W.One problem for us is that we don't sacrifice either animals or people. And we would no doubt unabashedly label any society that did as primitive. Yet the Jewish faith that both Jesus and the early Christian church were born into did practice animal sacrifice. And in the Old Testament there are intimations of human sacrifice as well. In Genesis 22 the story is told that God called Abraham to go to a mountain top and sacrifice his first son Isaac. At the last minute God provides a ram to take the son's place. In church school and sermon we are taught that this incident was a test of Abraham's faith. Perhaps it was also witness to a more primitive practice of human sacrifice involving first sons.
W.Judaism is widely credited with invention and dissemination of monotheism. Perhaps it should also be credited with the demise of human sacrifice.
W.Nevertheless this is the context in which the church's story of Jesus' sacrifice is played out. It is a context of substitutional, animal sacrifice. And the animal substitution may be for a much grimmer, earlier practice that returns to be a major theme in the story. Jesus becomes the substitute sacrifice -- the Lamb of God and the Son of God. The ancient idea of propitiation of a mighty and terrible God through sacrifice of an innocent is there. So is a father's sacrifice of a son. It is not a pretty picture and not one that inspires immediate allegiance in modern, thinking people.
W.But this is the historical context of the death of Jesus and there are other levels on which this story works.
W.Sacrifice is not a foreign concept to us. We recognize the voluntary surrender of something significant to us (perhaps in exchange for something else, perhaps not) as a sacrifice. We proclaim those who sacrifice their lives for others heroes and rightly so. We also can understand the concept of sacrifice of children though not in blind faith on an alter to a god. Any parent who has seen a child off to war understands this terrible kind of sacrifice. Even in times of peace parents sacrifice when they raise children to adulthood and see them off into separate lives in the world. Even this rather gentle process involves a letting go that can be more or less difficult and that does in a real sense represent the passing of one life into another.
W.It is hard to tell from where and when our ideas of sacrifice come to us. It is possible that we owe the origination and general recognition given personal sacrifice to Jesus and to the Christian faith. For among other things Jesus' death is understood to be a personal sacrifice of life by one person for others. Jesus did not have to die. He could have side-stepped this fate. But he could only have done so by renouncing or perhaps never taking up his ministry. The only way he could live faithful to that ministry was to surrender to death at the hands of the authorities who opposed it. This is a different kind of sacrifice from historical blood sacrifices. It transforms sacrifice into what we understand it to be today.
W.In traditional trinitarian language God's role in Jesus' sacrifice is parent and Jesus' role is son. God sacrifices his only son so that God's reconciling work is complete. Historical sacrifice was a human attempt to bridge the gap between us and God. God's sacrifice operates in the reverse direction -- God bridges this gap -- because we cannot. This sacrifice also transforms what we understand about sacrifice and our relationship to God. If Jesus did not have to die certainly God did not have to sacrifice him. Except that there is no other way for reconciliation to be achieved.
W.God's sacrifice begins with Jesus' birth. To be born into the world means to die. We humans know that. None of us is getting out of here alive. Yet there are many ways to die. And peaceful death in the fullness of time is commonly preferred over early death, over violent death. Yet God comes to us not just to suffer life and die as we do but to die in the prime of life and to die violently. No father would want such a career for a son much less an only son. Yet this is the divine image Christian faith gives us -- of a parent with but one hope for the future -- a single child -- who must die violently at an early age to achieve their goal. It is an image of an anguished God and an ultimate sacrifice -- to transform humanity.
W.Another problem we have to deal with is the feeling that we've done nothing wrong. From our psychologists who tell us that it is not healthy to feel guilty to our teflon morality which seems to slough off all forms of personal responsibility we are not inclined to feel guilty if we can avoid it. Atonement or restitution is for those who get caught and even then a good lawyer and a plea of "not guilt" are the recommended course. We are after all innocent until proven guilty in court. Of course that's only the way we feel about ourselves. We all know that anyone else who gets caught must be guilty.
W.We also don't believe in the death penalty (except of course here in the United States) so it is again with disdain that we contemplate Old Testament "eye for eye" justice and death by stoning for those who speak against religious authority. Yet again this is the setting for the story of Jesus and the early Christian church. To believe that Jesus dies for us requires first that we believe that there is some justice in our own death -- that we deserve death. Without judgment there can be no grace. But while none of us may be perfect certainly most of us do not deserve a judgment of death. We reject the draconian standard that says we do.
W.Of course the problem is that this is not about crime and punishment. So our notions of justice don't apply. This is about human nature and why good intentions do not guarantee a good result and about why good people suffer and not so good people thrive. It's about why we don't do what we should and not do what we shouldn't. We all think we are different from "them" however we define "them". But the truth is that we are not. We are all just people. Not angels just people. The failings of one are the failings of all. It is not our individual responsibility that is at question but our corporate responsibility. Just as it is not healthy to feel guilty all the time (psychologists are right about that) it is not healthy to deny our humanity.
the human family there is so much that cannot be made right. So
cruelty, war and violence, so much abuse, hatred and disinterest that
all have little right to expect justice, peace and to die in our
We are deluded by islands of tranquility in time and place to thinking
that our expectations might be justified but all times and places come
to an end. We need all times and places -- all humanity -- to be
transformed. And this is just what we are offered in the death of
Jesus Christ -- a substitution at the last minute for the really
-- Jesus for us.