In today's programmed worship service at ESR, Michael Sherman preached from Hebrews 10 about sacrifice. Michael argued that Jesus' death on the cross was the final sacrifice and that God no longer desires Christians to sacrifice, but rather to give of ourselves willingly.
This resurfaced some questions I have been asking since being in seminary: What was and is the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross? How did or does Jesus' death save us? What does it mean for Christians to sacrifice? Perhaps exploring the very word "sacrifice" will help.
Sacrifice comes from "sacra," which means holy, and "facere," which can mean to make, to do, or to perform.1 "Holy," it is important to note, comes from "hale," which means health, heartiness, wholeness.2 Literally, to sacrifice means to make or do something something holy, something whole.
If Jesus' death on the cross was a sacrifice, then Jesus' death was something holy and whole, or it made some thing or things holy and whole--or both. As I understand it, this is consistent with the gospel. Christians proclaim that Jesus' death on the cross has
reconciled humanity and God. Some say that his death has
reconciled the whole world with God. That through Jesus' death, we receive forgiveness of sins, and through Jesus' wounds we are healed.
That the cross has dismantled the wall between Jew and Gentile. Jesus' death is holy and whole because it makes us holy and whole. If his death did none of these things, then it
would not be holy; it would not be a sacrifice.
How does Jesus' death make us holy? In my theology class last semester we learned about the classical theories of atonement. First is the New Testament teaching about sacrifice, rooted in the Jewish tradition of sacrificing lambs for the forgiveness of sins, in which Jesus is the sacrificial lamb whose blood covers humanity's sins once and for all. In the Ransom/Classic/Christus Victor Theory, Satan has dominion over human souls, so God offers Jesus' life to Satan in exchange for human souls. But God tricks Satan by raising Jesus from the dead, thus winning complete victory over death and evil. The Satisfaction/Objective Theory states that our disobedience has dishonored God to such an extent that humans can do nothing to satisfy our debt. Only God can pay this debt, and does through Jesus, who is both human (thus he can die) and divine (thus his death fully pays back our debt). Finally, the Moral Influence/Subjective Theory teaches that Jesus' death is an example of God's love for us, and that it should inspire us to turn from our sinfulness, seek God's forgiveness, and receive God's love. Without Jesus' death, we would not be moved to so change. These are not the only theories, no doubt, and I do not think they completely answer the question of how Jesus' death makes us holy because I think holiness is about more than only the forgiveness of sins. Still, each of the theories, although in different ways, proclaim that somehow Jesus' death makes us one, or whole, with God.
For Christians, Jesus' sacrifice is the act of holiness which changes everything. But is it the final sacrifice, the final act of holiness? Michael objected to someone doing something self-giving for another person with the expectation or requirement that the other person do something in return. I think Michael's objection was because such an action is not healthy for relationships; it is not done in love, but in fear and selfishness. Such an action, however, is not a whole or holy work, and thus it is not a sacrifice. Rather, it is expression of a need, or manipulation, disguised as sacrifice. I agree that God does not desire us to do such actions, but rather works done in obedience to God, in genuineness, in willingness, and in love. I would call these works sacrifices. I believe that Jesus went to the cross willingly in obedience to God, and not out of fear that God would damn him if he didn't, and not to guilt humanity into being good. As horrible as he knew it would be, Jesus offered himself in the joy of knowing that his death would bring us peace. I also believe that Jesus loved God and knew God's love for him and so obeyed God in love.
What does it look like for Christians to sacrifice? What do we do that is holy and whole, or makes some thing or things holy and whole?
What contributes to the wholeness and completion of ourselves and the
world? An author pouring herself into a novel can be sacrifice. A caregiver tending someone in pain can be sacrifice. Also, playing ping
pong with a friend can be sacrifice. Worshiping in silence can be
sacrifice. Perhaps what makes these things sacrifices is love. As Paul
writes in 1 Corinthians 13, all the actions in the world, even the most
self-giving ones, are meaningless without love. Love makes a work holy
Our sacrifice shares in the same meaning as Jesus' death because both are done in love and contribute to reconciling that which is estranged from God with God. Our sacrifice is our ministry, in wonderfully various forms, our cross that we take up and through which we live and share life with others. Our sacrifice is our willingness to offer ourselves in obedience to God, wherever God may lead us--and our following through.
The worship service ended with the hymn "When I Survey the Wond'rous Cross," which concludes with the following words:
"Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all!"
In receiving the love of God, we are invited to wholly offer ourselves to the Life, and so become holy and whole. While Jesus' death was, according to the author of Hebrews, the end of one kind of sacrifice, the burnt offering sacrifice, Christians are called to be living sacrifices: vessels of love whose lives are holy and whole, people who, in obedience to and participation with God, make things holy and whole.