Lifting Up The Sin of the World: The Nonviolent Protest of Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the beginning of John’s gospel, in one of the only stories detailing the verbal interactions between John the Baptist and Jesus, John gives voice not only to his belief about the identity of Jesus, but what Jesus had come into the world to accomplish. John, seeing Jesus walk by for the first time since he began his ministry of baptism in the wilderness, turns to his disciples and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29, NRSV) In this single exclamation John makes a remarkable claim. This person, Jesus, is the one who is taking away the sin of the world, and the one who would sacrifice all to do so. But what does this mean, the “sin of the world?” 

Often, we think of Jesus’ primary work as that which was done on the cross. We think of Jesus “Taking away the sin of the world” as meaning that he gathered up all of our individual sins, all the things that make us bad and unworthy, all of those actions we have done that put us at odds with God, and took them away, removing them forever, and that somehow this happened on the cross. We think that somehow, in his death on the cross, our sins were destroyed. But is this the vision of the author of John’s gospel? Is this the understanding of John the Baptist? More importantly, where does that leave us now, in a world post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, where there are clearly still sins?

To answer these questions we need to take a closer look at these words from John the Baptist. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The first thing to recognize is that this word sin is not plural. It does not say, “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Instead, it seems like John is talking about something more centralized. Not just a collection of each person’s individual poor behavior, John is referencing the sin of the world, singular. As if each of our individual sins is but a symptom of this things that John is calling the “sin of the world.” The sin of the world that we all take part in. It’s something bigger than any one human being, but that at the same time we are all complicit in. So what is this sin of the world?

To answer that question we first need to examine one other significant part of this claim John makes about Jesus’ identity. That he is “the lamb of God” who “takes away” that sin. This makes it sound like Jesus’ work of self sacrifice was the mechanism by which he removed the sin of the world, but is this true, and what are the implications for this idea? This verb in Greek that is translated “takes away” is meant to emphasize the ongoing nature of the action. It is a present participle, and could be translated “the one who is taking away,” meaning that this is not just something Jesus is going to do once and for all when he dies on the cross but is something that was happening then and continues to happen throughout his ministry, not just at its end. 

One other significant thing about this word is that is doesn’t just mean remove or destroy. Like many Greek words, it could be translated in a lot of different ways, but the implication of the word is more about the action of lifting up or raising up than destruction of something. The idea being that for something to be removed it must first be raised up in order to be carried away. So one way we could translate this verse is this, “Behold, the lamb of God, who is raising up the sin of the world.” If we think of Jesus’ work and ministry as raising up or lifting up the sin of the world we get so much more texture and depth to Jesus’ life and ministry than just his crucifixion.

It shows us something significant about what John knew of Jesus’ mission and what the author of John’s gospel believed about Jesus’ mission. Not only that, but this ongoing action of raising up the sin of the world is something that did not stop with Jesus, nor did it stop with his 12 disciples in the first century. It is the mission we are still called to participate in today. So we ask again, what is this sin of the world, and what does it mean to lift it up, to raise it up as a sacrifice? To see it embodied in a modern context, in the way that Jesus embodied this mission in the first century, we need look no further than the person who we will celebrate tomorrow, and who we celebrate every year for his courageous and Christ-like work in the world just 60 years ago: Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his letter from Birmingham Jail, which he penned in April of 1963 when he was confined for his participation in the nonviolent protests in Alabama that spring, King wrote to his fellow clergymen who had been critical of his actions in disobeying the laws for which he was jailed, saying, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

“I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

To “arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice,” this is the work of raising up the sin of the world. And we ask again; what is the sin of the world? It has many names and many faces. We can call it oppression, injustice, inequity, the wealth gap, slavery, or any number of terms, but at its core it all stems from the same place. Our one great human sin, that we all take part in at one time or another, is born from the illusion of scarcity. Our own feeling of not having enough, not being enough, and needing to hoard resources, whether they be money, security, power, or any thing else.

We default to oppression because we live into the apparent reality, though illusion, that resources are finite. In a world of finitude, of scarcity, where time and money and resources are finite, we default to a mentality of hoarding that leaves an ever increasing gap between those who have and those who don’t. But Jesus says, wake up! There is something more here than meets the eye. Because in reality there is only abundance! In reality, there are enough resources for everyone to have exactly what they need, including equality of all shapes and sizes. The hatred and oppression and racism that have permeated our world are a product of this scarcity, but it is all an illusion.

Jesus, in the very way he lived his life and moved about the world, was taking part in nonviolent protest to oppression, injustice and inequality, and constantly inviting us to recognize the possibilities of living into the abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven where resources flow freely and no one has power over anyone else. He ate with the rejected, the untouchable, he challenged unjust social norms, he challenged the very power structures of the world he lived in, the oppressive rule of Rome and its many headed system of injustice. He told people to give whatever was asked of them and to not expect anything in return, to fill up the basket of grain until it was overflowing. He took the finite resources of loaves and fish and showed them to be more than up to the task of feeding whoever was hungry. He told everyone over and over again that in the Kingdom of Heaven the first and the last are the same: complete equality and equity. This was the Kingdom of Heaven, the Reign of God that Jesus envisioned.

He moved through the world lifting up the sin of the world for all to see, to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice. He held up a mirror to those power structures, to everyone in power, to show them how they were taking part in this sin of the world. And he became this mirror in such fullness that, as Paul writes in the second letter to the Corinthians, he became sin who knew no sin. He became the very symbol of the injustice inherent in these systems while taking no part in their proliferation. He embodied these systems in all he did and carried them up to the cross, and in his nonviolent embodiment, in his presence on the cross, he changed those very systems by walking openly, lovingly and willingly in resistance to them, not by destroying them outright or dismantling them on the spot, but by exposing them for what they were with his very body.

As King says elsewhere in his letter regarding his decision to move beyond verbal negotiation, “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.”

And thus Martin Luther King, Jr. took up his role as a disciple of Christ and raised up the sin of the world, “presenting his very body as a means of laying his case before the conscience of the local and national community.” Lifting it up so high that not a single person could any longer pretend that segregation was not happening, that injustice was not happening, that oppression was not taking place, that assaults on the very dignity of our collective humanity were not being perpetrated every day. And like Jesus, he was killed for it, and his actions and words continue to change the world. He followed in the footsteps of Jesus, he took up the cross of those who had gone before and continued to raise up the sin of the world higher and higher, because he knew that nothing can happen without action.

As King says in response to those who ask him to wait for the incremental change of equality to take place, “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Behold, the lamb of god, raising up the sin of the world. This work that Jesus did 2000 years ago and King took up in this last century is not done, by any means. Jesus knew it, Martin Luther King, Jr. knew it, and we continue to live into an illusion if we do not heed their call and become co-creators with God in bringing about the justice and equity of the Kingdom of Heaven. But, as King warned us, without those with privilege and power taking part, “time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” He says elsewhere in the letter, “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” It is uncomfortable for those of us with privilege and power to face the truth of this sin of the world, and even more uncomfortable to do something about it. It seems though that Jesus was not much interested in our comfort, but very much interested in justice. A justice that each and every one of us has a role to play in bringing about, recognizing full well our own positions of power and privilege whatever they may be, and living into the discomfort of this mission of God, knowing also that doing nothing is not a neutral act, but is a preservation of the status quo, the sin of the world, that always defaults to the sin of scarcity.

How is God calling you to raise up the sin of the world? How are you intentionally or unintentionally taking part in maintaining the status quo? What does repentance look like in your context, and how can you take part in bringing about the justice and equity of the Kingdom of Heaven in the world today?

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