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.

Advertisements

Lenten Reflections on Restlessness and the Gospel

“Properly speaking it is Gospel when it preaches Christ; but when it rebukes and reproves and gives commands, it does nothing else than destroy those who are presumptuous concerning their own righteousness to make room for grace, that they may know the Law is fulfilled not by their own powers but only through Christ, who pours out the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

They who interpret the term ‘Gospel’ as something else than ‘the good news’ do not understand the Gospel, as those people do who have turned the Gospel into a law rather than grace and have made Christ a Moses for us.”

-Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans

An Anthropology of Restlessness

The Lenten season calls us to reflection in our hearts and bodies about what we cling to and rely on for our day to day existence. These things often look different than we otherwise would like to believe. It is not so much “you are what you believe” rather it is you are what you love. The rhythm of our days seek to shape us into certain kinds of people for specific kingdoms. This is based in the fundamental truth as human beings, we are first and foremost desiring beings. As James K.A. Smith observes:

“We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40)

Liturgical practices, for Smith, is the various habits embedded in our daily existence. “Habits (precognitive dispositions) are formed by practices: routines and rituals that inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become second nature to us.” (Ibid, p. 80) Moreover “the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it.” (Ibid, p. 47) If we understand ourselves first as primarily “lovers” before we are “thinkers” we will have to re-evaluate what it means for us to be influenced since we often believe that ideas are the way in which we are most heavily influenced. Take an example from Perelandra, the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy:

“As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle to the good and find that it also is dreadful? …Here at last was a bit of that world from beyond the world, which I always supposed that I loved and desired, breaking through and appearing to my sense: and I didn’t like it, I wanted it to go away.” (Perelandra, p. 19)

We suppose we love God and ultimately claim to desire Him, but what if a small amount of God and His holiness appears before us (whatever that looks like I’m not sure) and we shrink in horror that it is not at all what we had supposed? I will contend that the Lenten season gives us the space to reflect on the habits and rhythms that shape our days, and ultimately our hearts. If we continually participate in the consumerist narrative of work, consume, sleep and repeat we will be in a continual state of restlessness. The Gospel is good news for us, the Gospel is the good news of rest in a restless age.

Rest for the Restless

For Martin Luther, everything depends on a merciful God and not on someone’s will. The debates about freedom of the will are endless, and at times verge on out living their usefulness as it pertains to reflections on faith, but we must be cautious when we speak about the conversion of someone from a non-Christian to a Christian. Much of the language used, especially when we talk about the nature of free will, often becomes contentious because we tend to give into the modern notion of certainty about the things we believe. We over conceptualize, place the emphasis on one thing (human choice) or the other (God’s choice) and when we reduce the issue to either tends to distract us from the truth of God’s unconditional action towards the human race.

Karl Barth, in his second volume of his Church Dogmatics, writes about God’s love as love that is ‘concerned with seeking and creating fellowship for its own sake.’ (II.2, p. 276) This love is an outpouring of God’s abundant goodness He is in Himself. Perfect Triune loving fellowship and in ‘loving us, God does not give us something, but Himself; and giving us Himself, giving us His only Son, He gives everything. The love of God has only to be His love to be everything for us.’ (Ibid) Barth further elaborates that ‘God’s love is not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side…the object of the love of God as such is another which in itself is not, or is not yet, worthy of this His pleasure.’ (Ibid, p. 278) Here Barth is getting at the point I want to make: God’s love is unmerited and unconditional towards us, and we find it fully realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the action of God that saves us, not anything we have done on our own part. Our salvation is truly secure not in our cognitive recognition of it, nor is our belief in our belief what secures us, but the objective work of Christ fulfilling the promises of God secure our salvation and reconciliation.

Peter Leithart in his book ‘Delivered from the Elements of the World’ has a chapter titled “Justified by the Faith of Jesus”. In it he explores Paul’s use of the term justification. He writes ‘in contrast to some standard Protestant soteriologies, though, Paul treats this judgement not as a mere verdict of “righteous” that is the basis for liberation, but as itself an act of deliverance… sinners have the righteous status of Jesus himself by faith, by trusting in Christ and entrusting themselves to the Father, by self-abandonment and loyalty to their Savior.’ (Delivered, p. 181) Leithart here wants us to grasp that justification is not merely a legal status change, it is not ‘merely a matter of ordo salutis or application of redemption; it is also, and most fundamentally, an event in the historia salutis. “Justification” occurred two thousand years ago.’ (Ibid, p. 183)

In this season of Lent as we seek to abandon the habits and rhythms that are forming us for another kingdom, and abstaining from eating or drinking certain kinds of meat or alcohol, let us reflect on the goodness of God coming in Christ out of the abundance of the Triune communion seeking us out to give us Himself, which is to give us everything.