By Sheri Hostetler
During our communion litany, we say together a prayer that ends with this line: “Made one in Christ and one with each other, and one with all creation – we offer these gifts and with them ourselves.” There’s actually five additional words to this prayer — “and with them ourselves, a single, holy, living sacrifice.” Sometimes I take out those five words “a single, holy, living, sacrifice” and sometimes I don’t. I wonder how many of you notice this. Actually, sometimes I take those words out of my copy of the prayer and forget that I left it in your version of the prayer that’s in the order of worship. That’s not so bad. But sometimes, I take it out of your version and leave it in mine. That’s a bit more embarrassing, when I alone am saying “a single, holy, living…” Actually, the people that do the litany with me up here are usually reading off of my copy, so — ha ha.
Obviously, I have some ambivalence toward those words — a single, holy living sacrifice — words that come directly from our reading for today. Sometimes, I am put off by the violence of them and I just can’t use them. The image of an innocent lamb or goat being slaughtered on an altar? No, I do not want to bring that image into this space. The story where Abraham thinks God is asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and he ties him to the altar and has the knife above his head before God says, “Just kidding!’? No, thank you. I’ve always thought of that story as one of the Bible’s “texts of terror,” the feminist Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible’s phrase for those scripture stories that seem to divinely sanction violence.
Those words also take me back to a childhood in an Amish-Mennonite community where we had a copy of The Martyr’s Mirror on our bookshelf, an illustrated book that told — and showed — hundreds of horrible stories of Anabaptists being mutilated and tortured — sacrificed — for the sake of their radical faith. As a kid, I didn’t even want to look at the book on its shelf full on — I would kind of glance at it sideways when I went past it. It had this power radiating from it, a power I was both drawn to and repulsed by. Because I really, really did not want to die that way. I didn’t want to die at all, even if it was for my faith! I didn’t even want to be that uncomfortable for my faith. And yet, I grew up in a community that lifted up martyrdom, that lifted up that kind of ultimate sacrifice, as the pinnacle of the Christian life. And that sacrificial sense of faith permeated even the less dramatic aspects of our life — we were to daily sacrifice our will, our self, to God and to the community. I was a kid — 10 years old. I barely had a will, barely had a sense of self, and I was being asked to sacrifice it already. Yeah, I’m in therapy.
I recoiled from the idea of sacrifice for a long time. It’s probably one of the reasons that I turned away from the church and from Christianity for awhile. Gradually, I came to believe that God desires not the bloody sacrifice of our bodies or the involuntary sacrifice of our wills, but that God desires that we have abundant life. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance” I found a quote from the 2nd century church “father” Irenaeus that said: “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” Obviously, there had been other Christians in other times and places that didn’t see martyrdom as the pinnacle of the Christian life. Instead, they saw a fully alive human as the pinnacle.
And then, I had a child. I never felt more fully alive than when I was nursing Patrick for the 12th time that day, or when I was sacrificing much-needed sleep to comfort him in the middle of the night. I’m not saying it was always easy or that I sometimes wasn’t cranky about it, but I always, always felt that my sacrifice had meaning and purpose. I began to hear the words of our communion litany in a new way — “take, eat, this is my body given for you.” I had always been slightly uncomfortable with those words, with the bodily sacrifice they suggested. But that “bodily giving” was what I was now doing, on a daily basis and I felt not diminished but enlarged. I knew that I would, without thinking, give my body to protect Patrick’s, throw myself in front of a bus or a bullet, and in so doing, fulfill one of my life’s highest purposes — to protect and nurture and support his life. This experience changed the way I looked at images of Jesus on the cross — I could see not just another body tortured and twisted by the forces of death but someone who willingly gave the whole of themselves — body and spirit — to love.
We can’t understand what Paul is saying in this passage from Romans without getting that it is all about love. Paul has just spent 11 chapters prior to our passage for today laying out his theology of how the Gentile followers of Jesus who aren’t practicing Jews and the Jews who don’t accept Jesus as Messiah fit into God’s plan. What he’s trying to do here is quite complicated, for his day, and he does a lot of theological acrobatics. In the chapter just prior to our passage, he seems to first suggest that any Jew who does not accept the gospel — as he has — has been abandoned by God. But then, he can’t quite live with that — he is a Jew, after all, and he loves his people — so then he suggests that God has actually been deliberating causing Israel to reject Christ so that the gospel would then go to the Gentiles — so that someone like him would try to find greener pastures for the gospel message and end up preaching it to the Gentiles.
He ultimately ends up, at the end of chapter 11, in the place of mystery, praising the “inscrutable” wisdom of God, which is beyond human understanding. He has no idea how, but he insists that all of Israel will be saved, even if they don’t believe in Christ, and the Gentiles will be saved, even if they aren’t Jews. God made all of us disobedient, in different ways, he says, just so God can be merciful to us all in the same way. In the end, God is love and mercy, period.
