Tag Archives: sacrifice

“No longer for ourselves alone”

Paul wrote a letter to a church he had never visited – and, usefully for us, it sets out the message he preached. That message centres on Jesus, and on the good news that God has acted to rescue humans unable to save themselves. Let me take you through a little of what he says before today’s epistle. Paul claims that at least some of God’s character is clear in creation – but that there has been a general rebellion against God and living his way, and as a result there is guilt. The trouble is, it is not just “them”, it affects “us” too. Those who knew the Old Testament Law – 10 commandments and more – simply knew their failure in more detail. By Romans 3:10 he can say “No one is acceptable to God”, – and that is serious .

So what’s the answer? Clearly not a set of rules, not a greater effort to be perfect. The good news is Jesus, who offers himself as a sacrifice for our sin. The acceptance we cannot earn we can accept as a gift, received by faith. Paul then goes on in chapter 4 to show how this worked out in Abraham. It was, he insists, Abraham’s faith, and not his achievements, that made him God’s friend and won his place in Jewish and Christian history.

So we come to chapter 5, and today’s epistle (we read Romans 5:1-11 ). Faith in Jesus, trust in his sacrifice for us, bring us reconciliation to God. It doesn’t mean we shall have an easy life – in fact it can bring persecution and suffering – but even then we shall have hope. When we think that Jesus died for those who were his enemies, we see something of God’s love.

This is not widely understood in our culture (perhaps not in any culture). Many people seem to think “Don’t worry about sin, it doesn’t matter, God won’t make a fuss!” But it does matter, and it separates us from a just and holy God. The answer is not forgetfulness, nor greater effort to be perfect – the answer is the sacrifice of Jesus, a gift we accept by faith. God does for us what we cannot do.

So what does a Christian life look like in these terms? Let me pass on a story:

Disillusioned with the view of God she had been taught, Karema began searching for spiritual answers as a young graduate. The wonder of God humbling himself and coming into the world as a man, sharing our experiences and pain, was crucial in Karema’s journey of accepting Christ as her Saviour. 

When her community learned of her belief in Christ, Karema realised she was in danger and fled her home country. She is now ministering to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, meeting practical needs and teaching the Bible to those hungry for spiritual truth, as she was once herself. 

Karema shared her story. She says, “They asked ‘Why are you so kind to us, what is behind this?’ so we explained how Jesus had put in our hearts to go and help the strangers.”

That sort of story is challenging to us, but I think it rightly understands the gospel. In the Thanksgiving prayer at the eucharist (Church in Wales, Lent) we say: “By Jesus’ grace, we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” It was living “no longer for herself alone” that raised the questions Karema answered with the story of Jesus.

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.

Back to (Super-) Normal.

Christmas is over; reluctantly we return to the “normal” – but our reading (we read Ephesians 1:3-14 this Sunday) will take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. Ephesians begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work. Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at Christmas. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of Christmas lead on? Apparently not, in the secular / supermarket / primary school version.

And why not? Because it doesn’t fit with a sentimentalised version of the story. But why should it? Surely our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not the story we re-written for children (what we think they would like), or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – bloodthirsty rulers and, yes, a baby born to die. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving Christmas and going back to normal routine. But while the world leaves a fairy tale, ruined by reality, we take with us the strength gained from the story of God’s coming. We know that his coming is just the first part, and there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”

Ephesians 1:11,12

A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Why Jesus?

You can tell a great deal about a Church from its attitude to Jesus. Is he talked about a lot, or only a little? Is he seen as a leader, or more remotely as some sort of “patron”? Are the gospels read often, or less than other writings?

Jesus remains at the centre of Christian faith. The name comes from a “Christ men” nickname, noted in the New Testament (Acts 11:26), and apt. One of the important reasons why is noted by the writer of the letter to Hebrews (we read Hebrews 2:10-18 today). Jesus, who by nature, and from before the start of time, shares the status of God with the Father and the Spirit, chooses to come to earth. He volunteers to be born, vulnerable and poor, as a truly human baby – Mary’s child.

So begins a human life, which will share all the normal experiences, and several others. He will play, learn, celebrate – and suffer. He does not deserve that suffering, but it makes him a most appropriate Saviour, as he is fully identified with those he brings from darkness and despair to the glory of heaven and hope.

