What’s your favorite Jesus saying? Love God and love your neighbor is an especially admired one. Hard to find fault there. But Jesus is also known for his rock hard sayings. It’s difficult to claim a favorite here. Love your enemies, Jesus said, upping the ante. Jesus’ statements about sacrifice are particularly stoney. This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me. Lent is a season where we hear more about Jesus sacrifice than other times of the year. And misunderstand it.
Isn’t There an Easier Way?
I recently heard an American Buddhist Monk say he really liked Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. But he didn’t believe in or care much for Jesus’ teaching about sacrifice. I know what he means. Naively many of us ask, isn’t there an easier way to right the horrendous wrongs of human kind?
Peter, Jesus’ brusk, ex-fisherman disciple, argued with Jesus over this very issue. Mark tells us in chapter eight of his spiritual biography of Jesus:
“[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
I love Peter. He’s so honest. You always know where he stands even if where he stands is questionable or stupid! For this reason, I see myself in Peter. If I had had the chance, I too would have taken Jesus aside to rebuke him. Only more kindly than Peter probably. You would too, I think.
“Jesus, you don’t want to die. You’re too young. Think of your mom. And everybody loves you. Well except the Pharisees. And maybe Herod. But a lot of people do. Besides what would dying accomplish? We’re just beginning to get this movement going. It’d be better if you stuck around. You don’t need to die.
“Here’s my idea. We take your most popular sayings:
“‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
“‘Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry for itself.
“‘Turn the other cheek.
“‘Let your light shine.
“‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.‘
“And then we put the slogans up on colorful posters and memes and we paste them all over the place.”
But Jesus would say to me just as he did to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Love and Sacrifice Are Intertwined
We know from Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane he didn’t like the idea of sacrifice and dying either. Yet Jesus also knows the salvation of humankind requires more than pithy slogans, compelling campaigns, or Facebook memes.
Love requires sacrifice. Lovers sacrifice for one another and we call it true love. Mothers and fathers sacrifice for their children. Soldiers sacrifice for their country. Hell, Sandpipers run down the beach to sacrificially draw predators away from their newly hatched chicks.
Sacrifice is not an arbitrary act required to placate an angry God. This idea is what I believe our Buddhist Monk friend objects too. Rather God’s anger erupts from an unstoppable love for each of us and how we treat one another. And knowing other responses to these wrongs: retribution, absolving, condoning do not assuage the pain of those wrongs or make the wrongs right, God puts love into action through the sacrifice of Jesus.
A Deeper Magic
Only redemption through sacrifice can work the magic of making wrongs right. Not pulling a rabbit out of a hat magic but what C. S. Lewis called “deeper magic.” Deeper magic is that truth at the very core of life that ensures and explains how life really works.
In chapter 15 of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis writes, “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” Lewis shows us innocent Aslan is willingly slain for Narnia and reminds us that in the real world innocent Jesus is willingly sacrificed for us. Nothing else can turn death and injustice backwards.
We know and recognize this magic. In any story factual or fictional, if someone is saved by someone who has not sacrificed to bring about the salvation, we don’t buy it. We walk out of the theater or close the book saying, “It just didn’t ring true.” The salvation depicted looks to us like luck or self-enhancement on the part of the one making the sacrifice. Because it is. We know luck and self-enhancement do not reflect the beautiful profound ways of God but rather cheap human concerns, mere trinkets.
Sacrifice Is Necessary to Love the Way Gravity is to Life
Sacrifice is written into the fabric of love just as gravity is written into the nature of life. Love without sacrifice ceases to be love just as all life without gravity would simply fly away.
But it’s a hard truth. Like water we seek the easier way. When Lent brings this hard truth into our paths, we wend around it by not participating or by softening the sharp edges of sacrifice.
I’ll give up chocolate. I’ll fast from the news. These may be good for us. But they are not sacrificial in that they fail or pale as expressions of love for God, neighbor, and enemy.
Ash Wednesday Vows
Today marks the beginning of a six week journey of remembering Christ’s ascent to Jerusalem and cost of the cross. Tonight many will mark their foreheads with ash in the shape of a cross and vow to sacrifice something to remind them our lives have been saved and shaped by Christ’s willing sacrifice. But before we do this, let’s ask what a true sacrifice might look like and remember because true sacrifice is a gift of unconditional love, it cannot be paid for. Sacrifice calls forth not repayment of a debt but love in return.
Therefore, a true response of love to Jesus’ sacrifice for us is a sacrificial act of love toward someone else. What if we sacrificed?
- Being first
- Being right
- Time spent on self for time spent serving others
- Personal rights
- Forgive a debt, physical, spiritual, or emotional
- Give away coffee or chocolate or something more meaningful
- Send a family member or friend an encouraging note daily
- Pray for your enemies
- Spend time with a person without a home
- _________________________________ (Fill in the blank)
One last thing. I am not upping the ante and calling us to try harder and do better. That is moralism not the good news spoken of and lived out in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. As I said, this is a response of love because Jesus first loved us. Jesus did not take the way of the cross without being filled first with the love and power of the Father and Spirit. Neither can we. If we turn off the beaten path to climb the way of the cross, we can only do so when filled with the grace, forgiveness, love, and power of Father, Son, and Spirit. The first movement of Lent then is to open our hands and hearts and receive what God has for us. Grace! Then and only then can we make a true sacrifice.