Rev. Jean Morrow
This morning, we are going to use an atypical text for this Sunday…Palm Sunday, which leads us into Holy week. By my way of thinking, this is the week that Jesus followed the path of love to its natural conclusion in his time and his place…death on the cross. It was a sacrificial love, but I think we have such difficulty with how that word “sacrifice” has morphed through the centuries with reference to Christianity…taking on additional layers of meaning that were not there at the beginning…and should be peeled back and removed if we are going to have a genuine understanding of the concept of sacrificial love.
We are going to engage what’s commonly called “The Love Chapter”…chapter 13…from 1 Corinthians. Remember, this isn’t a wedding text…Paul didn’t write the letter to the church in Corinth to supply them with a cool wedding scripture. He was writing to an emerging Christian community of mostly Gentiles with a mix of classes that was experiencing some friction. In his letter, Paul is attempting to show them what God’s love, born out in human relationships, looks like.
This morning, I’m going to read it from The Message Bible, which is a contemporary interpretation…not translation…interpretation. I’m hoping that if we hear it with different words, we can pull it out of the wedding context in which we are used to hearing it, and hear it with new ears…as a teaching moment about the power of God’s relational love…this covenantal love that draws us together, reconciles us to one another, and transforms our enemies into friends.
The Message Bible: If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all Divine mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end. 8-10 Love never dies. Inspired, eloquent speech will be over some day; praying in tongues (whatever that is) will end; understanding can even have its limits. We know only a portion of the truth now, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when we are embraced in the fullness of the Complete, our incompletes will no longer exist. 11 When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any other infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways behind…for good.12 Though we may desire it, we don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God just as we are known by God! 13 But for right now, until we know that fullness with God, we have three things to do to lead us toward that deep knowing embrace: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, and love deeply and extravagantly. And the most important of the three is love. There is turning point moment in Jesus’ ministry when he leaves Galilee and begins his journey to Jerusalem. You can find this point in Matthew, Mark and Luke…but I think it is best said in Luke…chapter 9, verse 51: When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. “He set his face.” It has a firm, determined feel. If I were scripting it for a movie, I would imagine him taking one last look behind him, then turning, he takes a deep breath and takes that first step towards Jerusalem.
Did he know what was coming? Certainly, scholars believe that his entry into Jerusalem was well planned…entering on a nursing donkey and her foal. It was fulfillment of earlier prophecy that the Messiah would enter on a donkey and her foal. But it is also an insult, a thumbing of the nose, to Pilate. On the other side of the city, Pilate is riding in on a war-horse followed by legions of Roman soldiers.
Did Jesus know what was coming? In a general sense, I believe he did. He knew that he had gotten onto Rome’s radar…and he knew that Rome made examples of criminals and social revolutionaries by nailing them to crosses. That happened all the time. And if you were nailed to a cross by Rome, your family was not allowed to take your body down…no burial…so the dying and post death was a gruesome, heart-breaking deterrent that Rome counted on.
So, it is a big statement for me to say that Jesus knew what was coming. It speaks volumes about him…his courage…his strength of conviction…and his grounding in a love that is of God…the heart of his teaching and healing.
This morning I want to unpack a very important concept as we move into Holy Week…that of sacrifice…because I think your understanding of it can critically shape your thinking as we move into the confusing days between now and Easter.
I think we all know what sacrificial love is when we talk about parenting…or taking care of an elder in our families…or even taking care of beloved pets. When you are in a loving relationship, it is inevitable…plans get changed...the things that you wanted to do or accomplish take a back burner if your child is sick…if your youth is struggling in a class, you will find yourself sitting with them at the kitchen table as they struggle along…to be consoling and encouraging, if not helpful. We sit in a waiting rooms for hours if that is called for…we juggle work and home life to care for a loved one. All of these are examples of sacrifice.
There are greater sacrifices that we also know of…when a soldier throws themselves on a grenade or bomb to save their company…or when a bystander runs into a burning home to rescue the family living there, only to lose their life in the process. That, too, is sacrifice.
