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Cross Purposes:  Why Did Jesus Die?
III. The Sacrifice

 Psalm 51, Mark 8: 34-37 & Hebrews 1: 1-4; 10: 19-25

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 13th March 2005

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

The image and importance of sacrifice were endemic to ancient, primitive religion.  Often associated with the offering or slaughter of a human being in order to appease a god or cleanse a community from disease or protect from harm. This was prevalent in Mayan culture, we know, and to some degree in Greek culture.[1]  Curiously, human sacrifice does not emerge in Israel’s experience with Yahweh.  The demand to sacrifice Isaac is one possible exception, but a substitute was provided at the last moment.[2]  Instead, what we find in the Jewish experience is the slaughter of animals or the gift of inanimate objects, like grain.  We often think of sacrifice as an offering to curtail the wrath of angry deity, to protect us from punishment, or harm, or sacrifice as a substitute – instead of punishing people for their sins, let’s kill a lamb instead.  But not all offerings were design to ward off God’s wrath or punishment, such as grain offerings.  It is difficult to blame barley for anything.  “You can’t punish a cupful of barley.”[3]  When we turn to the Jewish scriptures we discover that there are many types of sacrifices made for different purposes:  there were offerings for sin, but also for the sealing of the covenant, for thanksgiving, for the remembrance of historic moments of liberation, for communion with God, or simply as a gift in response to God’s goodness.  There are many kinds of sacrifices, with many different interpretations, not one.  But they all center on the centrality of humanity’s relationship with Yahweh.[4]

As Israel’s experience with Yahweh matures, they move away from a literal understanding of sacrifice to a metaphorical one.  In fact, they discover that obsessions with sacrifices and empty ritual at the hands of religious professionals were considered inferior to the true kind of sacrifice that Yahweh requires.  Yahweh, we discover here in Psalm 51, takes “no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased (v.16).”  This is a remarkable statement because it runs counter to Israel’s experience up to this point.  This is the realization of someone with a mature, sophisticated faith, who sees the harm done when empty religiosity is separated from deep abiding trust in Yahweh, with lives aligned with God’s will.  “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”  But later editors of this psalm, apparently disturbed by the anti-sacrificial spirit added verse 18 and 19, “Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure, …then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices and burnt offerings.” (Emphasis added.)

It seems there is an inherent tension in human nature between the concrete and the abstract, for those that want to be metaphorical and those who insist on being literal.  There are those who feel that sacrifice means sacrifice, burnt offerings and the like.  And there are people of faith who can shift into the realm of symbol and metaphor, for whom the word ‘sacrifice’ means an act of commitment or recommitment, of deeper passion and loyalty, of deeper communion with God.  It doesn’t require blood or animals or suffering.  Maybe here we have the origins of the theological fundamentalist (who needs to be literal) and the theological progressive (who is comfortable in the world of metaphor).  This is just my hypothesis.  Whichever you are, we are all pilgrims on the road of faith trying to find words for experiences that leave us speechless, grasping for explanation of encounters that leave us shaken and confused.  And at the heart of our experience and encountering us at every angle is this cross from which we cannot avert our eyes.

When the first Christians began to tell the story of Jesus, of his cross and empty tomb, they clutched after every available metaphor and image, every available means to help them make sense out of what they literally experienced, they knew in their encounter with Jesus, specifically his cross, that language had come up against its limits, so they had to find new words to describe something like sacrificial love (agape)[5] or redefined familiar words of the empire (Caesar is not Lord; ‘Jesus is Lord’).  You see, the Bible is a marvelous witness to the diverse ways people make sense out of their experience and it wants us to know that there are many ways to talk about the same mystery.

