In this season we talk about Jesus “giving his life” in order to save us, but what does that mean? I preached about this at St. James last Sunday, and what follows is the core of my sermon, edited for this blog. This is me, trying to internalize some of the content from Greg Love’s book, Love, Violence and the Cross: How the Non-Violent God Saves us through the Cross of Christ.
Given and Taken
On the one hand, Jesus gives himself to the task that God has placed before him, to confront the evil that he sees in the world; to reach out with compassion to broken people and to lead them to wholeness and healing; to build community by his forgiveness and grace.
Jesus lives his life as a gift to the world, aligning his will with God. His life is a gift, but is his death a gift?
Jesus gets killed by the Roman Empire in a gruesome horrible way. I don’t believe this is something that God ever wanted. God does not want us to crucify one another. I can’t believe that God would even want Jesus to be crucified.
And yet, people do kill each other. Crucifixion was common in the first century, and equally brutal things exist today. We human beings behave in horrendous, horrific ways. And somehow God has to deal with that fact—has to deal with the ugliness in our lives, the brokenness in humanity.
Jesus offers himself, yes, but he also gets taken, by violence, by the Roman Empire. God has to redeem that somehow. And God does. Easter happens.
But how can we understand the sacrifice of Jesus’s life? What is our relationship to that sacrifice and how can healing come out of it?
If we turn to Old Testament biblical understandings of sacrifice, we’re turning to ideas developed in a culture different from our own; it is centered around temple sacrifices. We’re challenged to find meaning in the old and bring it into our current setting. The New Testament writers did exactly that, trying to interpret Jesus’s death in light of their scripture.
Gift Offerings, Communion Offerings, Sin Offerings
In the bible there were three ways to make a sacrifice at the temple. You could make a gift offering, where out of your gratitude you would give something to God completely. It would be totally burnt up on the altar.
The second kind of sacrifice was a Communion offering, where an animal was offered up and the blood and fat was burnt up but the meat would stay behind and the people would then eat that with God. They would have a communion meal with God. They would meet God at the temple and have community with each other and with God.
The third kind of sacrificial offering is a sin offering, in which a pure unblemished animal is offered because the “pure” blood is seen to contain pure life. And so the blood has the power, as a representation of pure life, to cover over broken life. This is where we get the ideas of being “washed” in the blood. A whole life, a pure life, can cover over and heal a broken life.
An animal sacrificed as a sin offering was never offered as a substitute for the one who sinned. The animal’s death was not a punishment. Instead, the act was understood more as a transfer of the pure life force of the animal to cover over the impure life of the sinner.
A sin offering was an act of healing in what I would call a magical way. It was not a punishment for sin. It initiated a change in the life of the sinner who then had to turn their life around.
How can we glean something from these ideas which come to us from a different era and culture and how can we develop a new understanding, as people living in this day and age?
And my related question is, however we understand what was happening then, in this week when we commemorate the death of Jesus, how do we participate in the salvation that comes to us through Jesus Christ?
Gift Offerings: Transformation through Letting Go
The Gift Offering, which probably began with the giving of the tithe, comes out of a sense of gratitude and dependence on God. You give in order to release it completely. You get nothing back from that offering, except the experience of letting go, of giving to God completely.
It’s as though we are saying, I have received this and I release it back to you. I give this to you God and it’s a sign of my relationship of dependence on you, of gratitude to you.
This offering is not like what the Prosperity Gospel says. Some Prosperity Gospel people will preach, “plant a seed—give away some and God will pay you back and give you more money or more of whatever you’re offering.”
That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s not giving something so we can get more stuff. It’s giving so we can be changed as people. So we can have the experience of letting go and releasing.
There’s a way that we, in this act of emptying ourselves can experience fullness. When people talk about Jesus emptying himself, giving his life on the cross, he did that not to a point of depletion, but he did it in a way that he becomes, ultimately, fully filled, completely filled with God. In theological language this emptying that Jesus does is called kenosis. Becoming completely empty so that he can become completely filled.
And in our spiritual practices we can do this kind of offering too, in which out of our gratitude we practice letting go and not clinging on to the things that we want to have more of in our life. But realizing that we have enough.
Not only do we have enough stuff, but there is love for us, and there is God for us, and there is community. This gift offering is a kind of devoting of our lives to our relationship with God. We want to give it all.