The writer of this letter to Hebrews will compare Jesus with the Jewish High Priest. The High Priest was well aware of the failings of the people, as he shared their life (and indeed their sins). But he was appointed to make sacrifice for them to God. It was something well understood by the Jewish Christians who first received this letter.

In the twenty first century, we may find it more helpful to think (with some early Christians) of Jesus making a bridge between earth and heaven. Both ends of a bridge have to be secure, and in the right place! The Son of God belonged in heaven. He had the right. But in being born human, and sharing the ups and downs of human life before offering himself as a sacrifice for sin, he establishes the other end of the bridge. So, as Hebrews says:

“he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Hebrews 2:17-18

That he should choose to live a human life, suffer, and die, remains for many a puzzle. But it is God’s wisdom, establishing the offer of salvation, without any coercion. The bridge between earth and heaven is open, both ends secure and well placed. Those who doubt, and want to paddle themselves across the flood, are foolish indeed.

Seeing in a new light.

Jesus’ Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43) is a strange story, even when compared with the miracles and unexpected events of the gospel. What does it mean? What difference does it make?

It does highlight the need to read each part of the gospel in context. Not only does this come in the middle of the gospel, It is in a chapter full of change.

The 12 have been sent out 2 by 2 on mission. Coming back, the crowd interrupted their “time off” with Jesus, and he fed 5,000. Then Jesus asks about what people are saying about him, and Peter recognises the Messiah, the promised King sent by God – but immediately Jesus talks, not of majesty, but of suffering and death.

Then comes this mountaintop experience, perhaps throwing a new light on what is happening. Jesus shows the glory of heaven. Moses, representing the Old Testament leaders, and the Law, is present as a witness, and so is Elijah, not just representing the prophets of the Old Testament, but also the forerunner promised in Malachi 4:5-6. They talk of Jesus “departure” – the Greek word is “Exodus” – which he will “bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem”.

Perhaps you see what is happening. Jesus is taking his mission in an unexpected direction. He will deliberately avoid a revolution to try and make him King, and instead offer himself as a sacrifice. Will the disciples understand? – Will we?

Peter is still thrilled by the experience, and he wants to stay. The heavenly voice has a different priority – “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

The journey of faith will test their loyalty. Jesus will go in directions they did not expect – and did not want. But they continued to learn to listen, trust, and follow.

That’s all very well in the first century. We might think we know better, and set off into Lent with the same routines – choosing something to “give up”. But what we need to do, especially at a time of change, is to consider the cost of Jesus’ rescue, and to “spring clean” our spiritual habits to make sure they fit the needs of faith now.

Yes, society is changing, the Church is changing; perhaps it is a time of uncertainty or transition for you, too. So we all need a new vision of Jesus, which give us confidence and the motivation.

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”  – because that is specially important when things are developing rapidly, and may not be as they seem.

At the bottom of the hill, they have to face a failure to heal. The disciples need of Jesus is again clear. They are learning to reflect God’s glory, to work with the Holy Spirit and follow God’s chosen way. But they have not finished learning, and neither have we. So keep close to the Saviour, and keep listening!

Being part of one another.

What does Jesus mean when he says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.” (the first verse of this week’s extract from John 6 – John 6:51-58).  It is obviously important (and, incidentally, one of the sayings that mean you can’t just take Jesus as a wise teacher. This is either a madman, or someone – really important!)

It doesn’t help that Christian tradition has divided into 2 very different ways. Some take this, admitting it has something to do with the eucharist / communion, as little more than a visual aid. Jesus tells us we ought to eat together, and this is a picture of fellowship and a reminder of the story of the Last Supper, which leads on to his sacrificial death.

On the other hand, others will give almost magical significance to the bread of communion, seeing it as the guarantee of Jesus’ presence in power, and the celebration of the eucharist as the answer to all problems, and the only real way to worship. And rather than just scratch our heads, we ought to go back to the text and see what Jesus is saying and John recording for us:

6:49 “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.
6:50 But the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die.”

On the way out of Egypt, the Israelites learnt to rely on God, who gave them manna to eat. The crowd who enjoyed the feeding of the 5,000 know that story, but Jesus wants them to look beyond a free lunch. What else is available? Life – real, lasting, quality life. But how is it to be had? (Their big question, and ours!). The answer is not complicated, though some will not see it.

