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The S word: Sacrifice: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 21, 2018
Isaiah 53:4-12
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Most High,
your Anointed One offered himself freely
as witness against our violence,
our acts of oppression,
and our sin.
As you delighted to call him your Son,
give us the courage to bring you equal delight
by our willingness to drink the cup of sacrifice
on behalf or our sisters and brothers,
and, with them, offer you praise unceasing
and lives transformed
as true heirs of your grace-filled realm. Amen.

If you ever take a drive through small towns and the countryside, even around here in Southwestern Ontario, from time to time you’ve probably passed by the occasional evangelistic sign. Sometimes they’re big, as big as a billboard for any fast food chain, usually, I suspect, sitting on the property of some pious Christian. And in big lettering there’s a slogan or Bible verse like “repent and believe the Good News.”

Or sometimes you’ll come across much smaller, less permanent signs. Not freestanding in some farmer’s field, but a small square sign subtly affixed to a telephone poll. You stop at a light, and on the poll there’s a sign that says “I fix noisy bathroom fans” and then just underneath it, a separate one: “Jesus died for your sins.”

Nothing quite as flashy or scary as what lines the highways in the southern US, but still, I think it’s an open question as to whether or not these signs are meant to comfort or to accuse. Or do they resonate in our day and age at all? (Do they mean anything to someone who doesn’t know anything about Jesus, doesn’t think terribly highly of the Bible, and has no real understanding of, or concern for what the Jewish and Christian traditions call sin.)

Or are people starting to wonder if God has afflicted their bathroom fans due to some moral failure of this generation?!

We often struggle today with how to communicate and articulate our understanding of certain spiritual truths around Jesus and salvation — how God saves us. But these misunderstandings aren’t unique to us. Our gospel story today picks up after the last of Jesus’s three Passion predictions. They’re getting closer and closer to Jerusalem, and Jesus, as plainly as can be, explains to his disciples exactly what’s going to happen to him: he’s going to be betrayed, handed over, tied up, tortured, killed, but then rise again. And each time, the response of the clueless disciples is something along the lines of “but what’s in it for us.” Today it’s James and John that come forward and put in a reservation for the seats on the immediate left and the right of Jesus’s throne.

So Jesus asks them: can you drink the cup, and can you be baptized with the baptizm I’m going to be baptized with? Thinking that he’s just talking about some religious formula or ritual, they give a quick YES. Sure, if there’s a form to fill out, they’ll do it. If they need to take part in some wine ceremony, they’re up for it. If they need to wade in and then out of some body of water, or have a few drips poured over their heads from a little clamshell, that’s easy. At the level of transaction, they’re ready. And that’s a pretty sweet deal. Do that little bit, and then get a throne beside Jesus for eternity.

But Jesus isn’t talking about something so simple and easy. And in specifically alluding to the two great sacraments of the Church — Baptism and the Eucharist — Jesus (or the Gospel writer) are challenging us to expand our understanding of the life of faith. Jesus is steering us (with James and John) away from the idea of faith as a veneer, a thin layer or religiosity on top of the rest of our life. Instead, he’s calling us to see the whole, the entirety of our lives as a sacrifice.

But even there, in that word “sacrifice” — that’s a lot to unpack. Because our understanding of sacrifice tends to be pretty transactional. Even if we have a limited understanding of the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, we probably have a general impression that it goes something like: people sin, so they make a sacrifice, and then everything is alright again. And this carries over into our understanding of the Cross: we sinned, Jesus is sacrificed, everything is alright again. And then to baptism: we’re sinful, we get baptized, everything is alright again. And that can kind of work, a little bit, at some level. But it’s also problematic, as we might start to wonder (and worry) about this God who has this preoccupation with blood… This God who, it’s implied, would like to wipe us out, for our sinfulness, but is — thankfully — satisfied by the blood of his Son. We might wonder how Jesus, in his earthly ministry, goes around proclaiming peace, peace, peace, but then when it really counts, seems to reveal a God who calls for (a transaction involving) death and violence.

So we might do well to remember that even within the ancient Jewish tradition there’s a critique of the sacrificial system. The prophets shake their people out of their hollow religiosity and say “God wants mercy and justice, not sacrifice.” And the Psalmist records God as saying “do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, and drink the blood of goats?”

Even so, the early Christians, and we ourselves, can’t help but speak of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice. Because it has to do with covering sins. It has to do with offering the most costly gift to God. It has to do the re-establishment or sealing of a covenant or pact that brings about peace between God and people (and people and people). It is a sacrifice. But it’s anything but formulaic or transactional. It’s the perfect sacrifice to end the cycle of violent sacrifice (that’s what the author of Hebrews is getting at), and it has everything to do with living in line with the Kingdom of justice and peace that Jesus has been proclaiming. The difficult thing that James and John are resistant to is that when you preach peace and justice and love in a world that revolves around injustice and violence, you put your very life at risk. Which is what happens to Jesus in Jerusalem. And it’s what happens to so many of the apostles and early Christians. But when we start to see this, we’re able to hold together Jesus’s life, and Jesus’s death and resurrection. We don’t have to pick between a) being a ‘follower of Jesus’ and b) someone who finds salvation through Jesus’s death and resurrection. (Like a) is for more rational, worldly people, and b) is for pious religious types. But Jesus is challenging James and John to hold these two together. Because following Jesus, which means opposing the way of death in a world of death, will quite likely lead to death. But the message of Resurrection is that God will find a way for life to triumph out of what looks like defeat.

In a few moments we’re going to move toward the celebration of the Eucharist — the communion meal that is anything but an empty ritual. In that prayer and meal, each week, we recall the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that Jesus’s single, perfect sacrifice is made present and effective for us, in our own day. And on that altar — which is for sacrifice — we bring before God our offerings (our sacrifices) of bread, wine, and our financial treasure. All of these represent the very basics of our lives. And we unite our genuine though imperfect sacrifices with the perfect sacrifice of Jesus our high priest. And then share in that meal where we’re fed, and changed, and brought closer together. So that we can be sent out into our world having been ever so slightly more conformed to the image of Jesus. Strengthened to bring his message and his way to those around us. It’s all about giving and receiving. Giving ourselves. Receiving Christ. But it’s anything but a simple transaction. It’s about the whole of our lives.

Bringing to the altar our blessings and our thanksgivings. But also bringing our needs, our fears, our doubts… Bringing all of who we are.

Joining our sacrifice today of “prayer and thanksgiving” with Jesus’s sacrifice that he made on the Cross, the Cross being the inevitable end of a life given fully over to God’s love in a world that cannot readily accept it.

Bringing together the whole of our lives with the whole of Jesus’s life, to become more like him.

And in our eating of the Body of Christ, our becoming more fully just that: the Body of Christ. Amen.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

P.S. If you’re interested in this expanded interpretation of sacrifice, check out the 5 part CBC Ideas series on the thought of Rene Girard: