There are many ways the bible writers attempt to address, or speak of, the work that was undertaken by God in the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross on that Friday approximately two thousand years ago that we come to celebrate today. Just the idea that we come to celebrate his death leaves us with an enormous sense of contradiction. But we don’t call it Good Friday for nothing (although I have friends that refer to it as Great Friday). And in this contradiction is expressed in the responses received from people as they leave the church building following the service. Here we are celebrating Good Friday, and those who attended are expressing the sense of sombreness. The church is dark, plain, empty.
The desire to express that work of God is just as difficult for the biblical writers. They speak about redemption, ransom, atonement and sacrifice. Redemption coming from the slave market and a slave buying his own freedom. Ransom also comes form the slave market, although this relates to someone else buying the slave and then writing them a certificate of freedom. Atonement and sacrifice come from the worship in the Temple; atonement in the laying of sins on a goat set loose to die in the desert (the scapegoat) and sacrifice, the slaughter of an innocent and the best animal for the sins of those who are guilty. What these examples of ways the biblical writers speak of the work of the cross say positively about what God has done for us, they also speak negatively about the nature and person of God himself.
I don’t want to go into he details of the contradictions in each of these metaphors, but I do find myself being drawn to reflect on the idea of sacrifice the sacrifice. For example, was Jesus the sacrifice, or did he make a sacrifice, or is it both?
I find myself leaning toward the idea that God did not allow Jesus to be sacrificed, a perfect innocent, on behalf of those who were guilty, that Jesus, a perfect innocent, took the punishment that the guilty deserved. However, I do find myself considering that Jesus made a sacrifice on our behalf. Is this splitting hairs? Because of the implications, I think not. It is, rather a profound theological difference. What we understand to be about God’s nature is our nature because we are created in his image and likeness. If God did sacrifice an innocent for the guilty, we have an unjust God and to be fully human would be people who force others to pay the due for our crime.
Interestingly enough, I can’t help wondering whether this is what is often being expressed in our world. When we consider that 10% of the worlds population has control of 90% of the world’s resources, living lives that seem to say the more money you have the more access you have to education, health, and legal aid. The result is, 90% of the world’s population is being sacrificed for the guilt of the rich 10%.
We also live in a world where we strive to have the best things in life. My mum and dad are often talking about how, when they were first married, they ate their dinner off a card table in a meagerly furnished flat. Apart from this sounding like a Monty Python skit, we find ourselves comparing that to many in our younger generations who seem to have to have everything in their modern, new mansions of first homes. And I suspect they would say that they have sacrificed to achieve these things.
So, as we come to consider the cross of Good Friday, the death of Jesus upon it, we are invited to consider sacrifice. But there is something else caught up in this consideration. I find myself reflecting on Jesus’ words to his disciples,
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16.24, see also Mark 8.34, Luke 9.23)
To be a disciple of Jesus, Jesus says, we must take up our cross and follow him and with that cross is the idea of us, as disciples, making a sacrifice.
As I have already said, I don’t think that sacrifice has anything to do with allowing ourselves to take responsibility for those things which are not ours to be responsible for. We are not to take upon ourselves the punishment that belongs to others, nor are we to expect others to do so. Such a notion is often expressed in the idea of the sacrifice of the priesthood – an expectation, in the past I hope – that clergy should live lives in houses of lesser standard or lives of lesser quality than those they are called to serve.
As a part of my Lenten preparation for Easter I have been reading Bp Tom (N. T.) Wright’s, Following Jesus, Biblical Reflections on Discipleship. Eerdmans: 1994. Now the Bp of Durham in the Church of England, these were a part of a series he preached while the Dean of Lichfield. Bp Wright defines sacrifice as those things we do, which are costly, but are concerned with helping another to achieve their goals. In this sense, Jesus is not sacrificed, but he does make a sacrifice. Jesus gives of himself, even to death on the cross, in order that our goals may be fulfilled. Whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, our ultimate goal is know God and Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice in order that that goal can be attained.
As we consider sacrifice as the efforts we make to help someone else achieve their goals, we are mindful of the prayer we often conclude the Holy Communion portion of our worship services:
Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice through Jesus Christ our Lord. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.
Too often we find ourselves more focussed on the things we want to achieve rather than the goals of others and the faith community. We spend all our energy on fighting to keep rather than letting go to receive. As Jesus’ disciples, how well are we being living sacrifices? How well are we going in our preparedness to give up in order that the goals of another, our parish, the Church, or the community or a community group we belong to.