Therefore (and here we find ourselves at our passage for today), Paul appeals to his sisters and brothers— because of the incredible mercy God has shown to all people — to let this Divine Love and Mercy transform them, permeate them, shape them. They are to offer up their whole selves to Divine Love and Mercy. Paul says “present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” and the Greek word for body means the whole self — body, soul and spirit. And he tells his sisters and brothers that their whole selves are “holy and acceptable” to God. Remember that in Biblical times, the animal sacrificed had to be perfect — whole, without blemish or spot. Paul is telling people that their whole selves are holy — whole, perfect, glorious.
As they offer their whole selves to Divine Love and Mercy, they will be transformed from the inside out. They will become nonconformists, a counter-cultural people, not conformed to the values of the world but conformed to the values of God. Their minds will be renewed. The Greek word for “mind” used here means “mindset” or “worldview.” Their whole perspective and worldview will be transformed as they are permeated and shaped by Divine Love and Mercy. People so shaped will be able to discern the will of God, Paul says. They will be able to discern what is “good and acceptable and perfect” — which really should be translated as mature. Good and acceptable and mature.
Paul then goes on to show what a transformed nonconformist looks like, over the course of the next several chapters. It’s a lot of things, but you can sum it all up by saying that the transformed nonconformist is one in intimate, loving, just relationship — with the Divine, with others and with creation. Or, to use the words from our communion litany, the transformed nonconformist is “one in Christ, one with each other, and one with all creation.” This is what sacrificing ourselves to Divine Love and Mercy results in. An intimacy and sense of oneness that fulfills our deepest desires, that makes us whole. So maybe being fully alive and sacrificing oneself aren’t mutually exclusive.
But, and this is a big qualification, this kind of sacrifice can only be chosen; it can never be coerced. We need to give consent. This kind of sacrifice can only be chosen by someone with a self or ego — someone with enough self-possession that they can choose to let go an ego need for the sake of something greater. This is the danger of preaching martyrdom and sacrifice to an 10-year-old. Before they have a self to give away, before they even know their ego needs, they are asked to relinquish them. Carl Jung says that “Sacrifice proves that you possess yourself, for it does not mean just letting yourself be passively taken; it is a conscious and deliberate self-surrender, which proves that you have full control of yourself, that is, of your ego…” We consciously and deliberately chose to surrender our ego to something bigger, something better. Jung called the self that chooses to override our ego, with its demands for conventional security and conventional success, the “Self” with a capital “s.” By sacrificing our little self, our ego, we gain our bigger Self, our inner divinity. In other words, those who lose their life for the sake of Christ will gain it. Those who lose their little ego for the sake of Divine Love will gain their Self, their inner divinity. How interesting that the root word of “sacrifice” means “holy” and the root word of “holy” means “whole.” When we sacrifice our ego, with all of its mundane desires, we make possible a life of full aliveness.
I think Martin Luther King Jr. is talking about this sacrifice of the ego when he says, in a sermon on this passage from Romans, that “Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.” In other words, this kind of sacrifice of our ego desires is necessary to do the work of justice. Daily, we sacrifice our ego desires for the sake of the greater calling of our soul and the Spirit of Life.
And how desperately does our world need warriors of soul and Spirit in these days? How desperately does our world need what King called a “dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists”? More than 60 years ago, King wrote words that seem like they were written for our time: “Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation (and climate change); dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and (humans) do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism.” The saving of our world from pending doom will come, he says, not through what he calls the “complacent adjustment of the conforming majority,” who live by the dictates of the individual egos, but through those willing to sacrifice their little self to be transformed nonconformists. “We need today,” he says, people “like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, when ordered by King Nebuchadnezzar to bow before a golden image, said in unequivocal terms, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us. But if no, we will not serve thy gods.”
He goes on… “Honesty impels me,” he says, “to admit that transformed nonconformity, which is always costly and never altogether comfortable, may mean walking through the valley of the shadow of suffering, losing a job, or having a six-year-old daughter ask, ‘Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?’ But we are gravely mistaken to think that Christianity protects us from the pain and agony of mortal existence. Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian, one must take up (the) cross… and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way that comes only through suffering.”
At their best, this is what my Mennonite community was trying to teach when they held up the martyrs as paragons of faith. I have some critiques about how they taught this to an 10-year-old girl, but as an adult, who possesses my self to the point that I can choose to sacrifice it, I am grateful for the gift of transformed nonconformity that I was given. May I, and we, choose to use this gift consciously and deliberately so that we become the fully alive people of God — a single, holy, living sacrifice. Amen.