Well, this is the last time you are going to hear from Eugene Peterson and myself for some time. Let's make it worthwhile...
Our scripture this morning is found in Romans 12:1. I’m going to read it now:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
As mentioned before, the Lord's Table is - Biblically - an extension of the Passover meal. They are both parallel and intersecting events. Both are meals that occur before a mighty, epoch-changing, redemptive act of God. As much as the redemption of Israel by God through Moses defined the Israelites and Judaism; that is but a starting point for the complete redemption and salvation accomplished by Christ.
Sacrifice is central to salvation.
Sacrifice is God's way of dealing with sin. All of the other self-help projects and movement that we have, or ever will, create - while having some value - will never be enough. All of those can, in ways, make the world better.
But none can accomplish salvation. That comes from God. And God's way of salvation is sacrifice.
Now there was, back in Paul’s day, several religious and philosophic schools out there that resisted the need for sacrifice – or even salvation, for that matter. In their thinking, there was the “spiritual” world and the physical world. The spiritual realm was about ideals; it was wonderful, pure, and more real. But the physical world was about the flesh. It was evil, corrupt, maybe even an illusion. The thought that God, who is spiritual, would become flesh in Christ was not merely hard to understand; it was religiously offensive! That God would deal directly with the physical world … well, it just ‘wasn’t done.’ Such a notion was contrary to what they thought, knew what was true, and … ewe! … it was Bad Form, impolite, nonsense. Crazy talk!
Yet the Bible tells a very different thing about how God works in the world. God is neither repulsed by nor intimidated by the physical world. After all, he created it – and it was good. But – as we know – things went wrong.
The world now needs fixing – and we need saving. We are in grievous mortal peril, we are lost, and we feel the clammy fingers of death around our throats. We need to be saved!
And God’s way of salvation is sacrifice.
Notice that sacrifice always involves "stuff,” “things” - physical material: flour, grain, lambs, goats, incense and structures to put them on, like 'altars.' Leviticus is the Operator's Manual for righteous sacrifice. And sacrifice involves stuff: physical things – even the flesh of animals. Physical sacrifice impacts spiritual realities. That is completely contrary to the spirit of the age that Paul lived in.
We are, by the way, to bring our best "stuff" to be sacrificed. Why? Partly to remind us that the best we can do is not good enough. God has to take it and do something with it. That's part of the anticipation of sacrifice: what will God do with it? Exercising this faith that God can leverage these small things into a great salvation is part of Biblical worship.
But, until Christ came, all of that sacrifice was temporary, transitory, not permanent. Until Jesus became sin for us, having died once for all; sacrifice taught us that salvation was an uncertain thing. We had to trust that God would be pleased with the fragrant aroma of our best stuff being burned up before a priest. Now Christ's sacrifice completes that lesson: all of the sacrifice that we might attempt is useless. It was always about God doing salvation, and it still is!
Sacrifice always involved stuff and in Christ's sacrifice, it was his physical, bodily death through the shedding of his innocent blood. Again, stuff: wood, nails, thorns, body, blood.
No; sacrifice is not an obsolete concept. If worship is rightly defined as the presentation of God's truth and our response to it, then Romans 12:1 helps us see the continuing role of sacrifice even after Jesus' death. Paul implores us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. Now that's a twist! No longer do we offer our best. No; now we offer our-selves. Not as an atonement for our sins - because Christ has already completed that. But as a reasonable response to that truth. We sing, "Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to thee."
Of course, you know the problem with living sacrifices, don't you? Right? Well, they keep standing up and walking off the altar! In the paradox of our salvation in Christ, we are both crucified with Christ and no longer live; yet I now live because Christ who lives in me.
Sacrifice, salvation, and stuff.
That is why Jesus has us remember our salvation using stuff: bread and wine. Without the concrete physical stuff, it becomes easy to drift off into the spirit of our age – which is not unlike Paul’s time. We can drift into a ‘Jesus-as-Great-Example’ gospel. Sure, that is true, as far as it goes; but it does not go nearly far enough. Jesus is more than merely a great example.
We can also drift into a spirituality of ideas about Jesus rather than receiving the very life of Jesus. God does not want us to be merely “spiritual” people; he also wants us to live out our ‘spirituality’ in our physical, every-day life in this world. The bread and cup - these physical symbols - remind us of the sacrifice that is just as real as the stuff that God used to secure our salvation.