The word “sacrifice” is derived from two Latin words, sacrum facture, and it means to make sacred. The word “surrender” is often associated with sacrifice. In the examples of our families, we surrender our schedules and ourselves to create sacred space and time to attend to the one who needs care. In the other examples, people literally give their lives…surrender their lives for someone else.
This kind of self-denying, self-giving sacrifice is always awe-inspiring, though sometimes haunting…haunting because it causes us to question our own courage.
I’m going to assume that when we talk about Jesus sacrificing his life on the cross, some of us begin to squirm a bit with discomfort…because it brings up so many different ideas about why Jesus hung on that cross that day. Many of us, in our youth, were forced to memorize and embody really bad theology…about the torture and suffering of Jesus being required by God…God’s plan…and so, today, as adults, we want to push back from the whole thing because that sacrificial theology doesn’t fit with our understanding of God through the teachings of Jesus…and so we want to skip this week in Jesus’ life.
In Adult Forum, we have had the chance to study this really bad theology for the past several weeks, so I want to try to share with you briefly what we have been learning. I want us all to have this alternative perspective.
First and foremost, in ancient times, there is no association between sacrifice and torture. When the people were making a gift to the gods of livestock, there was never anything even remotely close to torture and suffering involved. The animal was a gift to the gods...or, as we learned in AF, a gift for a meal with the gods…and was put to death quickly and humanely…no torture. In ancient cultures, there is evidence that first born sons were sometimes sacrificed to the gods as a gift. Again, there is no evidence of torture and suffering. You may not like hearing it today, but human sacrifice was a culturally accepted way of giving a gift to the gods. Again, there is no evidence of torture.
So, what happened? Where did suffering and sacrifice get coupled up with torture and suffering, especially in Christian circles?
We know from both scripture and other ancient texts that as the early Jewish-Christian church emerged, there were lots of conversations about Jesus…was he divine and human…divine or human…or just human. They had questions about his death…but it wasn’t until the 8th and 9th centuries in Europe that Jesus’ torture and suffering on the cross became linked with God’s need. God’s need for Jesus’ blood on the cross isn’t biblical…it is a human construct that developed in early medieval times…and successfully rooted itself in the orthodox Christian theology and medieval church doctrine. Though it caught on, it is still bad theology.
It comes out of time in history, 8th & 9th centuries, when there was a renaissance of sorts in the Carolingian dynasty…the Franks were having this great moment of thinking and writing…and perhaps influenced by that renaissance, the church developed a zealous energy for right belief. At the same time, the Franks (think Charlemagne) were conquering Saxon lands…and the Franks became quite determined to Christianize the Saxons, who were considered pagan.
Before this period, Jesus is consistently portrayed in art as the Good Shepherd with a return to paradise. Jesus in nature…Jesus with animals. The crucifix…the suffering Jesus on the cross…developed during this same early medieval period…and the earliest crucifix was made by the Saxons in the 8th century…a time during which they were being tortured into conversion…and killed if they refused or continued their pagan practices. Over time, the symbol of the tortured and suffering Jesus on the cross became a tool for conquering Christian nations.
Things get really twisted up and permanently affixed in Christian thought by the late 11th century…around the time of the first crusades. A highly educated monk named Anselm is named the second Archbishop of Canterbury by Willian the Second. He was not named archbishop by the Pope. He is a royal appointee…named archbishop by the king…and as a royal appointee, he was both a religious leader and a member of the king’s court. Anselm was both the archbishop and a Norman Lord or Nobleman.
Being true to his scholarly faith, Anselm was a thinking and writer…and through his writings attempted to explain Christianity in a reasonable way. Now, Anselm has inherited a good bit of developed Christian thought to work with. By this time, Jesus is generally thought to be the incarnated God…more divine than human. Also by this time, the general thinking is that we are a very sinful creatures…created by God, but separate from God. So, God in Jesus cannot possibly lower Godself to be really human. Jesus has to be mostly divine. As Anslem develops his thoughts, he works with what is in Christian culture, rather than what is in scripture. He also models God after a Norman Lord.
