Archive for August, 2005

A Living Sacrifice

Sunday, August 21st, 2005
Exodus 1:8-2:10

Psalm 124

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

St. Paul appeals to his Roman readers, and to us, “to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.” Because we have become so familiar with this phrase, it is worthwhile to reflect on how radical it is. Sacrifice, in Paul’s time, was a very common religious observance, practiced not only among Jews in Temple worship but also by the official pagan cult of Rome and nearly every other religion in that very pluralistic environment: Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, the Egyptian religion of Isis and Osiris, Celtic religions, and the religious practices of the peoples from the Steppes of what is now Russia. Although the religions differed in the manner and context of sacrifices, sacrifices took place frequently and were an ordinary part of their world. In the official Roman religion the patriarch of the family would perform a brief sacrifice with each evening meal, according to some scholars. In the Jewish religion of which Jesus was a part, there were four major yearly festivals of sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem plus dozens of other occasions each year in which people could make sacrifices, or pay priests to sacrifice for them.

Whereas Paul enjoins us to be living sacrifices, in all these religions, the thing sacrificed was a dead animal, not a living human being. Sometimes grain was offered, but that was not a sacrifice in the full sense. In the sacrifice, an animal was cut up and its parts re-arranged or redistributed so as to reinforce what the religious group believed is the proper divine ordering of the cosmos. For instance, in the Jewish sacrificial cult, some part of the animal is burned on the altar so as to go to God, some of the meat is given to the priests, other parts of the animal to the people making the sacrificial donation, and the blood is treated as sacred, usually splashed on the altar. This division marks out the distinctions between the divinity, the servants of the divinity, the people whose allegiance is to the divinity, and the fact that the divine ordering is a life and death matter, a matter of life-blood.

In some vague way, the sacrificial re-arrangement of the parts of the animal not only reflects pre-given distinctions within the religious dimension, it helps to create them. In the ancient world, a great many people believed that a failure to observe proper sacrifices would let the world slip into confusion and chaos. You will remember that St. Paul believed that the world had slipped to such a great confusion of the powers of evil and good that only the sacrifice of the Son of God could restore things to their rightful order. The ancient civilizations of India and China also were shaped with ideas and practices of sacrifices such as these.

These sensibilities are so alien to our own that we find it hard to take them seriously. Few of us sit easily with Paul’s frequent interpretation of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Read the early chapters of the book of Leviticus to see detailed prescriptions for a variety of sacrifices that are the background of our Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Understanding what sacrifice meant in the ancient world is crucial for understanding what is demanded of us who do not take the language and practice of sacrifice seriously.

The first radical thing in Paul’s admonition to us to be living sacrifices is that we are human beings, not animals. Of course, many religions, especially in times before Jesus and Paul, had practiced human sacrifice, with the same intent as animal sacrifice: to bring order to the cosmos regarding relations between divinity and human life. Given the vigor with which Hebrew Bible writers condemn human sacrifice, it probably was the case that the early worship of Yahweh included it. Or perhaps it is better to say that the early worship of Yahweh was mixed together with the worship of other gods and somewhere along the line human sacrifice was included. But the strain of Israelite religion that came down to Jesus as the worship practice of Second Temple Judaism strongly condemned human sacrifice. How daring of Paul, then, good Pharisee that he was, to advocate that Christians regard themselves as sacrifices, restoring the cult of human sacrifice! Imagine this: we Christians believe in a strange form of human sacrifice, if we take Paul seriously!

Paul’s point in our Epistle today, of course, is that we should be living sacrifices, not dead ones to be dismembered with our body parts re-arranged. Therefore, his sense of human sacrifice did not involve killing anyone. In fact, for Paul, Jesus’ sacrifice unto death was the final, once-for-all, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. No one else ever again needs to be sacrificed to set right the relation between God and human beings, good and evil. The significance of Jesus’ atoning death was that Jesus did it! We do not have to atone for our sins, only accept God’s mercy. Moreover, for us to think that we do need to atone for our sins, to wallow in that guilt, is itself another sin, the sin of rejecting God’s forgiving grace in Jesus. The good news of the gospel is that we are freed from the guilty life for which a sacrifice might be required to set in right order, because that sacrifice has already been made, once and for all. At least this is the way Paul saw it in his world with its understanding of sacrifice.