It is neither just a question of how you think and form your opinions. Nor is it a matter of doing the right rituals. It is – Jesus. He will be / has been the sacrifice. We will live if we feed on him. But how? Some of the crowd seem to suspect cannibalism, or at least a very un-Jewish drinking of blood. It is symbolism – but more, sacrament (“the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”).

We feed on Jesus as we hear, understand, and put into practice his teaching. We feed on Jesus as we come, perhaps tired, or preoccupied, or doubtful, and make ourselves a part of his people, his body. We feed on Jesus when we do what we think he wants, or directs us to.  It means we recognise our need of him, and asking for his help, become committed to learning and following.

We feed together in the service we call “eucharist” (thanksgiving), (or “Holy Communion”, “Lord’s Supper”, “Mass”, “Liturgy”, “Breaking of Bread”). Publicly gathering and admitting our need to be fed, strengthened, livened up. Tiny quantities of bread and wine; eaten, absorbed, becoming part of us. We are no longer independent, our own masters. It is not the physical act of eating that is vital – we remind those “nil by mouth”, the coeliacs and the alcoholics of this. Yet it helps to go and take, with empty hands, in company of others who need Jesus too.

This text is simple, and yet difficult. It makes clear that it is never enough to be impressed and influenced by Jesus. We must make a closer identification, so that he and I are linked, even mixed. On the other hand, the dependence is on God / on Jesus (yes, the two are very close here) – and not on having a priest available, or getting yourself ordained.

It is easy to see how tradition has sometimes distorted the meaning, because the challenge of letting Jesus in so that he becomes part of us, and we of his body, is always great.

EAT me?

As we continue to read John 6 (this week, John 6:35 and 6:41-51), we see the crowd arguing.  First comes the old complaint: He can’t be special, he comes from our neighbourhood, and we know him.  Some people still take offence at the idea, not just that Jesus is special, but that he is much more than “one of us”, and one who must be followed and obeyed.

Verses 44 and 45 gives us two sides of a puzzle.  God must draw people to Christ and belief, yet any who want to find truth can be sure of help.  Each side is helpful – we need to understand that some people will not hear, but also that none who want to learn are refused.

The “bread of life” is one of the important “I am” sayings.  It would be dangerous and wrong to make it a magical understanding of receiving Holy Communion, and equally wrong to ignore the connection to the service in which we give thanks (“eucharist”) above all for the sacrifice of Jesus death and the triumph of his resurrection – the central points of faith.  We do that with more than words, with action, and by eating.

Is it just eating? No. To gobble stolen consecrated bread would be of no advantage.  It is about feeding on Jesus – through his teaching, his life, understood, obeyed, absorbed by the power of the Holy Spirit into our life, transforming from within the person.  What is eaten becomes part of me, provides energy, rebuilds my body, alters my mood.  Eating together with other believers brings us together, as sharing a meal always does.  With them we worship, becoming more like what we hold worth praising, and give thanks (remembering how much there is to be thankful for), and by our prayers try to work with God and with one another.

Jesus gives everything for us.  We are invited to receive what he gives, to let it become part of us, to change us, to energise and direct us.  Never a mere ritual, an act of personal worship may assist and advance the process.

Lifted up ?

(The fourth Sunday in Lent is often kept as Mothering Sunday, and there is a dialogue sketch on that theme here.)

“As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” These words from John’s gospel may seem a puzzle (John 3:14-21).  They come at the end of Jesus’ private conversation with the Jewish Pharisee, Nicodemus.  It helps to look back to a story from the wilderness wanderings, about poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). Moses commanded the people to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, to offer a cure to those bitten.

It may seem a strange idea, but you can see some reasons for it:

  • it showed the need for faith, to believe in the cure.
  • it required action according to the instructions, to take given cure.

Jesus picks this up in the gospel (in conversation with Nicodemus). He, too, must be lifted up on the cross to gather people, who will either take advantage of his sacrifice, or refuse to associate with it.

In many Churches a cross marks a gathering point.  It may be on top of the building, or a processional cross carried at the beginning of a service, or one placed at the centre of the building.

It is just a symbol, but is a powerful reminder that Christians are the people of the Jesus who was crucified. But do we want to be family? Do I have to belong? There are different ways of belonging, but the test becomes admitting to, or refusing, Jesus. Banners, and badges have always been used to gather those with an allegiance.

