I tend to shy away from descriptions of Jesus as sacrificial. It makes me think of blood and dead lambs and the ego-centric “if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would have died for you” nonsense that musically lame and theologically inept praise choruses of the eighties and nineties and televangelists tend to communicate about God.
I don’t like it.
But this weekend I was reminded that indeed, Jesus led a very sacrificial life. And I was reminded of this in a love story.
Lisa moved to Kenya some time after we graduated from college to work for the International Justice Mission. While there, she met a Liberian man. Although they share her native language (his being a tribal Liberian dialect), communication is still trying at times, but despite their differences, they fell in love. The true test for Lisa though, came a year or so later when Eddie was offered his dream job... in Liberia. He would probably be placed in a village, probably without internet, with cell reception only from the top of a hill in the town. Lisa was happy about this amazing opportunity for him, but after he told her about the job offering she cried and cried. This would the turning point in their relationship - would she move to a country devastated (but recovering) from war, a place with limited resources, poor health care, and bad food? Would she move to a place like that where she had no job? Further away from family and even friends she had made in Kenya? Would she trust God through this? And that's when she realized it was, as she said, "true love." When they talked on the phone later about the situation, Eddie began and said, "I'm not taking the job. It's too risky for us. We wouldn't be able to communicate very often and I can't do that to us." And that's when Lisa learned that both of them had come to the same conclusion - that they were willing to give it all up for the other person. Indeed she was experiencing true love. “And love,” she told me “is a sacrifice. It’s modeled in the personhood of Jesus Christ and it should be modeled in the way we love each other.”
Sacrifice. That’s a hard word for me in general. Apart from Little Bo Peep’s dead sheep on the altar, sacrifice as lifestyle is a hard one to live by. I want a good job and a healthy marriage and a happy home and nice neighbors. I want to take vacations to exotic places and go to the theatre often and out a pool in my backyard. I’d love to own a hybrid car and my own home and maybe someday even a second home on a beach or lake somewhere or maybe in the mountains. Not an extravagant lifestyle, but a good one. But probably not one that anyone would call sacrificial.
But what Lisa was talking about – while it did mean sacrificing basic living conditions (electricity for one) what she described was more a sacrifice of self – of wants and desires – because of loving someone else.
So I started to wonder what sacrifice in our spirituality really means. What does it mean when in Romans 12 Paul writes, “Offer yourselves up as living sacrifices.” Obviously not a literal imperative but one that reminded me of other metaphors… Jesus told Nicodemis that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Again, playing on the idea similar to sacrifice, of letting go of something, and to the born again metaphor, a definite change element is added. In all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus is quoted as saying, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
Those images of sacrifice, rebirth, and losing and finding life remind me of the lyrics in the song written by Alanis Morisette that we sang at the earlier in the service. “Reborn and shivering. Spat out on new terrain… Day One, Day One, start over again. Step one. Step one. I’m barely making sense.”
Surely you’ve been there before. In a new city, at a new college, at a new job, in a new relationship and you’re feeling your way along, seemingly blind at first because of the newness and unfamiliarity of the situation.
If you haven’t been there before, just wait, you will be.
As I listen to the imagery in that song, I am reminded of scenes of “rebirth,” if you will, in biblical stories. There’s Adam and Eve in the Garden and then there’s Adam and Eve feeling their way around outside the Garden. There’s Hagar and Ishmael having been cast out of Abraham’s tribe to fend and provide for themselves alone in the desert and eventually in Egypt. There’s Joseph in jail, having already been through slavery and falling in and out of the good graces of the people around him, now wondering where life will take him or how to even make a life for himself in jail. There’s Jonah, humiliated, but alive (having been spit out of a fish) struggling to embrace a wider theology. There’s Mary, pregnant and alone with a story no one was going to believe. What would life look like with that magical but terrifying news? There’s Paul, the Christian-hater, now confessing Christ alongside people he’d sought to execute.
So many life-changing experiences but experiences meant to be explored with God. Told with God who indeed is one of the main characters and has been all along. Suddenly being spat out on new terrain, naked and alone before God begins to make sense to me. Apart from the Just Me and Jesus, individualistic, selfish, all-about-me-Christianity that I loathe, on some level I realize that at some point it comes down to just us and God. It’s not a faith our parents pass on to us in their wills. It’s not dowry gift received from a marriage. It’s an experience, a relationship between you and your creator. And regardless of whether or not there is a blinding light that leaves you panicked and passed out in the street, you will leave your encounter with God changed.
Changed. Reborn. Day One, Day One, Start over again. Having given up your life, you receive new life. And you are changed. And this change affects your very being. While it may not change your vocation, it changes who you are in the workplace. While it may not change your major, it changes how you use the knowledge you gain. People aren’t just people anymore, they’re children of God. Talent isn’t just being good at something now, it’s a gift to be shared. Money doesn’t have the same meaning. Everything may stay the same, but everything changes too because now God is in it. Now God is in you! Now God asks you to offer yourself up as a living sacrifice: to tithe, so a community of faith can function; to vote so that all may experience equality, to share so that the widows and orphans are not left alone, to love so that everyone may know God’s love, to forgive - even your enemies, to speak up for injustice even when it’s unpopular, to be faithful even when hedonism feels so good.
It changes you. It changes the way you interact even with the people sitting next to you tonight. Everything changes when you encounter God. And if God isn’t real to you, if you don’t start off empty, alone, naked, and acknowledging that you are nothing without God, you miss the life. Unless you lose it, you’ll never find it.
No wonder the gate is narrow. Who wants to sit exposed in all of their un-splendor admitting “I can’t do this alone, nor do I want to.”? For people in trauma, it’s easy to see what’s relative, what’s imperative, what is essential. In traumatic situations, the excess strips away and only what matters is left. So it’s often feels easier even amidst the pain for someone in crisis to realize that really nothing matters apart from loving God and loving each other. For the rest of us who sit on our comfy couches, with our good grades and our distinguished degrees and successful jobs and relatively happy families, it’s easier to be blindsighted by these essentially good things, by the good life. But if we stood blinking in the sun, startled and staring truly at our ability to live abundantly, starting freshly with that mind-boggling grace that changes everything, where would we go? How would we live?
How would we change? Who would we be?
Naturally, we would live in empowering understanding and humble gratitude - as if we really got a second chance, a second birth, a newly gained life… given through sacrifice, to be lived sacrificially.