Psalm 145 & Hebrews 13: 15-16
Sixth Sunday in Eastertide/ 29th May 2011/ Commitment Sunday
Sacrifice: it’s a difficult word. What does it really mean? It’s been bandied about around here quite a bit for the last four months or so. We’ve seen it primarily in conjunction with our Embracing the Vision campaign. You’ve seen the prayer in the bulletin for weeks: “Help me discern a meaningful, three-year sacrifice that I might make to the capital campaign.” It’s the word our RSI consultants encourage us to use. The commitments we make today are viewed as a kind of sacrifice offered to God.
It’s still a difficult word. It doesn’t come rolling off our tongues with affection and joy, does it? It’s not a word we hear much about around this church. It’s not part of my theological vocabulary; it’s not at the center of our ecclesial vocabulary; nor is it part of our national or cultural vocabularies. There’s something odd about interjecting the word “sacrifice” into our common life that might feel unsettling. It’s a difficult concept. I’ve heard this, sensed this. It’s come up in discussion on Sunday mornings in adult education, on Thursday mornings in Bible study, in the leadership planning discussions. There’s something about this word that doesn’t quite sit well with us. Maybe it should. Maybe in our ecclesial life we need to be talking more about sacrifice; in our theological reflections, in mission and ministry maybe we’re missing out on something that is central to other worshipping communities, other Christians. I’m not sure.
Today, we are offering to God a three-year financial commitment to eradicate our debt and strengthen mission, a sacrificial gift in which we are asked to give up something of value and give it over to God for the sake of this campaign.
To give up…that’s often how we view the meaning of the word. To go without… What other words come to mind when we hear sacrifice: pain, suffering, belt-tightening, deprivation, death, priest, blood, victim, throwing victims into volcanoes, maybe the cross. For the most part, we have negative associations with the word. Yes, the cross, in the end, becomes a symbol of something positive, but something horrific had to take place on it first. It’s not a word that makes our hearts sing, is it?
So we have to be honest about our associations with this word, what it means in our world and what it meant in ancient times and knowing the difference.
After spending ten days in Turkey and Greece, immersed in the ancient Greco-Roman world, visiting ancient temples to the gods – Diana and Athena, Apollo and Zeus, even the Roman emperors as gods—we were never far from the world of sacrifice. Every god required a temple, every temple an altar, every altar a sacrifice conducted by a priest or priests. Some of us took an excursion to the ancient Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete. Dating from the 2nd millennium B. C. (before the Greeks), the Minoans worshipped the bull and sacrificed countless bulls in their temples. The Greeks adopted the same liturgy, as did the Romans. The Romans slaughtered bulls and scattered the blood over their altars. In the Ara Pacis in Rome, a temple built by Caesar Augustus (28 BC-14 AD) to give thanks for the peace of the empire during his reign, there is a carving of a religious procession led by a bull about to be slaughtered.
In Athens, we visited the recently-opened Acropolis museum, becoming one of the finest museums in the world. As you make your way up to the first floor on your left and right behind glass on shelves are hundreds of votives—little ceramic statues presented to the goddess Athena, unearthed on the Acropolis. These are ancient offerings to the gods.
Several years ago a bulldozer broke ground on a development near Jamnia (Javneh) in Israel. As is the case throughout Israel, dig just a little below the surface and you’ll run into the past. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were brought in and quickly realized they stumbled upon the storehouse of an ancient Philistine temple. In the storehouse were hundreds of votives, statues, gifts offered to the Philistine gods, offered as a kind of sacrifice or gift to the gods. In time the temples were so full of gifts that they need to be removed, placed in a storehouse, to make room for more offerings, for more sacrifices to the deities
All of this is foreign to us. We don’t understand how killing a goat or a bull has the power to curry God’s favor or bring about healing or mercy. To be honest, there are plenty of Christians who have difficulty viewing the cross as a sacrifice, of God requiring the death of his Son in order to be merciful. Ritual sacrifice has been found in virtually every human civilization. It’s a practice found virtually everywhere in ancient religion—in just about every religion of the ancient world. Sacrifice is not part of our faith today. When we study scripture and try to make sense of sacrifice in the Bible, especially in Leviticus and also here in Hebrews, it really makes no sense to us. We might guess at what it all meant in the past, but we are sure it means nothing now. In our sophistication, we think it was a kind of “protoscience,” that is, “an illusory means to manipulate the gods or nature,” as a kind of “deluded technology.” The use of sacrifice has been replaced by science and knowledge. Some would say sacrifice is extinct. “We do not kill persons or goats to avert plagues; we get immunizations.” It’s a thing of the past, and, to some extent, it is. But then what do we do with passages in scripture that call for offerings, for sacrifices in capital campaigns? Do we take them literally? Or are they simply metaphors?
