Sacrifice & Obedience

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

-Hebrews 10:10, NRSV

“And take up their cross.” That cross is already there, ready, from the very beginning; we need only take it up. But to keep us from believing that we must simply choose any arbitrary cross, or simply pick out our suffering as we will, Jesus emphasizes that each of us has his or her own cross, ready, appointed, and appropriately measured by God.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

This year as part of my Lenten reading schedule, one of the books I am going through is Rowan William’s “The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection”. William’s has some wonderful reflections on the Cross and what it means for us today. In the second chapter “The Sacrifice” Williams seeks to reflect on the Cross as a “sacrifice”. He explores first what sacrifice means in the Old Testament, which for many may come as a surprise that sacrifice was a pretty diverse in its meaning. It wasn’t just sacrificing animals to keep God happy, it was much more nuanced and context specific than that. At length Williams writes about what is the common thread between the different meanings and purposes for sacrifices:

“But in the middle of it all is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or of a whole people. It removes the consequences of sin; it offers the possibility of a relationship unclouded by guilt with God; it is a gift that stands between God and the failures or disorders of the world. The gift is given – and it’s a costly gift because it’s about life and blood – so that peace and communication may be re-established between heaven and earth. And this was always symbolized by the fact that a sacrificed animal would be cooked and cut up and shared in the meal, which expressed not only fellowship with one another, but restored fellowship with God.” (Kindle Locations 290-296)

It is something given to God to restore fellowship. Sacrifice is done out of obedience, and Williams links Christ’s obedience at every moment of his life as a sacrifice to God for us. “Obedience”, Williams writes, “is not springing to attention and hastily doing what you’re ordered. Obedience is a harmony of response to God so that God sees in the world a reflection of his own life. Our actions in obedience reflect his.” (Kindle Locations 375-376) This a helpful frame for what it means to be obedient to God. He is not just an arbitrary rule giver shouting at us to stand at attention like mindless drones. No, obedience to God is us participating in the work of God. In our action we reflect God’s action towards us back to Him. This is what Christ did. The obedience of Christ “is a loving gift which directly and uninterruptedly and perfectly reflects God’s own loving gift. It’s the Son watching what the Father does and ‘playing it back’ to him. (John 5.19)”(Kindle Locations 382-383)

In Jesus, Williams continues, “we see all of that vast infinite eternal reality happening in a human life, happening in a weary, dusty-footed unkempt man completing a long journey, sitting down with his friends at the end of the day, breaking bread and pouring wine.”(Kindle Locations 391-393)

For He is the Word of God (John 1) and “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1.3) When we think of sacrifice let us reflect on the obedience of Christ that His whole life, at every moment, was a sacrifice to His Father. When we think of the cross “as sacrifice, however complex the ideas around it, what the language is trying to get us to see is that this new possibility is something objectively done for us, done on our behalf for us.”(Kindle Locations 410-412) Moreover, because of Christ it is possible for us to be human again, “to grow as we move along that living pathway to reconciliation with God and each other.” (Kindle Locations 421-422)

I have quoted Williams at quite some length, but let me cite him once more to drive home the fundamental truth which we should daily meditate on:

“Priests make atonement by performing sacrifices. But in the New Testament the subject is God. God makes peace with us, working through us, acting for us. It is God’s act, outside us, not up to us; something that God has accomplished.” (Kindle Locations 434-435)

God in Christ has done what we never could have. He reconciled us to Himself, not because of any foreseen faith or obedience on our part, but on the faith and obedience of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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