He had everything—the world was his oyster. Beyers Naude’ had been a pastor in the white Dutch Reformed Church in the South Africa for twenty years, he came from a prominent family, and many speculated that one day, he would become Prime Minister of South Africa. Throughout his life, he had been indoctrinated with two beliefs:
1. The divine order of apartheid and the separation of races;
2. A theology of a privatized faith in a God who cared only about personal sin, and that the Gospel was not at all political or communal.
In the 1950’s Pastor Naude’ had seminary students who worked with him and they visited and preached in the Black African townships outside of Johannesburg. They would come back and tell him stories that things in their country were wrong, very wrong. They reported that the people were desperately poor and suffering and that this must not be what God wanted for them.
This troubled Naude’ because he was taught that when you live according God’s order, life should be good, so he went with the students to see the townships for himself. He then did thorough study of the Scriptures to discover if God’s word really did order the separation of the races. After an exhaustive study, he concluded that all he had been taught was a lie.
In 1960, after the Sharpville Massacre, an event where South African police shot and killed 69 protesters, most of them in the back, Naude’ renounced apartheid. The next day, he was kicked out of his congregation, and became a man without a church, without a people, without a country, and without a community. Why? Because he realized that to follow Jesus, the “Lamb of the God who takes away the sin of the world,” is to fight systems of sin, to overturn societal injustice, and to dismantle laws and structures of oppression that benefit one group of people and press down others into untold suffering.
Naude’ discovered that the great sin of the Western church is to preach of our alienation from God only as our own personal wrong-doing. This understanding of sin results in us turning a blind eye to the structures of oppression in society in which we participate, that benefit us while dehumanizing, marginalizing and even killing others.
While Naude’ was taking a Christian stand as a follower of Jesus, the “Lamb of God” in South Africa, Dr. Martin Luther King, was taking a similar stand in this country—challenging all of us to see sin structurally in the systems of society that let some in and keep others out, rather than viewing sin as just a list of my failings for the week.
Like Beyers Naude, Dr. King saw an inseparable link between the Christian faith and the responsibility to change unjust laws and policies. In the Black church tradition in which King was raised, people’s material condition was not separated from their spiritual condition. King was raised with and preached a message of liberation for both soul and body. His understanding of Christianity demanded a critique of the political order and required social action to bring about justice for the poor and marginalized.
While we have grown accustomed to a private, personal Christianity, Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel calls us to oppose systemic sin and work for liberation for all people. This may not seem obvious as you listened to me read our Gospel text today. But this becomes apparent when we remember the story in Exodus about the Israelite’s flight from Egypt where they were slaves for 400 years. God sent Moses not simply to preach about personal sin, but to liberate God’s people from bondage in Egypt. God sent 9 plagues to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go—but those hardships did not convince Pharaoh to dismantle the oppressive slavery that benefitted Egypt and oppressed the Hebrews.
The night of the 10th plague—the death of the first born, the Israelites were instructed to kill a lamb, and place its blood on their door frame—over the top lintel and down the sides, so the angel of death would “pass over” their household. They would be spared from death that night as they fled from Egypt. The Passover festival of the Jews celebrates the liberation of their whole nation from an oppressive system of slavery.
So when John the Baptizer calls Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he is reminding us of the liberating event of the Exodus and freedom from the sin of slavery. John announces Jesus as one who brings not just forgiveness for individual wrongdoing, but as the Lamb who brings communal liberation from oppression.
When Andrew and Peter hear John call Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” they immediately follow Jesus—so that they can join him in his liberating work. This is the full implication of what the Gospel-writer of John means when he says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” There is not oppressive sin system great than the Word made flesh who is the light of all people.
Jesus offered free health care and healing regardless of age, gender or nationality; he fed people who were hungry without asking if they deserved it or had the right papers; he held up enemies as examples of faith and called us to love them; he treated women with equal dignity to men; he refused to fight violence with violence; and he over-turned the tables of the money changers at the Temple who made faith a commodity that some could afford and others could not. Jesus worked against every unjust structure of his time, and did not participate in any system that oppressed others.
Historian Jemar Tisby writes “To King and many other Christians, racial justice was core to the biblical message. Racial segregation and the other ills it created — like the wealth gap, unemployment and under-education — were an affront to the image of God in all people. Christians had an obligation to transform the systems and laws that allowed racial inequality to persist…King wanted to see people of faith empowered by their belief in Christ and his example, to fight for the ‘beloved community.’”
Many of the issues of under-education, the wealth gap, and issues of poverty continue today along with others like the mass incarceration of black men, and the criminalization of refugees. In every situation of injustice, the Lamb of God, who frees us from all systems of sin and human brokenness, calls us to ask ourselves, “what does liberation from this oppression look like? How does Jesus, the Lamb of God call me to participate in the salvation that brings justice and helps to build the beloved community?" Some suggestions for today:
• In addition to giving out Hunger Helpers lunches to the homeless, we also work with Faith in Texas which is advocating with our local leaders for affordable housing in our region.
• While supporting the St. Luke’s Women’s health kits, school kits and layettes for Lutheran World Relief, we call, write and become relentless advocates for changes to immigration policy, keeping families, together, treating people humanely, taking care of unaccompanied minors. We support our denomination in advocating for international policies that address the systemic violence that cause people to flee their native countries to begin with.
• In addition to praying for Puerto Rico, we can call our representatives to push through resources to support people who have been devasted by storms and now earthquakes, and that delaying resources to our Spanish-speaking territory is an unacceptable form of racism.
• We can join our new book study of Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US and work to dismantle racism in our own church.
When Beyers Naude’ publicly renounced apartheid, he lost his entire white community, but he gained something far more precious. Jesus liberated him from the oppression of sin to dwell in the Kingdom of God. He was embraced by a community he never imagined would accept him—black south Africans. He followed Jesus, the Lamb of God into the work of liberation, and when he died, “Uncle Bey” as the Black South Africans called him, was given the longest funeral procession in the history of South Africa.
Today when we sing at Communion, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world” we commit ourselves to the One who liberated Peter and Andrew, who liberated Beyers and Martin, and who liberates us, not only from our own personal sin, but from the systems that oppress us and others. And as we are fed at his table, we are given the strength to share this ministry of liberation, so that every man, woman and child might exclaim, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”