Perhaps you can relate to that? He confesses his sin to Pope Benedict and receives the assurance of forgiveness. We have the joy of doing this each time with gather for the Eucharist, and confession and recalling our forgiveness is a part of morning and evening prayer.)
There is a sense of course in which my earlier understanding of Jesus as someone who calls us to follow him, and to walk the narrow path that brings true life, and bear witness to him in the way I live, is very true. Repentance is to reorient my life in a way that recognises God’s priorities over my own. It’s a right response. There is an unhelpful tendency in the church to divide aspects of the gospel into two camps - the forgiveness of sins gospel (often preached in more evangelical congregations), and the Kingdom of God gospel (often preached in more liberal congregations). It’s a false dichotomy, for they are two sides of the same coin. Central to God’s Kingdom, was always the promise that when the true King came to establish it, he would bring about the forgiveness of sin. What was so staggering is that he would bring it about through his own suffering and death.
Yes, we can mature in our faith and see greater depths and breadths of the gospel, but Lord forbid we ever move on from the declaration of the forgiveness of our sins, or our need for it. I wonder how different our worship would be each Sunday if we slowed down during the confession of sin, and assurance of forgiveness, to truly plum the depths of our great need and God’s great provision?
My chains are gone I've been set free (even in a bubble of physical distancing!) My God, my Savior has ransomed me And like a flood His mercy rains Unending love, Amazing grace
Lastly, as ArchBishop Richardson shared on Sunday, in John 20:23 Jesus then gives the disciples the power and authority to offer this forgiveness of sins to others. The same is for us today. Upon receiving forgiveness, we ourselves become agents of this forgiveness in the world - even toward those who declare themselves enemies.