Jesus victory is not the sort that has everybody wanting to say, “I was there,” “I was with Him”. It leaves us the choice. Who am I with? Do I want to belong? Nicodemus obviously finds it hard, though he will work through it all, and believe. (see John 19:39)

Reality

This Sunday we leave the sequence of readings from Matthew to read a strange story for 6th August (Luke 9:28-36) – 3 disciples seeing Jesus all lit up, and talking to 2 Old Testament characters from long before. What is it all about? Does it matter?

It starts before this of course with Peter recognising Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” (Luke 9:20). Messiah? – The promised King, the one who would put everything right, who would bring all God’s promises true!!!

It’s true. Jesus is that person – but it’s not going to work the way the disciples expect. The Great King will win his place by dying on a cross.  It’ll be a shock and a disappointment to the disciples, but they really need to know this is the best way – this is God’s plan. So a week later they see Jesus in heavenly glory, discussing his “departure” (the Greek is “Exodus”) with Moses and Elijah, representing all the Old Testament hopes and promises Jesus will fulfill. And to underline it, a heavenly voice says  “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” v35

They are not allowed to stay and enjoy the experience for long – they have to get back to the journey to Jerusalem, and the cross. Later, they will remember, and understand. [There is a point there about Christian experience. The nice ones are not for prolonging and repeating, but for preparing us for better service.]

Do you think this has anything for you?  Jesus is the Messiah / the Great King / the one bringing all God’s promises true!  We like that bit, and prefer to forget: Jesus wins by sacrifice. Only by allowing himself to be killed, and rising to life again, can he win. And he invites us to be his friends and followers, saying that some of the same things will happen to us. We may not always enjoy being Christian.  Doing the things we are told to do may be difficult, unpopular, and hard. But it is the way to get things right, the way we find God’s promises come true.

[I’m sure Peter could have imagined things turning out another way – and took time to understand it was not going to happen like that, and for good reason. We also need to understand that God has to be in charge].  I like to think I know better. It isn’t really like that, I don’t really need to . . . And I need to read this story again and listen to that heavenly voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

Rewards ?

We read in Matthew 10:40-42 of rewards, but don’t think God owes us a place in heaven.  It is hard to say tactfully that none of us – not even the best – earns favour.  To think of marching up to the gates of heaven and asking for what we deserve would be disastrous.  By comparison with the holy goodness of God, we all fail and cannot hope to meet the standard.  What we deserve – is judgement, a “fail”.

Mercifully, that is not the end of the story!  God’s goodness has made an opportunity for us through Jesus and his sacrifice.  Accepting as a gift what he has done, we are offered not only forgiveness, but also a new life and status as God’s children.  (That is by adoption, not by right, so we talk about God’s “grace”).  So we live as those who are free, turning our backs on evil and walking the Christian way in thanks.  Yes, we still try to do the right thing, but as a reaction to a God whose love is beyond expectation, not as earning a place.

But what about rewards?  They are talked about several times in the New Testament.  Those who welcome Christians will benefit. Their welcome or kindness may help them hear the good news that will free them for ever.  Jesus explains more fully in Luke 18:29,30:

“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So some of the reward is in this life.  [There is more about rewards, for example in Matthew 6 which has much to say about hypocrisy and “looking good”.  1 Corinthians 3 also has some comments about the rewards of Christian ministry.]

If all this sounds great, there is a warning in the Old Testament lesson.  Jeremiah 28:5-9 is an extract from a longer story of conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Jeremiah had spoken of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people, and his ministry has cost him popularity and his security.  Hananiah prophecies a rapid return of the exiles and life as usual – a popular message, avoiding difficult issues of responsibility and the need to repent of wrongdoing.  While he would like it to be true, Jeremiah emphasises the test of prophecy (does it come true?), and later accurately prophecies judgement on the false Hananiah.  Those who speak for God have to keep to God’s messages; it is a sad warning!

So we have the encouragement of knowing that our Christian mission is not unnoticed, and will be rewarded.  Alongside that comes the reminder to be faithful.  It cannot be right to say just what people want to hear as if it was God’s message.  Indeed, to pretend to know God’s will without understanding can be – fatal.  If that is a sobering thought, it emphasises the importance of the gospel, and our witness to it by action and word.  Getting it right matters!