With this in mind, we can understand some of the Christian symbolism that is obscure to our modern sensibilities. How were the body parts of Jesus, the human sacrifice, re-arranged? Most obviously, Jesus, once dead, came to life again, signifying that in the cosmic order of things, life trumps death; God is the God of the living. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven signified that the way to God is open to human beings, after it had been confused or made chaotic by sin. In this respect, Paul called Jesus the first-born of many who will get to God. Yet in another symbolic sense, Jesus left his flesh and blood with us in the Eucharistic practice of his community. Each communion is a symbolic mini-sacrifice in which we, God’s people, get a share of the body of Christ, like in the ancient Mediterranean evening meal sacrifice.

With these reflections on the background of sacrificial thinking in Paul’s time, we can look more directly at his plea that Christians become living sacrifices to God. When he said we should present our “bodies” as living sacrifices, by “bodies” he meant our whole selves, not just our minds or souls or spirits. For Paul, and Christians generally, we are our visible, material bodies, and our bodies are more than mechanical bits of flesh, blood, bone, and nerve. Harmonized as living organisms, our bodies produce or embody all those realities of mind and heart, soul and spirit that we sometimes distinguish from body. A dead body, of course, is just a body. A living body is a person. Paul said to present our whole selves, our persons, to God as a living sacrifice.

But of course presenting our whole selves includes presenting our bodies, and this part of Paul’s plea that we be living sacrifices has enormous consequences. We need to take care of our bodies, if not for our own enjoyment, then in order to be worthy living sacrifices. In ancient Jewish law, only animals without blemish could be used in sacrifices, and in some occasions only priests without bodily blemish could perform the sacrifices. Paul was contradicting this point of Jewish law by saying that everyone should present themselves, not only those with unblemished bodies, or even unblemished character. Remember in our Epistle he went on to say that people
are different in their skills and also in their degrees of faith, yet all are members of one body. So we should understand that we need to make the best of the bodies that our genes and the accidents of our lives have given us. Some people are healthy, others sickly, some strong, others disabled, some naturally talented, others klutzes, some young, others old, some beautiful, others blemished. For instance, whenever my dermatologist examines me, he mutters under his breath about all the weeds in God’s garden of life. Or consider that in the history of Western Christian art, St. Paul is always represented as bald, an affliction I take more seriously than most! We have to make do with the bodies we have. Paul’s point was that we need to take as good care as possible of our bodies because we present them to God as our spiritual worship.

So fat America needs to wake up and diet if we are going to present our bodies as our spiritual worship! Starving ourselves to look like Twiggy is no spiritual improvement. Lazy muscles need to go to the gym. Those of us who do enough manual labor to stay fit need to take care that we not abuse our bodies. The poverty that makes some people starve or abuse their bodies with too much work is not only intrinsically unjust but also an impediment to spiritual worship. Nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, and other mood altering drugs have the potential to ruin the bodies we offer to God. People with chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes need to take special care to remain healthy. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Our bodies are not just for us, they are our sacrificial offering to God. They are part of our ultimate responsibility, and we need to be serious in their care. The reason for this is that they are God’s gift, and the only truthful way to be alive before God is to be grateful.

Our spiritual worship, Paul was saying, does not mean just going to church. In fact, in this whole section of his letter Paul does not mention worship in the sense of church liturgy, although I will not make too much of this point because I am very glad you are here. Rather, Paul meant that our spiritual worship is how we live in the whole of our lives. What we present to God as holy and acceptable is not our ritual liturgy but the whole of what we do and make of ourselves. Actually, one of the meanings of the ancient word from which “liturgy” comes is “work.” In that ancient sense, our entire lives are our “work,” our liturgies.

Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The problem with this world, Paul thought, rightly I believe, is that it is a confusion of good and evil, a debilitating mixture of the sacred and the alienated, a chaos of responsibilities considered in ultimate perspective. When we pursue holiness as living sacrifices, in our many small ways we do bring a proper divine order out of this confusion and chaos. The activities of our living members move the cosmos to better order, just as they believed about sacrifice in the ancient world. Now I do not mean that morality will ever be simple and unambiguous. What is good for some people is often bad for others, and often we need to make choices between the greater of goods and the lesser of evils. Inevitably we are guilty of wrong-doing even when we are doing our best. And sometimes we cannot even understand what we are doing. Thank the merciful God for creating a religion for sinners!

My point, however, is that to be a living sacrifice is to sort out how we relate to God in everything we do, and to put first things first. Paul said that we should renew our minds so that we may “discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Although life is complicated and morally ambiguous, we still have guidelines for being living sacrifices. In the passage immediately following our text from Romans Paul wrote:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

You see from these guidelines about what is good and acceptable and perfect, what a difficult job we have to be living sacrifices, so that through our lives we can move the world toward a divine order.

