This is the second installment of our sermon series, “The Generous God,” and the theme we’d planned to explore today was sacrifice. As it happened, some tragic news this week brought the “gift of sacrifice” to newscasts and front pages, too. The city mourned the loss of two firefighters in the line of duty, Larry Leggio and John Mesh, two men who put their lives on the line every day they went to work. Their sacrifice makes us grieve, but I think sacrifice also makes us uncomfortable – at least it does me. Did it have to happen; could the suffering have been avoided? And deeper, there’s the question of whether the rest of us deserved it. I often think of the scene at the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan, when the now-older private tearfully asks his wife, “Have I been a good man?” Decades after the battle, he still doesn’t feel worthy of the suffering and loss it took to save his life.
I remember, in the years before seminary, driving from Kansas City to Springfield. There was a billboard for a Baptist Church just outside Springfield that read, “Jesus Saves – the Sacrifice for Your Sins.” That’s not exactly a new idea, especially in Southwest Missouri. But I was wrestling with God at that point about this whole priesthood thing, and one of my big struggles was Jesus being sacrificed on the cross. I hated that idea. Why did the Son of God have to come to earth and die? Well, the standard answer would be, “To save us from our sins.” OK. So, I thought, are my sins really that bad that I needed Jesus to be sacrificed to take them away? I mean, come on, God: I don’t smoke; I don’t drink that much; I don’t sleep around; I basically try to be a good person and put others first most of the time. Am I really wallowing so deep in moral depravity that I needed God’s Son to die to take that stain away? That’s not really the “me” I like to see.
Well, God won the wrestling match and I went to seminary; but seminary didn’t get me much further with all this. I did get a handy label for this doctrine I didn’t like: substitutionary atonement. So, “atonement” is a fine thing. It actually means just what the pieces of the word say: “at-one-ment.” It’s the idea that God’s mission involves restoring the broken relationship between God and people, making us “at one.” Cool. But that billboard near Springfield reflected a particular way of understanding the atonement – a substitutionary model. It’s actually a medieval notion rooted in the social relationships between serfs and the lord of their manor. Here it is, in a nutshell: By turning away from God through original sin, humanity had inflicted an outrageous moral insult against God; and God, the divine lord of the manor, had to receive satisfaction from his offending serfs. But here’s the problem: No sinful human could ever pay what was owed to balance the scales. Only a human who didn’t share in the offense could make satisfaction. And the only human who would meet that criterion would be God’s own Son. So, the blood of his sacrifice washed away the offenses of all sinful humanity.
Well, several of my classmates and I really balked at that view of atonement. We came from spiritual backgrounds where sin wasn’t emphasized nearly as much as humanity’s creation in God’s image and potential for good. And we liked it that way. I mean, who wants to see yourself as inherently broken, with no hope of solving your own problems? Especially in American culture, we’re all about solving our own problems, right? Plus, all that “washed in the blood of the Lamb” stuff felt more than a little creepy. And honestly, we didn’t have any idea what our classmates meant when they said it.
I may not be the only Episcopalian who’s been uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus had to be sacrificed to pay the debt of my sins. But yet, there it is – a theological truth we have to wrestle with, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I mean, Jesus’ sacrifice runs all though the Prayer Book. In just a few minutes, we’ll remember that he “stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” (BCP 362)
Running into that language is like a walk I took at Conception Abbey in north Missouri this past week. The place has a lovely walking path through the beauty of creation, taking you around a peaceful pond, over rolling hills, through an apple orchard, into a stand of trees – and then, face to face with a life-sized man hanging on a cross. That sacrifice just won’t go away, no matter how much I may not want to see myself in need of it.
Well, here’s the truth, as best as I can see it now. I am absolutely in need of redemption. And I use that word, “redemption,” on purpose. It’s what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel reading this morning. Now, “redemption” is one of those church words, like salvation and justification, words that get all blended together like theological granola; and it’s hard to sort out the mix. Well, in biblical times – and, actually, in America’s history, too – redemption meant something very specific: buying someone out of captivity or slavery. If you were a prisoner or a slave, and someone paid your captor a certain price, that person “redeemed” you and literally set you free.