So his theology of the cross goes something like this…God is offended by human sin…and there is nothing God can do to adequately punish human beings that could create adequate satisfaction for an insulted divinity. Anselm recognizes and affirms that what is needed is someone who is both human and divine to step in to represent the human race while also being divine enough to be acceptable to God.
How very handy. We have Jesus on the cross. But then, to the ancient and valid theme of sacrifice, Anslem adds the novel and utterly invalid theme of substitution…something that is not there in anthropological or biblical tradition. Remember, sacrifice is gift, not substitute, not torture, not suffering.
So now, the theology of the cross goes something like this…God has been offended by human evil. God must demand satisfaction, atonement, punishment. Humans cannot adequately atone for a divine offense. Therefore, a God-Man is needed to substitute for our pathetic inadequacy.
And out of that you get Jesus died on the cross for my sins. Why? To satisfy God’s need. God’s need. After Anselm, God is the persecutor in the drama that has Jesus tortured and suffering on the cross…not the Romans. According to Anselm, it was all to satisfy God’s need.
That is really bad theology…but it took root, I believe, because it was an effective theology to control the Christian populace. It sets up a framework that reinforces guilt and shame and deep twisted gratitude to Jesus for paying a debt to God through his blood on the cross. It is bad theology that is the result of a really fine scholar and person, Anslem, using the common understanding and models from his culture to create a theological framework to explain the cross.
So, what might be an alternative theology of the cross? It is still about sacrificial love, but we are going to strip out the creative, but bad human theological construct offered by Anselm. In this alternative, God is not offended by God’s own creation. God is God, whose nature is love. Twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich, uses the metaphor “ground of being”…God is the ground of our being…our very foundation. If the nature of God is love and God is the ground of being, then we are grounded in this great love…this greater-than-ourselves love.
God is not offended, but wants us to be more grounded in love. Jesus, a God-filled, love-filled person came to teach us just that. But, this self-giving love drew Jesus into acts of kindness, healing, feeding, teaching and reconciliation that called people into relationship in such a way that threatened both the corrupt temple elite at that time and Rome.
Who required Jesus’ death on the cross? Rome. The Romans killed Jesus because he was a social revolutionary and a threat. They made an example of him to terrorize others into behaving.
So, back to my initial question…did Jesus know what was coming when he set his face towards Jerusalem? My answer is still yes. He knew that a quite natural consequence could be death on a Roman cross…but he went to Jerusalem anyway. He was so grounded in God’s love that he never faltered. We have no evidence that he tried to run away and hide. We have no evidence that he changed his story. He could have said, “King of the Jews? No, I’ve never called myself that…that’s just a misunderstanding…people getting a little crazy. I’m completely loyal to Rome…I’d never want to offend the Caesar…never. Wow, I’m deeply sorry about the confusion…” No, that is not how it happened…there is no evidence that Jesus took back anything he taught or said or showed about his understanding and knowledge of what God wants for us. He endured the consequences of his deep faith in a love that cried out for justice…a love that was greater than death.
Did Jesus sacrifice his life? Yes. Did he sacrifice his life for us? Yes. Did he sacrifice his life to pay for our depravity as deeply flawed creatures? No. Did he do it to appease an angry God? No. Did he do it because he was so grounded in God and in God’s divine love that he knew death was not be the end? Yes. Did he do it so that we might continue his work? Yes. Is it possible that the Spirit that was in Jesus is available to us? The Spirit that gave him a deep grounding in love and the courage to stand on his faith and convictions to the end? Absolutely.
Palm Sunday is the prelude to a week of suffering, but also a week of witnessing to a love that is greater than death…a love that grounds…a love that feeds courage…a love that does not fear death. May we open ourselves in such a way that we, too are Spirit-filled people grounded in God’s never-failing love. May it be so for you and for me.