In a society that defines love as self-interest and in a country whose government justifies heinous crimes by citing America’s self interest, we need grace to make love be genuine, to separate ourselves from evil, and cling to the good. In a society that fosters exploitation of neighbor and with a government that insists on being honored above others, we need grace to practice mutual affection and compete in honoring one another. In a society of physical and spiritual couch potatoes, we need grace to serve God with zeal and an ardent spirit. In a land where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, we need grace to sustain hope, patience in suffering, and continued prayer. When we are taught to take care of our own and to condemn people who are different from ourselves, we need grace to serve the saints and extend hospitality to strangers. In a society whose government believes that bending others to our will is macho, we need grace to bless those who persecute us. In a consumerist culture that teaches that joy can be bought, we need grace to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. In a political culture that believes that dominating others is the way to harmony, we need grace to live in harmony without being haughty and to know the limits of our wisdom about what is good for others. In a country that suffered evil from criminal terrorists and responded by declaring a war on terrorism and, finding insufficient numbers of terrorists willing to stand up and be warred upon, attacked two countries that did not attack us, killing more people than all the victims of terrorism combined over the last century, we need grace not to repay evil for evil and to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. In a nation that votes in politicians who like war, it takes grace to live peaceably with all. In the richest and most powerful nation in Earth’s history which still believes it needs to take vengeance on those who oppose its will for them, it takes grace never to avenge ourselves and to leave judgment to God. How can we not be overcome by all this evil, but overcome evil with good, except by grace?

Brothers and sisters, I assure you that we have the grace to present our bodies as living sacrifices, wholly and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. Let the witness of our lives call the world to love, goodness, affection, honor, zeal, service, hope, patience, prayer, charity, hospitality, blessing the persecutors, sharing joy and sorrow, harmony, humility, wisdom, forbearance of vengeance, and the overcoming of evil with good. These things are God’s order, and our living sacrifice can make them happen. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Who Was Jesus?

Sunday, August 14th, 2005

Genesis 45:1-15

Psalm 133

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

The Jesus Christ whom we encounter in our worship and hymns, in our formal theology and stories, even in the Bible, is someone who has lived in the minds and hearts of Christians through the ages, including ourselves; we have Jesus present to us through people’s memories and interpretations. We do not encounter the subjective person Jesus, any more than we encounter today George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Some people would say therefore that we do not encounter the real Jesus, that we engage merely the Jesus of other people’s memories. But the real identity of Jesus includes how he is understood and remembered by others. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have identities that include a lot more than their personal experience: they really live in the memories of others and in the consequences of their actions long after their deaths. Everyone’s identity is not merely their personal subjective experience but also how they are perceived by others and how they affect things around them, perhaps for hundreds of years. This larger sense of identity is that for which we are responsible before God, although, of course, we are not entirely responsible for how people understand us.

Jesus’ identity was not limited to his subjective experience even when he was alive in the ordinary sense, teaching the disciples. They tried hard to understand him, forming tentative images and ideas of him and his teachings in their own imaginations. Jesus was often critical of how they understood him: witness his impatience with their lack of understanding of his parable in the Gospel today. The disciples received rather quick feedback from him when their imaginative interpretations of his identity were off the mark.

We have the same situation. You know how it is when you want friends to understand you: you can tell from what they do and say what their images of you are, and you try to correct them so that they conform to your image of yourself. Of course, sometimes we do not understand our own identity, and a friend’s image might be closer to the mark. We pay psychotherapists big bucks to form images of us that reveal more deeply who we really are. Our true identity might include things we never would have thought about. For instance, we often find that we play important roles for other people of which we had not been aware, leading them astray, perhaps, involving them in a dysfunctional family situation, or serving as a healthy model, leading them to greater virtue and independence. Anyone who has a public role in life, and we all do in small if not large ways, has an identity that is more than the way we subjectively experience ourselves. Sometimes we can control and be responsible for elements in that public role. Other times our public life gives us an identity over which we have no control. When that is good, we rejoice in good fortune and, when that extended public identity is bad, we complain about fate.

So Jesus’ identity was not limited to his subjective personal experience. Nor was it limited to his identity for his disciples who could easily check out their understanding. Jesus personally thought of himself as a Jewish reformer, not the founder of a new religion; yet the early Christians extended his identity to be the founder of a movement named after his title as Christ. Jesus personally thought of himself as chosen by God to head a kingdom of justice dominated by the twelve tribes of Israel; that’s why he chose twelve special apostles, one to represent each tribe; yet St. Paul extended his identity to be a divine agent in a cosmic narrative for conquering Satan and the forces of evil, a conception wholly alien to Jesus’ personal way of thinking. Jesus in no way, personally speaking, thought of himself as divine—that would have been idolatry to any faithful Jew of his time; yet the conviction that he was divine, on the part of his followers in the early centuries, led to calling him the Second Person of the Trinity constituting God’s nature. Jesus personally knew nothing about worship of himself, especially led by people in priestly garb taken from the costumes of Roman senators, which would have astonished him. He knew nothing of his role in the worship life of monks and nuns in monasteries, or in the prayer life of Protestants, or in the setting of policies in mainline Churches today for charity in Africa. Yet in a very real sense, the Jesus who lives in all those movements that have taken place in his name has the identity given him by all those living roles. That is his public identity.