So what does that have to do with you and me? Well, let me speak for myself. I am bound in slavery to powers far greater than my poor power to withstand. Left to my own devices, I am bound to sin. That works in both senses of the word “bound”: I will sin; and I am held captive by the inclination to sin. I’m not killing anybody or sleeping around. But every blessed day, I distance myself from love so much more to be desired than what I find myself wanting instead. And what’s that? I want to be free from mistakes. I want to accomplish a lot – more than other people, in fact. And I want to be recognized for it, to get a little credit for what I’m able to do. In a word, the sin is pride.
We heard about that sin in today’s Gospel reading, too. James and John have heard Jesus talking about how he’ll soon suffer and die but then be raised into glory – and they’re looking to secure their spots in the kingdom land. They say to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). We all have our moments there with James and John – moments when we try to get what we can, usually at the expense of someone else. It happens even when we don’t think of it – when we consume resources while others go hungry, when we get out of a traffic ticket that would land someone else in jail. I do that kind of thing, taking the advantages I can take – and I don’t even realize it. Because I am bound to sin, shackled to separation from God, and I cannot free myself from it. I am enslaved to powers I cannot overcome on my own.
So were the Jewish people held in exile by the Babylonians. They were the ones to whom the prophet Isaiah wrote about a suffering servant whose sacrifice would free God’s people and leave the rulers of the nations in slack-jawed astonishment. Also enslaved were the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, held under the thumb of their oppressors, the Romans and the Pharisees alike, beating down regular folks with the weapons of empire and religion. Those rulers “lord it over” their subjects, Jesus says, and “their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.” (Mark 10:42-43)
It is not so among you, for I have come to free you, Jesus says. I have come to give my life as your “ransom” and liberate you from captivity, Jesus says. In Christ, God has not sacrificed a son in an act of cosmic child abuse. In Christ, God has entered into the ultimate battle with sin and death in the most unthinkable but mighty way – by pouring out God’s own self. By sacrificing God’s own self. That is not simply a good man hanging on the cross. That is the second person of the Trinity, paradoxically battling the power of sin by letting whips strip flesh, battling the power of death by letting his broken body die. But then, with the dread foe lulled into complacency, God in Christ arises; and death’s grip on life is broken forever. No longer can sin and death claim the last word, because now the last word is, “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).
And to that, what can I say? Thank you? Jesus, you’ve fought and died to win a battle I didn’t even want to admit I faced. “Thank you” hardly seems enough.
Well, then – what? How does the ransomed hostage repay his liberator? By taking up the liberator’s mission, costly though it may be. Jesus says to James and John, “You will drink the cup I drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39). We follow the one who sets the prisoners free, who breaks the captives’ chains, who pays the price required to prove that love’s worth more than power or prestige. We follow the God who came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.
And so, I think the only way we can say “thank you” is by walking Christ’s path just as he walked ours. We say “thank you” by giving of ourselves for those still bound in darkness and the shadow of death. We say “thank you” by being the Church and going into this world not to be served but to serve. We say “thank you” by giving ourselves away.
And when we do that – as every giver knows – when we do that, we find ourselves made new. That path of sacrifice leads straight to Easter morning. You’re never more alive than when you’re bringing life to someone else – in gifts of time, in gifts of talent, in gifts of treasure. For broken people like us, struggling always against the power of our own disordered desire and the power of a world turned sour – when broken people like us follow the path of sacrifice, that’s when we know the deepest joy. That path leads us back to the Garden, back to the wholeness God intended for each of us in the beginning. That joy you know when you dig down deep and give yourself away – that’s nothing less than the Trinity’s dance of creation, the joy of being the image and likeness of God, the joy of pouring divine love straight from your own broken heart.