Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sacrifice and Example

Almighty God, you have sent your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

So often our collects have a beautiful symmetry that reflects a deeper and even more beautiful symmetry of our faith. This Sunday, as we collect all of the thoughts and prayers of our parish into one articulation, we will identify Jesus as both sacrifice and example and ask God to help us receive and follow. That is an articulation of and a hope for the one, unified, two-fold life of the follower of Jesus.

But I think the order matters.

You don't have to be a Christian in order to think that turning the other cheek, praying for and loving our enemies, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, and giving up our riches for the sake of the poor is a good way to live. Jesus gave us and the world an example of a good life. A secular humanist could do a lot worse than treating others the way that Jesus did. You don't need to receive the benefits of his sacrifice for sin in order to admire his example.

But Jesus isn't just a godly example.

Sacrifice matters. I don't mean in the "God demands blood to atone for the wrongs of humanity" kind of sacrifice, though that is a primitive, ancient, and powerful expression of the concept I have in mind. What I mean is the giving up of something of value for the sake of renewal. In the "we all make sacrifices" kind of way, to live the good life that Jesus envisions requires the giving up, abandonment, and surrenderof something we can't ever truly give--our selves.

The way of Jesus--the true selfless love for other at the cost of one's self--requires death. It necessitates the death of the self, the "me," the "mine" that is each of us. Without that death, the steps of that most holy life are steps we can take only in fleeting moments of inspired selflessness before the self creeps back in. Eventually, after a time of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, our needs pop up again. The only way that changes is sacrifice. Because of Jesus' death--a death to which Christians are united in Baptism--that part of us has died.

Of course, that death and rebirth isn't yet complete in us. But those who are followers of Jesus, those who call themselves Christians, accept a life that is built upon the benefits of Jesus' death. In the ministry of the baptized, we pursue our own after-death life. We don't seek to walk in the blessed steps of his most holy life until after we have received the benefits of his sacrifice for sin. His yielding of something of value makes our transformation possible. When we preach, when we teach, when we tell our children about the love of God, we share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by telling people that they are not called first to live a holy life that they can never obtain but are called first to die a holy death with Jesus so that, in being reborn, they can pursue the life that Jesus has given them. It's still a unified, two-fold life, but the order matters.

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