Sure, we still use the word. To give up, to go without…this is the way of parenthood, isn’t it? Parents make sacrifices for their children all the time. On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember the women and men who made the “ultimate sacrifice,” who gave up their lives for their country, to go without so that others might know liberty and liberation. It’s a kind of sacrifice very few of us can even begin to understand or fathom. It’s a devotion to something other, higher than oneself that one is willing to give one’s life to. That’s how we talk about sacrifice today. Even here, although noble and laudable, we know that it’s associated with pain, with suffering, and maybe even death.
It’s difficult getting around such connotations. But I think we must if we are going to make sense of how scripture, especially the New Testament understands this word.
First, we would be well to remember that the etymology of sacrifice did not originally mean to go without or to give up. It means, literally, to make holy, to make something sacred. The act of making something holy means that it is therefore acceptable and worthy to be received by a God who is holy.
Second, we need to remember that the ancients believed that when you gave your gift to the god—a holy gift—part of you went with it. You were in what you offered. The gift allowed you to participate in the power and presence of the god and the god to connect with you. If you took something ordinary and ritually, liturgically set it aside as holy (which is what the word holy means, to be set apart), and then offered it to a god, then the gift carried a part of you toward the god. They participated in the power of the god through the gift. To make a sacrifice means to make something fit for a god, worthy of god.
Now in Old Testament, there is a long-running argument between those who, on the one hand, believed the center of the worship life of Israel was in the temple, in the sacrifices and offerings of the priests and those, on the other, who felt that Yahweh despised such offerings, the sacrifice of goats and bulls like the other gods; what mattered was the offering one made with one’s heart and with one’s life, the offering of justice for all God’s people. The prophet Hosea, for example, channels God’s anger and asks, “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? …For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6: 4, 6). Yahweh doesn’t want burnt offerings and dead goats, or thousands of rams, or any other gift than this: what does the Yahweh require of you, “but to do justice and to love kindness; and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6: 6-8).
In the New Testament, everything changes—Christianity is critical of sacrifices within Judaism (which is really what the epistle to the Hebrews is getting at) and condemns the sacrificial practices of the Greco-Roman world. In fact, it might come as a surprise, as it was to me this week, that the language of sacrifice and the priesthood are never applied to Christian worship in the New Testament, never used to describe the cultic life of early Christians. When words like sacrifice and priesthood are used they refer to Jewish and Gentile practices or they refer to the death of Jesus or a life of service or, finally, in its use here in Hebrews, as a metaphor for Christian faith and obedience.  The New Testament writers seem to distance themselves from the cultic, religious life of the Jewish and pagan world, to show a different way.
For the author of Hebrews there is no more need for priests in the temple, no need of sacrifices. Christ as the great high priest has given his life and because of this act there is no more need for the shedding of blood and attempts to curry favor with God. When Christians gather for worship the only sacrifice we are called to make is a new kind of sacrifice or offering—and not just the priests, everyone— a sacrifice of praise. Praise that is sacrifice—that is, made holy—and therefore worthy of a God who is holy. Praise that is sacrifice—that is, made holy—and offered to God. Our praise offered up to God, praise that participates in and with God (like psalm 145), that shares in God’s glory, praise that mediates back to us a sense of God’s glory and holiness and love.
Maybe, sacrifice is less about what we give up or do without as it is about all the ways that we offer our lives, our resources, our gifts, our emotions, our intellects, our experiences, set them apart and then give them over to God, most profoundly in praise, pure effusive, endless and ever-flowing praise. God works and connects through us, in what we offer—and what we offer changes us. When we praise this way, when we offer ourselves to God in this way, we are changed, the church is changed, and the world is changed.
As we know, the Embracing the Vision campaign is about more than dollars and debt. It includes these, of course. But it’s really about our level of commitment. These are our sacrifices of praise that will change us as God works through what we offer. What we offer will open new possibilities for us, new doorways to service and ministry.
The sacrifices we offer in this campaign are really expressions of our praise to God, expressions of grace and gratitude, expressions of what the power of God is doing in us, demonstrations that we are participating in the very power and presence of the living Christ—to whom be all praise in the church and in the world, now and forever. Thanks be to God!
 “Philistine Cult Stands,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2011, 55-60.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 234.