Jesus is the lamb of God who takes the sin of the world! That formula, expressed in various ways, lies at the centre of what we believe about Jesus. What is meant by it? How does his sacrificial giving of himself take away our sins? How can one person take sin out of the world?
In trying to answer that, we should be careful not to fall into a common misunderstanding. Because of certain biblical and doctrinal ways of expressing this, the impression can be given that Jesus’ suffering and death took away the sins of the world by somehow paying off a debt to God, namely, that God took Jesus’ suffering as compensation for our sin – implying that God had lived in anger since Adam’s sin, waiting for someone to adequately pay the debt before that sin could be forgiven. The images and metaphors used to express Jesus’ expiation for sin can, if taken literally, give that impression, but that is not what they mean. What do they mean?
There is a rich background to this concept: Many pre-Christian cultures had rituals involving a scapegoat. It was not enacted the same way in every place, but in essence it went something like this: At regular intervals, a community would try to purge itself of the evils that were besetting it (divisions, rivalries, jealousies, violence, warfare, theft, anger, murder, and the like) by a ritual designed to take these things out of the community. The ritual went like this: They would take a goat and would, through some symbol (which often included draping the goat in purple and putting a crown of thorns on its head), figuratively load on its back all that they felt was wrong inside of their community. The goat was then driven out into the desert to die. The idea was that the goat was taking the sin of the community away with it. Curiously, this generally had a certain effectiveness. For a time afterward, there would more unity within the group.
Of course no real transformation took place. Nothing really changed. Jealousies and anger remained as before, even if for a time people were able to live together more harmoniously. A goat, driven into the desert to die, does not take sin out of a community. How then does Jesus, as the lamb slain, take sin out of a community?
Jesus, as the lamb of God, does not take away the sin of the world by somehow carrying it off so that it is no longer present inside of the community. He takes it away by transforming it, by changing it, by taking it inside of himself and transmuting it. We see examples of this throughout his entire life, although it is most manifest in the love and forgiveness he shows at the time of his death. In simple language, Jesus took away the sin of the community by taking in hatred and giving back love; by taking in anger and giving out graciousness; by taking in envy and giving back blessing; by taking in bitterness and giving out warmth; by taking in pettiness and giving back compassion; he taking in chaos and giving back peace; and by taking in sin and giving back forgiveness.
This is not an easy thing to do. What comes naturally is to give back in kind: hatred for hatred, anger for anger, coldness for coldness, revenge for hurt. Someone hits us so we hit back. But then sin stays inside of the community and no amount of scapegoating, ritualized in liturgy or otherwise, is of any real value in changing things because we are not transforming anything but are simply acting as conduits, passing on the identical energy that is pressed on to us. Jesus did otherwise. He did not simply pass on what was done to him. Rather he took it in, held it, carried it, transformed it, and eventually gave it back as something else. This is what constitutes the sacrificial part of his love, namely, the excruciatingly pain (ex cruce, from the cross) that he had to undergo in order to take in hatred and give back love. But that is the only way that sin can ever leave a community, someone has to take it in, hold it, carry it, and, through a certain excruciating sacrifice of self, transform it into something else. For this reason Christianity, among all the religions and philosophies of the world, is the only one that worships the scapegoat.
Moreover this dynamic is not just something we are asked to admire in Jesus. The incarnation is meant to be ongoing. We are asked to continue to give flesh to God, to continue to do what Jesus did. Thus our task too is to help take away the sin of the world. We do this whenever we take in hatred, anger, envy, pettiness, and bitterness, hold them, transmute them, and eventually give them back as love, graciousness, blessing, compassion, warmth, and forgiveness.