Communion Offerings: Transformation through Relationship
The second kind of offering is the Communion Offering. This is what we’re doing with the Lenten Soup lunches at St. James Church. The person bringing the soup also eats the soup, right along with everyone else. We do this every week at Grace Commons when we share a meal after our Spiritual Practice. This kind of offering has a goal of building connection. It’s not about building palaces or building fortresses. It’s about building connections and building community. This is what a communion offering does.
Now Jesus embodied that in his life all the time, in the way that he offered himself to the world. The way that he sat and ate with sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, people with illnesses, and all kinds of people. He ate with everyone.
Jesus was always offering his life to create this communion, this community. And of course at his last meal he gave us the new commandment to love one another as he had loved us and as he loves us now in a new form, and to share the communion meal.
So we do these communion meals ritually in a church, but we do it in our lives too. I invite you to think about how you can make more communion offerings in your life. Would it be inviting someone or a family to your home to dinner? Or maybe it would be going to someone’s place and bringing something to them, sharing dinner with them. How can you offer yourself and your resources toward the building of relationships? The more you do it, the more you might be transformed.
Sin Offerings: Transformation through being covered with Life
The third kind of offering is the sin offering. The question I have about this is how does a whole life, a wholesome, full life, cover over a broken life? How does pure blood heal bad blood, when we get bad blood in us?
Bad blood is when we begin to be filled with envy or greed or shame or fear or pride or arrogance or righteousness. How could pure blood heal that? How does a broken life get lifted up in healing?
The sin offering covers the brokenness with wholeness, we can become “covered in the blood” as many gospel songs proclaim. A similar idea that might help understand this is that we become clothed in Christ at our baptism. This is another form of “covering.”
In some traditions, people act out being clothed in Christ by wearing all white at their baptism. A more extreme expression of this is when people get baptized naked. They leave behind their old clothes, get baptized, and when they rise out of the baptismal waters they get white robes, symbolizing they’ve now put on Christ.
But more metaphorically, how do we get clothed in Christ? This getting clothed in Christ is not accomplished by acting like we’re more holy. It’s not an attempt to look like we’re more Christ-like. It would be a mistake to get self-righteous about it—that would be a way to stick with the bad blood and not get the new blood.
Getting clothed in Christ is not to hide the truth of who we are and pretend that we are like Christ. It’s to discover who we really are inside. When we clothe ourselves in Christ it’s to help us to realize that when God looks at us God sees the beauty of Christ in us. God sees the image of God in us. Because God created us with that image imprinted on the very core of our being.
The idea of getting clothed in Christ is meant to help us find and remember who we really are. Because we forget who we are. We forget that we’re precious, that we’re beloved. We forget that we have the image of God in us somewhere.
A sin offering is a call to heal our lives, in whatever way we need to do that. We may need to confront the shame and the fear and all those bad blood things I named above.
We have to become aware of those parts of ourselves that are broken or weak and get the help we need to heal ourselves. Whether it’s through trusted and trustworthy friends, or whether it’s through counseling, or whether it’s through prayer practices, or through getting books that could guide us through these kinds of healing processes.
To make a sin offering is to attempt to turn our lives around. When a pure animal was offered as a temple sacrifice, that wasn’t enough to fix the problem. That wasn’t enough to cover over the sin. You don’t just keep covering and covering and re-covering the sin again and again.
You have to change something underneath. And so with the sin offering there is a call to re-pentance, a call to re-thinking what you are doing, how you are living. That’s what repentance is. Repentance involves re-turning toward God. It’s re-aligning your life. And the sin offering calls for that kind of realignment. In that re-turning toward God we are being transformed from the inside out.
Paul said, It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And that’s about being changed from the inside out. That’s about inviting Christ and the awareness of Christ into us. And finding the deep deep love of God for Christ and in Christ, in us!
God said to Jesus in his baptism, “You are my beloved son.” If Christ lives inside us, then we too are beloved. We are beloved of God. And so putting on Christ can help us realize that true deep identity of ours.
The pure life of Christ covers us—not to hide us, but to heal us. Wholeness calls to wholeness and Christ draws out the beauty that is in us.
Hold on to that hope, as we journey toward Easter.