The Language of Sacrifice

November 2, 2003



The Language of Sacrifice (11/2/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

The passage you heard read from the lectern this morning dealt with the idea of Jesus Christ’s death as a sacrifice. It came from the ninth chapter of the New Testament book called Hebrews. Before we turn to the theology of sacrifice, I want to read a second passage from the same chapter that deals with the same subject.

Again, from Hebrews: For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the High Priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him…..And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

How many times have we heard it—that Jesus died for our sins? How often have we been told that we have been somehow cleansed with the blood of Jesus? We hear from an early age that Jesus served as a sacrifice for our sins. But what does that mean?
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For many of us in the modern church, there is revulsion to the idea of sacrifice. Why would it be necessary for Jesus to shed blood in order for you and me to be acceptable in the eyes of God? What kind of God would require that his son be painfully crucified?

These are not easy questions, but they lie at the heart of our faith. If you have not struggled with this idea, you have not given the Christian faith much thought. The history of Christianity has been one long struggle with the fact that the person after whom our faith is named wound up laughed at, humiliated, tortured, and finally nailed to a cross. And it has been our contention for two thousand years that this ugly death is central to our faith.

You may grow weary of hearing me say that the stories of the Bible must be placed in their historical context if they are to make sense. But it is a theme I will continue to repeat. I know we have all read Shakespeare somewhere along the line—many not by choice. Shakespeare wrote around 400 years ago—he died in 1616. We all know that to read Shakespeare one must have a good text of the play, and a running commentary on what the words mean.

The English language has changed a bit over those 400 years, almost as much as the culture surrounding the language has changed. For example, when my daughter performed Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in high school, one of her lines read, “What needs all that, and a pair of stocks in the town?”

This is heard in a lightning fast exchange between several characters. If the play were written today, it would read something like, “Why go to all that trouble for that scumbag when there’s an electric chair down at the courthouse?” The meaning is pretty much the same; our language, and our culture, has changed. This would be a good time to mention that the King James Bible came from this same period, and was written in the same style of English, which is why it can be so difficult to understand. I’ll let it go with that, except to remind our more fundamental friends who are often so enamored of the King James Bible that it wasn’t Jesus who talked like that—it was the English people who lived around the time of King James—people like Shakespeare. Jesus did not use fancy and hard-to-understand language: he spoke simple Aramaic.

And this gets to my point. It can be extremely difficult to interpret parts of Shakespeare, and his words were written in a culture similar to ours, in the same language as ours, and only 400 years ago. The Bible stories were written anywhere from two thousand to three thousand years ago, in languages completely different from ours, and in cultures that only vaguely resemble ours.

We do the original authors of the biblical books no great service when we plop their words down in the 21st Century and act as if they should speak directly to our modern situation. Their truth is timeless; but it can be uncovered only by those willing to understand that the cultural settings of those stories were not timeless.

Nowhere does this become more evident than in the language of sacrifice. To understand sacrifice at the time of Jesus, and to understand what it meant to the person who wrote Hebrews, we have to understand what sacrifice meant to the Jews of first century Israel.

The Hebrew people had a brilliant insight, and it is conveyed beautifully in the second creation account, found in the second and third chapters of Genesis. That is where we find the story of Adam and Eve, and their disobedience to God. The Hebrew people were among the first to admit that humanity falls short of the glory of God. And if there is a giant chasm between God and humanity, how do we bridge that chasm? What is the hope for atonement? Atonement—there’s a word that has lost its original meaning. If you look at the word atonement, it literally says at-one-ment. The question is, if God is perfect and humanity is not, how can the two be as one? How can people be reconciled to God? The religious answer for the ancient Hebrew people involved sacrifice. You took your best cow, you finest lamb, a portion of your most quality crops; and gave them to God. More to the point, you gave them to the Hebrew priest, and he sacrificed them to God on the altar in front of the Temple.

This was the method of atonement. It showed that you accepted the fact you were in debt to God because of your sins, and it showed that you were willing to offer the very best of what you had to God. When your prize heifer was placed on the altar and slaughtered, that was considered a blood atonement. The blood of the cow became an offering to God—proof that God was foremost in your life.

It was inconceivable that a faithful Jewish person would not make sacrifices to God. The ritual of sacrifice was developed when the Jewish people were nomadic herders and farmers. By the time of Jesus, many Jews were no longer farmers and herders, but they continued to make sacrifices. Each year, at Passover, Jews would arrive at Jerusalem from all over the known world to make their annual sacrifice. They did not bring cows and lambs and birds with them—they brought money. With that money, they would purchase doves, lambs and other appropriate sacrifices to be offered in their name by the priests.

Because these people came from all over the world, they had different forms of money. Moneychangers, working for the priests, surrounded the Temple to exchange people’s cash for sacrificial animals. Remember the story of Jesus going to the Temple and angrily chasing away the moneychangers, crying, “You have turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves.” Jesus was killed for that. Those moneychangers were part of the religious system—central to the ritual of sacrifice. Most scholars agree that if you want to point to the one thing Jesus did that sealed his fate, it was disrupting the Temple sacrifice. This was not only a central part of the Hebrew faith; it was also a major system of commerce. In one fell swoop Jesus angered religious leaders, financial leaders, and political leaders, and there was no doubt from that moment on that he would be crucified.