In this sermon series and the adult education classes, it has been my hope to point out that the Bible does not speak about the cross with one voice, but calls us to pay attention to the various images (sometimes contradictory) it lifts up and offers to us.  Last week we looked at the image of Christus Victor, Christ the Victor over the “principalities and powers” on the cross.  This week we are focusing briefly on the image of sacrifice – and even here the Bible does not speak with one voice.  Let me say, I want to affirm you in following me (or putting up with me!) in this series. This isn’t easy stuff.  I’m grateful that you’ve at least listened to the questions I’ve raised and have not tried to sacrifice me to the heresy police!  I’m not trying to be heretical, but I am trying to make you uncomfortable – intentionally, to break open our complacency when it comes to the cross.  To crack open our faith, our simple pat answers to cosmic questions. These are not just abstract theological mind games, friends; there’s a lot riding on these questions – such as the meaning and integrity of your lives, such as the meaning and integrity of your faith.  How you approach the cross shapes the way you live.  There’s no running from the cross.

There’s no running from this image of sacrifice as a way to describe what happened on the cross. You might say, what’s the big deal?  The big deal is that Jesus tells us that the cross is not just for him, the life of sacrifice is not reserved only for him, but for his followers, for those who confess, “Jesus is Lord.”  That’s the big deal!  “And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and he said to them,” – note he doesn’t say this just to the twelve, the religious professionals, but to everyone – “If any one would came after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? (Mark 8:34-37).”  Now, those who are literally minded after hearing this text will go searching for ways to self-impale themselves, causing untold, meaningless suffering, making their lives a living hell for themselves and anyone who gets in their way.  For centuries this text and others like it have been used to justify suffering, and sanctify abusive relationships (especially for women).  There are letters from John Calvin (1509-1564) in which he tells a woman stuck in an abusive relationship to stick with it; basically saying “shut-up and endure it” that is your cross to bear.  Similarly, but less so, this text has also allowed men to glory in our suffering, to bear the weight of the world like a man, not saying a word, suffering silently, which maybe accounts for the high rates of male depression in our society because we, like women have been taught to deny our feelings, deny our passions, deny ourselves.  “Deny yourself.”  Some think that is the Christian message.  If that were the case, why did Jesus go to the cross?  Not because you don’t matter, but because you do.

Progressives might say we don’t have to seek suffering, it will find us soon enough, especially when we choose to follow Jesus and not the spirit of the age.  We will find our cross when we truly walk in the way of Jesus because it will bring you up against the hardedge of the world.  And in those moments you have to decide whom you will serve, who will be your Lord?  Giving up yourself plays a role here, but a progressive might say you have to have a self before you can give it away.  But after you go to Tibet or spend years in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble to find yourself, thinking that that you finally found yourself and know who you are, Jesus says – that is not your life.  Your life is fulfilled when you give it away. 

Either way, we can’t get away from this image of sacrifice.  Yet, of all images of the Bible it is so foreign to us, we might say it is (to excuse the pun) a dead metaphor.[6]  Apart from our soldiers in Iraq who are giving their lives for the nation, where else do we value and honor sacrifice?  How much do we really sacrifice in any given week?  Many are making all kinds of sacrifices, giving up their dreams for the sake children, parents, and spouses.[7]

But, to push this further, what does it cost us for being followers of Christ?  We generally use this word in connection with stewardship, when we might talk about “sacrificial giving” – funny how in our day the real sacrifice is when it affects our checkbooks.  Even then, for most to give more is seen as an inconvenience, not a sacrifice.  What does it cost us for following Jesus?  There are no lions at your front door, no persecutions, no blood of the martyrs filling the streets to fire our passion.  We’re not worshipping in secret.  Most people don’t care.  Most people don’t care what we believe just as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.  Many yawn.

