An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Offering Sacrifice in Christian Worship

A sermon on Romans 12: 1-8 & Matthew 16:13-20 by Nathan Nettleton

Every now and then someone says something that sticks in your mind and works away at you over the years. I have an image that has stuck in my mind since my late teens, and it came from a sermon on a verse we heard from Romans earlier that read: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” The preacher said, “the trouble with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.” It really struck me and often still does. As much as I want to offer myself wholly and solely to God, on any given day I find that there were things I did that show that I quite clearly crawled back off the altar and acted without any reference at all to my prior commitment to God. I wrote a song at the time called “Crawling back on the altar again”, and although the song was rubbish, I still find the image helpful.

You could probably write a similar song based on the words from the reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel. “I’m calling you Messiah again,” or something like that. Because in a way it is a very similar thing. When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”, he is not just checking on whether we have memorised the traditional teachings of the church properly. He’s asking “Who am I to you?” “How do you relate to me?” And for us to answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is not a way of earning an elephant stamp on our test paper; it is to sign up to follow this Messiah and to reconstruct our lives on the basis of what we are seeing in him. Because to say that is to say, “You are the one in whom we see what being human is all about and what we were created to be. You are the one who sets the agenda for the whole project of our lives.” In fact it is to acknowledge the necessity of offering ourselves to him as living sacrifices.

This image of offering ourselves as living sacrifices is an image that comes up, with slightly different wording in our liturgy each week. In a few minutes time as we pray around the table, in one part of the prayer we will say: Made one with Christ, and thus one with each other, we lay before you these gifts of bread and wine, in token of our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, for here we offer and present to you ourselves, our bodies, minds and spirits, to be a holy and continuous sacrifice to you.

Part of the reason we say this each week, and come with our token gifts again and again, is precisely because we need to keep renewing this relationship. We need to acknowledge again that much of the time we have been living as though Jesus was not the Messiah and we had not offered and dedicated ourselves to him. We need to name Jesus as Messiah again, and put ourselves back on the altar again. In baptism we committed ourselves in trust to Jesus the Messiah, and offered ourselves to him completely. But Christians have long recognised that, although we are only baptised once, we need to continue renewing those commitments, and one of the ways the celebration of the Lord’s Table has long been understood is as an act of renewing and deepening and strengthening of those baptismal vows. We hear that in the invitation each week: “Come, because Jesus offers himself to you and you want to offer yourself in return.” Jesus continues to offer himself to us, and our continual offering of ourselves as living sacrifices is all one sacrifice, but one which we are still in the process of bringing to completion.

But I can’t say all that without acknowledging that the notion of sacrifice in Christian worship has been a matter of considerable controversy. It was certainly one of the issues of division at the time of the Reformation. On the one hand the church through the middle ages had described the Eucharist as a sacrifice, and even as a re-offering of Christ’s body on the altar; and on the other hand the protestant reformers strenuously rejected the notion of repeated or ongoing sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice is once and for all and there is no further sacrifice. Unfortunately, as so often happens, the two sides polarised and rejected the truth in what each other was saying. There were two main problems with rejecting any further notion of sacrifice. Firstly it comes naturally to us to want to give gifts to those we love, and any gift that costs us something is to that extent a sacrifice. Secondly, while the scriptures are clear that Jesus has fulfilled any need for a sacrifice to deal with sin, that is not and never was the only kind of sacrifice. This verse from Paul, and others that talk of such things as offering a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, clearly speak of us continuing to make sacrifice to our God.

In the old Jerusalem Temple, sacrifices were offered on the altar to God morning and evening every day. The sacrifice which Jesus is described as fulfilling occurred once a year, at Passover, and perhaps a case could be made for one other, also an annual one, on the Day of Atonement. There were lots of other sacrifices, some of which involved animals slaughtered on the altar, but many did not involve blood: offerings of incense and grain and wine. This concept of bringing material offerings to express ourselves to God is not that foreign to us – we do the same sort of thing to each other. You want to apologise for something so you go round with a bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers and a card. Someone does you a favour and you say thank you with a box of chocolates or a new CD or something. We all know the feeling of wanting to express ourselves with a gift.

We also know that if someone gives you a bottle of wine and says sorry for something, but then does exactly the same thing again tomorrow, we don’t think much of their apology. The gift only means something if it represents something real in the person who gives it. That’s why the old Hebrew Prophets said God hated the sacrifices and solemn festivals when the people offering them did not live in justice and mercy and humility.

And so we pray, “we lay before you these gifts (the bread and wine, our money in the offering bag) in token of our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” “In token of…” We’re saying that these are not the whole gift, they are just a token expression of it. These are just the box of chocolates when the real gift is our changed relationship. These are just the bit of the gift you can see – the rest of the gift you have to live.

So in our prayer we make that clear: for here we offer and present to you ourselves, our bodies, minds and spirits, to be a holy and continuous sacrifice to you. This is the real gift, the real sacrifice. Ourselves. Body, mind and spirit. Just as Paul says: Brothers and sisters, because of God’s great mercy I appeal to you: Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is your true spiritual worship. You notice that he says that offering your bodies is true spiritual worship. There is no separation here between the spiritual and the material. We are creatures of spirit and flesh and without an integration of spirit and flesh we would forfeit our wholeness and our worship would be dismembered. It is no accident that our prayers talk about remembering. You may not have noticed, but re-membering is the opposite of dis-membering. As we re-member, we are made whole again, as individuals and especially as a body, the body of Christ.

This understanding of the place of sacrifice in our worship is not, in the end, a denial of the truth that the reformers passed on to us. Christ’s sacrifice is once and for all, but we know that Christ’s sacrifice is not merely a past event. Christ continues to give himself to us and for us. Christ continues to suffer for the life of the world. As we grow more fully into the life of Christ, we are immersed more and more deeply into the self-sacrifice of Christ. Every time we come to this table we are offering ourselves again as living sacrifices to God. As we follow God’s Messiah and become like him, our sacrifice and Christ’s sacrifice are becoming one and the same. In the same passage we heard tonight, Paul goes on to speak of us all becoming one body in Christ. The broken bread and poured wine represent Christ’s bodily sacrifice for us, but as we are more fully immersed into the life and death of Christ, they also represent our sacrifice. At the table we give and receive what we are in order that we may become what we receive. We offer and present ourselves to God, body, mind and spirit, as living sacrifices, and in the mercy of the God who is making all things one, our sacrifice and the eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ are becoming one, one holy and continuous sacrifice; the body of Christ given for the life of the world.


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