An highly ambitious (and accessible) book – an introduction to the Bible’s main themes in... Read more →
A Sermon from Sherborne
‘Done on the Cross’: meditations for Holy Week 2020
4) Christ the Sacrifice
Ami is French for ‘friend’. Quite what they mean by it has always been something of a puzzle to the English. But in my first term at Oxford, when as a novice historian I had to study a course in historical geography, AMI was the mnemonic by which I remembered the native American empires destroyed by invaders from the ‘Old World’, principally the Spanish conquistadores. AMI: Aztec, Maya, Inca. And what images do those evocative names bring to mind? Well, if you have watched the same films as I have, the principal image is that of sacrifice. Human sacrifice. Babies. Virgins. Young men and women. Slaughtered on altars. Thrown down rock shafts. Pushed into the mouths of roaring volcanoes. And why? Well, basically, as a bribe. A bribe to appease the god or gods, to turn away their wrath, to keep them happy, to dissuade them from some terrible act of vengeance or revenge.
So does that explains the Cross? Christ as sacrifice? A sacrifice by means of which God is persuaded to stay his hand and turn aside his wrath? Is that what George Herbert meant:
Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy Wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path. [George Herbert]
Well, no, I don’t think so. Interestingly, the archaeologists can’t find the evidence for anything like as much human sacrifice as we used to assume the AMI nations perpetrated. And that kind of sacrifice is remarkably rare in the Bible.
When it is, the posh theological word for it is ‘propitiation’. To put it crudely, propitiation is the attempt to buy off an angry God. It doesn’t focus on the offence, or the offender. It focuses on the offended. God is made very angry by our sin. We feel a need to appease. We offer God someone to punish in our place – now we are overlapping the last address with this one, and putting in a substitute – or we offer God a death which somehow turns aside that wrath, drains away that anger, offers God a soothing savour. I call it the “Ah, Bisto” theory of the atonement, and I don’t much like it.
Fortunately, that’s really not what sacrifice in the Bible was all about. When the Epistle to the Hebrews declares that it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take way sins [10:4], it is only saying what devout Jews already knew, that the only sins for which ritual sacrifice could make expiation were breaches of that self-same ritual committed in ignorance. It may well be that in actual practice a man would offer a sacrifice in the expectation that his known sins would thereby be forgiven. But, if he did so, he was assuming something for which the Law gave him no justification. The Old Testament has much to say about forgiveness. Forgiveness was a real thing to the Jew. But he did not, if he read his Scriptures aright, think of it as a quid pro quo for sacrifice. It was the free gift of God. It cannot be purchased, or it would not be forgiveness.
So when the New Testament uses the imagery of sacrifice for the death of Christ, it does not intend us to imagine that God’s forgiveness of us is the quid pro quo for his Son’s death on the Cross. Nevertheless, there is clearly something in sacrificial language which writers like St Peter need to hold on to:
You know well that it was no perishable stuff, like gold or silver, that bought your freedom
from the empty folly of your traditional ways. The price was paid in precious blood, as it were of a lamb without mark or blemish – the blood of Christ. [1 Peter 1: 18-19]
At one level, this language is surely being used to emphasise both the costliness of what Christ has done for us on the Cross, and also that he gave himself willingly, despite the cost. That is how, in practice, we use the notion of sacrifice in ordinary conversation today. ‘He gives to the Church sacrificially.’ ‘She sacrificed a lot of her time to be with her old aunt.’ ‘His mother and father made great sacrifices to send him to Sherborne School.’
But surely the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews had more than this in mind when he insists that what the temple sacrifices were unable to do – that is, atone for deliberate sin – Christ could do – and has done:
Every priest stands performing his service daily and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never remove sins. But Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins ….
[Hebrews 10: 11-12]
But later in the same chapter the real reason for this language becomes clear. It is not that Christ’s action on the Cross is a sacrificial propitiation, but rather that, as our great High Priest, he has entered as it were the Holy of Holies, and torn down the veil separating us from God. In the temple at Jerusalem there was indeed a veil, or curtain, separating the sanctuary, or Holy of Holies, from the rest of the building. It was symbolic of man’s separation from God. No layman could enter it, only the High Priest, and that but once a year. But as our great High Priest, offering the sacrifice of himself, Jesus opened up and dedicated a way – a new and living way – for everyone, Jew and Gentile, men and women – to enter into the very sanctuary of God in the heavens. And remember what happened in the temple at the moment Jesus died. St Matthew puts it like this: ‘Jesus again gave a great cry, and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’
The barrier of our sinfulness which separated us from God was torn in two, from top to bottom, by the Cross. And because of that I can say, with the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
So now, my friends … let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and full assurance of faith, our guilty hearts sprinkled clean, our bodies washed with pure water. Let us be firm and unswerving in the confession of our hope, for the Giver of the promise may be trusted.
[Hebrews 10: 19-23]
Let us pray
in the cross of Jesus
we see the cost of our sin
and the depth of your love:
in humble hope and fear
may we place at his feet
all that we have and all that we are,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.