So what do we believe about the cross and sacrifice?  Theologians have come up with all kinds of complex formulas and explanations for both, many of which (to be frank) make me yawn.  Does God actually require a sacrifice in order for forgiveness to take place?  The basic formula we hear in the church goes like this:  humans sinned which is punishable by death, humans sinned which means that someone has to pay the price.  But human beings, bound by sin, are not good enough to make up for sin, so we deserve to die.  Because humans sinned only humans can pay the price, but we can’t.  So God sent the Son to die in our place – human, yet divine.  He becomes our substitute, he bears the punishment of God, appeases God’s wrath.  He becomes the sacrifice offered to cool God’s demand for justice.  This is an overly simplistic and flip rendering of Anselm’s (1033-1109) view from the eleventh century,[8] which has shaped the prevailing view for both Protestant and Roman Catholics ever since.  But there is so much question here.  Was Jesus born only to die?  The Christmas hymn says so – there’s so much bad theology in our hymns, yet we keep them in the hymnals because they have nice tunes.  But didn’t the entire span of Jesus’ life count for something, have meaning, or only his death? And if Jesus was human that means he had freedom, which includes the freedom not to die.  And if Jesus is God and we know that God is love (1 John 3), then we can’t paint the picture of God as the angry, abusive Father and Jesus as the proactive “mother” who protects “her” children.  Neither can we easily affirm that God sent his son to be killed.  Is there room for divine violence?  If so, some would call what the Father did to Jesus as child abuse.[9]  Can you see why people have problems with Christianity and why many in the church want all this sacrificial language removed, because it is dangerous, easy to misunderstand and misappropriate?

But you might say, Ken, there in Hebrews we have the image of Jesus as the high priest who offers a sacrifice in the temple to God.  What about that?  You’re right.  Jesus is the priest who offers himself in the temple to God.  Not because God demands it to satisfy some cosmic plan, but because Jesus freely wants to do it. And what is Jesus doing?   Purifying our sins and making us holy.  Not in some moralistic way, that is making us into good little boys and girls who are always polite, but into something far more profound. The word ‘sacrifice’ means, ‘to make holy.’[10] Through his offering to God of a perfectly faithful life even unto death, he gives to us what we could never achieve and will never achieve on our own – the ability to be holy.  We began this sermon with the notion that sacrifice is fundamentally about relationship.  Sin is what hinders the relationship.  The sacrifice is what brings us close, we are being made holy – so holiness and commune with Holiness.  Jesus is the true priest because he and he alone is the mediator between us and God and through him we are able to draw close to God and God can draw close to us.  His life and death signal a real change in humanity’s relationship to God.  Something radically new is offered to us in Jesus. 

What has always struck me about this Hebrews text is that once Jesus purified our sins, the text says, “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1: 3).”  He sat down.  The sacrifice is over.  All is done.  With confidence and assurance we stand with Jesus in the presence of God.  When you realize this (!), 

your life then takes the shape of the crucified,
then, like him,
you just might be free enough to give your life away
in service of the One who loved us
from always and will love us to forever.


[1] Cited in Colin Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement:  A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (London:  T & T Clark, 2003), p. 120.

[2] Cf. quotation from the worship bulletin, from the English Metaphysical poet, Richard Crashaw (1613-1649):  “Lo, the full, finall, SACRIFICE/ On which all figures fix’t their eyes/ The ransom’d ISACK, and his ramme;/ The MANNA, and the PASCHAL Lamb.”

[3] Comment of J. S. Whale, Victor and Victim:  The Christian Doctrine of Redemption (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1960), p. 53, cited in Gunton, p. 120.

[4] Gunton stresses the inherent relationality Israel’s experience with Yahweh.

[5] Anthony W. Bartlett, Cross Purposes:  The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement (Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International, 2001), p. 258.

[6] I am indebted to Gunton’s chapter “Christ the Sacrifice:  A Dead Metaphor?”

[7] J. S. Whale suggests that “in our modern world sacrifice has become a mere figure of speech… [Generally,] modern man finds the very idea revolting, on more than one ground.” (p.42), cited in Gunton, p. 115.

[8] Cur Deus Homo (Why God became man), written in 1098.

[9] Objections helpfully summarized in J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2001).  A more conservative Reformed response is found in Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross:  Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2004).

[10] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmer & Howard, 1989).