In the middle of the passage Nancy just read, there’s a verse that cuts right to the heart of our faith. There are Christians who would say, Look. If we have to sum up our whole faith into a single sentence, this one would be right up there with John Three Sixteen. It’s Romans Chapter Five, Verse Eight: “But God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
This year during Lent, our Wednesday study examined the variety of stories that aim to explain how Jesus’s death was redemptive. The claim that Jesus died to save us is something you might see on a bumper sticker. You might hear Christians talk about it so matter-of-fact, as though it’s obvious, and doesn’t it make sense to you. You might hear Christians treat it like a deal-breaker, as though all that really matters is believing Jesus died for your sins.
More than a bumper sticker, or a no-brainer, or a deal-breaker, this idea is one piece in the whole story of our faith. Not every Christian tells the story the same way. For example: Did God plan for Jesus to get killed on the cross? Did God mean to sacrifice her firstborn son in order to redeem humanity? That’s one possibility.
Or could it be that Jesus’ death was a terrible mistake that made God tear his clothes in grief. But then after it happened, God came down and picked up the horror in his own two hands and made it into something beautiful.What if it became a sacrifice after-the-fact thanks to the witness of the early Christians and the story his followers kept telling and believing?
Look. Nobody’s asking us to sum up our whole faith into a single sentence. It’s a story of stories, and God is still telling them.
In the scripture, Paul is describing how we should live in response to being justified with God. Here the word “justified” means being brought into right relationship with God. This right relationship is our best hope; it is what we were made for. And if you were to ask Paul, he’d tell you this reconciliation is made possible by Jesus dying on the cross. There is no missing the power of sacrifice in the story of our Christian faith. It cuts right to the heart.
Simply put, sacrifice is the work of picking up something valuable in your own two hands, then giving it up, or giving it to, a greater purpose. Sacrifice is something we human people understand implicitly. For one thing, it is the work of our hands. For another thing, sacrifice is a kind of currency, and if there’s anything this world teaches, it’s how to use currency.
We understand what it is to have something valuable then give it up, or give it to, a greater hope. The trick is not losing sight of that hope, and it’s so easy to lose sight of the hope. See the hope of our faith is not the cross; it’s what God did with it.
With our own two hands, we human people make sacrifices; we keep doing this. With her own two hands, God picks up the horror and the hurt, then she makes it into something beautiful. God keeps loving the world like this.
What if we could too? What if we could join God in this work of healing and peacemaking? As though being in right relationship with God is our destiny. As though this forgiveness is what we were made for.
You might have heard this story before. There were two brothers —technically twins, but you’d never know it. During their own birth, they wrestled in the womb, each trying to be the first one born! After they grew up, there came a day when the older one was out hunting. The younger one was inside making stew. Once Esau (the older one) smelled the stew, all the hunger rumbled through him. “Give me some of that red stuff!” he grunted. “Okay,” said Jacob, “if you give me your birthright.” So he did.
Later their mother conspired with Jacob to run a con on the twins’ dying father. She helped Jacob dress up like Esau in order to fool her husband into giving Jacob his blessing. Now Jacob got the birthright and the blessing, while Esau got nothing. Esau vowed to kill Jacob, so their mother helped Jacob flee to live with her family in a different land.
Twenty years later, Jacob decided to return to his homeland along with his wives, his children, and his livestock. