The Way of Sacrifice
Quite often when we talk about sacrifice, we want to talk about something grand, something extraordinary. The very word conjures up tales of heroic people offering their lives for the lives of others. Through my childhood, my father encouraged me to read biographies and many of them were of legendary soldiers and their exploits on the battlefield. Most of their stories focused on the great battles, the great moments of heroism which defined them as well, heroes. For many of us, we think of sacrifice in this way. It seems for some people our social definition of sacrifice almost demands something larger than life.
For those of us who follow The Way of Jesus, this week begins Holy Week. We will be remembering the events that led up to Good Friday and looking forward to Resurrection Sunday. We will recount the Last Supper, the crucifixion of Jesus, and other events of spiritual significance. Usually, I would preach about how two great parades entered Jerusalem and the forces behind them: The Empire of Rome from one side, and the Kingdom of God from the other. I might talk about what each represents and how they mirror forces that vie for our allegiance today—the systems and ways of modern culture or the Way of Jesus. I might call on us to consider the need to choose a parade to walk with, a path of life.
But this has been one of the strangest years of my ministry. So many things have changed and so much has been reoriented to new purposes and new ways of doing things. Who would have thought we would spend Easter at home last year, watching via Facebook? Who would have guessed we would spend three months meeting online? And that got me thinking. Are there deeper questions to ask? Are there ways of not only doing church but thinking about church that we might consider? What if we looked at Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday from another angle?
As I look at each of the passages from this morning, I notice a similar message: we are called to something more than ordinary. We are called to a different way of life and part of that way is sacrifice. When I talked about sacrifice earlier in the sermon, I talked about several ideas fairly common to our understanding of the word. I talked about the great, life giving, lifesaving sort of sacrifice that gets news headlines like running into a burning building, standing in front of someone on the line of fire, walking into a certain death situation to keep others from harm. These are the sorts of sacrifices we think of when we hear the word and I think they lead us astray from the idea of sacrifice we are called to on the Jesus Way. I think the kind of sacrifice we are called to is the sacrifice of something much more difficult. I think you can sum it up this way.
It’s easy to die; living is hard.
It almost seems counterintuitive, like it shouldn’t work that way. But living requires something more of us. To truly live and live well demands hard work, a kind of work we often try to avoid—the work of change. This change, this growth is the day-to-day sacrifice, the learning and responding to learning that demands we be something different rather than stay where we are.
Notice what Hosea 6 says, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.” The sacrifice here becomes sacrificing ways of worship that don’t really honor God but just look like going through the motions. It is sacrificing a system of worship for the knowledge of God. It is changing from our preference to God’s preference.
Matthew 9 tells the story of Levi or Matthew as Jesus tells him, “Come follow me.” He does and throws a huge party with all his friends and acquaintances, the out crowd if you will. The Pharisees come and offer their correction to Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus steps away from the party and offers this response, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” In other words, the real sacrifice, the real change is giving up social standing and position in the community for the sake of least of these, the unwanted, the socially unclean.
And finally in Matthew 16 Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.” I think taking up your cross and following Jesus is losing the easy life of going with the flow and following the world systems or the crowd. I think it is going to the places other people won’t go, to the people other people won’t accept, and doing the things necessary to bring wholeness and spiritual health to the people no one wants anything to do with. It is, as Jesus said, saying no to ourselves, or better yet, our selfishness and yes to showing the faithful love of God to those who most need it. It is changing the focus from self to others in a drastic way.
Sacrifice is hard; change is hard. Otherwise, we’d call it something better like vacation or relaxation. But the sacrifice of change and growth would not be asked of us if we weren’t capable of it. Through the Holy Spirit, the one sent to be our comforter, advisor, and teacher, we have the means to hear and respond to the leading of God in how and where to change, grow, and sacrifice. Through honest engagement with scripture, really reading what is there and not just what we want to be there, we can learn from those who have gone before us as they engaged with God to understand sacrifice. And above all that, we have the life and death of Jesus himself. In Jesus, we have the great example of what it means to be willing to sacrifice your life daily for the greater good of God’s Kingdom. The question, as often it seems to be, is will we? Will we set aside self for the sake of The Way, for the sake of those who are wandering paths of pain and heartache? Will we be willing to place what we want aside for the sake of what others genuinely need? Or will we simply have another Palm Sunday, another Holy Week as usual and move on like always?