Of course, not every interpretation of Jesus in contexts beyond those he knew personally is valid, any more than his immediate disciples always understood him rightly. Jesus’ name has been taken for causes that he would abhor. We need to remember that the ovens in the Nazi prison camps were turned off only for Christmas and Easter, a perverse embodiment of Christianity. The problem of the validity of an extension of Jesus’ identity is particularly acute when the extension is to some kind of role that a human person cannot play, as when Jesus is identified with the symbol of the cosmic Christ, or the Second Person of the Trinity. Not every extension of Jesus’ identity by Christian communities is valid.

The doctrine of the Church in this regard is that these extensions need to be supported by the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that interprets for us what is Jesus Christ’s true and new identity. Of course, we then need to identify the true Holy Spirit when our world is filled with so many spirits that seem to tell us what is divine. The tests of the Holy Spirit lie in its fruits, as you know: do interpretations of Jesus, and practices based on them, lead to joy, peace, patience, righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love? Or do they lead to sourness, agitation, belligerence, self-righteousness, selfishness, denial, despair, or hate?

The feedback-testing our long extensions of Jesus’ identity is more indirect and takes a lot longer than the feedback Jesus gave to his immediate disciples. Yet the feedback is exceedingly fine. We are beginning to see now, for instance, that the belief that Jesus is God’s divine agent in a great cosmic drama of struggle with the forces of evil, leading to Armageddon, is a very dangerous image of Jesus. So many Christians who believe that fail to distinguish between their putative role in fighting God’s battles and God’s approval of their battles. When their own battles, which they assume have God’s blessing, are frustrated, they fall into deep resentment of ways of life other than their own, bitter defensiveness, readiness to go to war, arrogance about their own causes, greed for power, denial of evidence that they might be in the wrong, spiteful despair of reconciliation with enemies they are supposed to love, and delight in the hate of those they brand as God’s enemies. The fruits of the Spirit test out against the Christianity that takes Jesus to be God’s avenger, even when that image is in the Bible, as it is in the Book of Revelation.

One of the principle anchors for our understanding of the identity of Jesus is our grasp of who he was historically. Of course, we know that our knowledge of his historical identity is limited, and always filtered through sources such as the Bible and our traditions. But our gospel text today gives us an interesting insight.

When approached by the Canaanite woman, Jesus at first declined to help her, saying that his mission was only to the lost sheep of Israel. This reflected his understanding of himself as a Jewish reformer, somewhat in the mold of the prophets. He knew about other ethnic peoples, of course. He was rai
sed in Nazareth, which was about five miles from a new city that was being built by the Romans; since his family was in the building trades he had much connection with the Romans; the gospels tell several stories of his interactions with them as an adult. He preached in Greek towns, and probably spoke a version of Greek. Many Semitic peoples besides Jews lived in Palestine at his time, and in our particular story he was in Syria where he met the Canaanite woman. Yet at first he identified himself as a prophet for the children of Israel alone, to the exclusion of others.

As we learned, the Canaanite woman changed his mind. So far as I know, this is the only incident in the gospels in which Jesus is shown admitting he was wrong and learning something new. Those of you who look to highlight the accomplishments of women can point with pride to this story. Not only was she a woman, she was a Canaanite, belonging to a people whom the Israelites were supposed to have dispossessed from the land. Some of you saw the advertisement last Friday in the New York Times and perhaps other papers in the form of an open letter to President Bush from seven Lubavitcher rabbis and a lay person claiming that God owns everything and gave the whole Land of Israel to the Jews; they claimed that the eviction of Jewish settlers from occupied territories is a violation of God’s will and that President Bush had been appointed by God to bring peace and triumph over evil by protecting God’s people, by whom they meant the Jews, and their Holy Land. People today still believe that those other than Jews should be dispossessed from Palestine. Yet even in Jesus’ time, it was recognized as a land for many people. Because of the Canaanite woman, Jesus came to see that his mission was not only to Israel, but to all who come seeking faith. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as sending his friends to make disciples of all nations, a direct turnabout from his earlier preoccupation with Israel alone.