It is easy to see how the followers of Jesus, attempting to make sense out of his violent death, started viewing his crucifixion as a new form of sacrifice; in fact, as the ultimate and final sacrifice of all time. Just as the blood of one’s most perfect lamb atoned for that person’s sins, the blood of God’s most perfect child atoned for the sins of…everybody. It was the final and ultimate sacrifice—the ultimate moment in the history of the theology of sacrifice.

Soon, as Christianity grew more and more distinct from its Jewish roots, the language of sacrifice started losing much of its meaning to people in the church. A thousand years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the notion of sacrificing animals on a Temple altar was archaic; but the image of Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins remained. And it was a man who was born in 1033—a thousand years after the death of Jesus—who attempted to explain to confused Christians exactly why the sacrifice of Jesus was necessary, and exactly how it works to redeem fallen humanity. This man was named Anselm of Canterbury.

Anselm was a great theologian. Among other accomplishments, he was the first to develop the ontological argument, which is a logical argument that attempts to prove the existence of God. The ontological argument is something that only a theologian could love, but to this day, the greatest theologians in the world argue over whether or not it is a valid argument—whether Anselm did indeed prove the existence of God.

But his most famous work is called Cur Deus Homo—Why God became man. It is a long and tedious argument that attempts to explain why it was necessary for Jesus to die. I will condense it into its simplest form. I do this because I have been asked countless times to logically explain the sacrifice of Jesus. Even Anselm admitted that it could not be logically explained—it would always be a matter of faith; but his basic argument is the closest the church has come to a logical explanation.

First, Anselm said we must accept that God is perfect and incorruptible. Second we must accept that human beings are not perfect, and are sinful creatures. Now, when somebody does something wrong to another person, they can atone for their wrong. If I cheat you out of some money, I can pay you back with interest and then we are all square. But how can we pay God back? We owe God, because we have sinned against God; but God lacks nothing. We can’t pay God back for our sins. But we can never be at one—atoned—with God unless payment is made. And that is why human beings die and return to the dust. Eternal death is the punishment for human sin. That is the message of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, whether you read it literally or figuratively.

Something had to happen to make things right. Humanity owed God a debt that it could not pay. So God became a man. And that man never sinned. And that man, who was really God, died unjustly. He died unjustly because he did not sin and therefore should not have had to experience death. And it is in his death that the scales were balanced, once and for all. God became a man and paid humanity’s debt to himself. And through that sacrifice—God’s sacrifice made on our behalf—atonement is achieved. Because the perfection of God has experienced death, now those who were imperfect could escape death.

That has remained the basic logical argument for the language of sacrifice. And remember—even then, Anselm and those who followed agree that faith would always play a role in whether or not one understood the argument.

There were some who lived at the same time as Anselm who did not like the argument, among them Peter of Abelard. Peter of Abelard could not accept the sacrificial language of atonement. First, he could not accept the idea that God would require the death of his son. God could surely find some other way to reconcile fallen humanity.

Now, Peter of Abelard recognized there was something very special about the death of Jesus. One thing was as certain then as it is now. Men and women who have been very bad people have fallen to their knees, envisioned Jesus upon the cross, confessed their sins to God, and have been changed into new people. It happens every day. There is no denying the power of the cross.

But Peter of Abelard didn’t like thinking of Jesus’ death as some sort of transaction. Instead, he believed that the Christian was changed into a new person—was atoned with God—when he envisioned the example of Jesus on the cross. It’s not so much that Jesus had to die as it is that Jesus should not have died, and people just like us killed him. When we are confronted with the perfection of Jesus nailed to that cross, we see ourselves for who we truly are, and in repenting, and promising to God and to ourselves to become good people, we receive our salvation—our healing—our atonement—as a free gift from God.

I think large parts of the modern church often miss the point. Conservative theologians continue to argue about whether or not the sacrifice of Jesus would have “worked” if he had died without shedding blood. Firmly embedded on the ancient language of sacrifice, they insist that had Jesus been hung, for example, the sacrifice would not have worked. God always required the shedding of blood. Just as the cattle and sheep of ancient Israel cleansed the sins of the people and appeased God’s anger as their blood flowed over the altar, it was absolutely necessary, they claim, for the blood of Jesus to flow down that cross.

In my mind, there is no powerful argument for insisting that God required the actual shedding of Jesus’ blood. But I do believe that the death of Jesus is the single most important event in human history. I do believe that there is no more powerful way to experience the presence of God than to prayerfully contemplate the crucifixion. But I find my own theology closer to Peter of Abelard’s than that of Anselm.

The reason is simple: I do not believe in the theology behind blood sacrifice. The theology behind blood sacrifice begins with the premise that God is mad at us. We have to find a way to appease God’s anger. And I just don’t think God is angry. The great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote that if God could be angry for even a moment, the universe would fall apart—it would cease to be. I like that thinking, because I honestly believe it is God’s love that holds creation together.

But I also recognize that there is an enormous gulf between the perfection of God and the condition of humanity. And I while I believe that we should all try to be good people, I also believe that the gulf between God and humanity can be bridged only by God. I don’t have the language to really explain how or why I believe that; nor do I have the language to explain why I think that gulf has indeed been bridged by God, and that the crucifixion of Jesus is the perfect sign of God’s love for us.

My language falls short. If I lived two thousand years ago, I might have used the language of sacrifice and said it like the author of Hebrews: …he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself….it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Or, if I was really on top of my game, I might have said it like John: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

The language has lost some of its power. But the truth beneath the language is as powerful as ever.