From the beginning, so far as we can gather, Jesus had a revolutionary table fellowship. That is, he talked, ate, and drank with women as well as men, with poor people and rich people, with prostitutes, tax collectors, and various other sinners. He not only said that we should not judge others—judgment belongs to God—but that we should love them, even our enemies. In all of this, he was running against the customs and morality of his Jewish community, at least as he conceived it. Yet that inclusiveness might have been limited to people within that community. His lesson from the Canaanite woman opened the door to an inclusiveness that went well beyond the limits of the kosher. This lesson was confirmed by St. Peter, as recorded in Acts 10-11, when he had a vision of unclean things that were permissible to eat and accepted the dinner invitation of a Roman.

The extension of Christianity beyond the Jewish world to the many worlds of the Gentiles was not an easy thing for early Christianity. St. Paul argued strongly for it, and eventually won out. But the extension is still not complete today. In this day of religious as well as economic globalization, we have mastered the art of indigenizing Christianity to many cultures, even those very far from the traditional cultures of European Christianity. But we have not mastered the art of letting Christianity serve all cultures, regardless of whether people in those cultures want to become Christians. Too often, we have taken Jesus’ commandment to “make disciples of all nations” to mean to recruit Christians in all nations. This interpretation is fine so far as it goes, but is too narrow. Our Christian discipleship is to offer God’s hospitality to everyone. God’s creative love can bring renewal and blessing to anyone, and it is offered universally. Our job as disciples is to invite people into that divine love so that they can be renewed and blessed. Jesus did not ask the Canaanite woman to sign up as his follower. He simply healed her daughter.

The first principle of offering God’s hospitality is to respect people for who they are. This means accepting them in their own religions, in their own social cultures, and in their own political interests, even when they oppose our own. Of course we are not without moral standards. These standards include those values I mentioned a moment ago: joy, peace, patience, righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love, and all the institutions of life that support these things and oppose sourness of spirit, agitation, belligerence, self-righteousness, selfishness, denial, despair, and hate. These virtues and vices are universal to all religions, and to the great philosophies of secular culture. We Christians should guide our own behavior by them. But under no circumstances can we use them to judge others. Judgment of others belongs to God alone. Our role as Christians is to host other people as they come to God, and to host God’s creative love in the lives of those other people. True Christian discipleship is to give away the privileges of membership in Christian culture and to cultivate a Christian culture of conveying God’s love to others, in whatever language and religious forms do the job. As Jesus came to see, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, the radical openness of God’s love embraces even those whom our religion has taught us to exclude. What a radical transformation for world history!

Just how did the Canaanite woman teach this momentous lesson? She did two things. First, she demanded access to God’s healing power that she saw in Jesus. Who among the world’s suffering masses has not called out for relief in some language or other? Second, she used the power of humility to undermine the icy refusal of privilege. Jesus said that only the people of Israel were privileged to receive his holy meal of the healing grace of God. She said that even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table. If the people of Israel, or we self-proclaimed Christians, sit at the table of privilege regarding God’s grace, she and the other outsiders will crawl to the floor to eat the crumbs. Immediately the claims of privilege dissolved in embarrassment at the arbitrary restriction of grace. Of course he healed her daughter!

What do we learn of Jesus’ contemporary identity from this story from his ancient personal life? Our Lord leads us today to examine our religion to ask whether we are working to serve our religious community to the exclusion of others, or are we forming our Christian community to host others in the presence of God. How do we serve the Muslims and Jews, the Hindus and the Buddhists, the Confucians and Daoists, the secular people and the wretched of the Earth who lack even any religion whatsoever? Do we ask first whether they might become Christians? Shame! Let us ask first how God can bless them. Our Lord also leads us to look for great faith in others, any longing for connection with God that might bring joy, peace, patience, righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love. Even when we do not have that faith ourselves, we need to seek it out in others and bring it into the presence of God as we can. As for ourselves, what we learn from this critical point in Jesus’ evolving identity is that the hero in the story is not the disciples, not even Jesus: it is the outsider woman whose faith led her to such humble self-abasement that Jesus’ inherited sense of privilege for his own people was emptied. If only we had the power of her faith, think of what we could do!

Who was Jesus? He was a man of God who learned the universal showering of God’s love despite himself, when confronted by a faith whose humility undermined his sense of privilege. Who is Jesus today? He continues to be the mediator of God and the soul of the Church who, among other things, teaches us to empty even our Christianity’s sense of privilege for the sake of those who call upon God. This is Jesus’ identity as our present and risen Lord. Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville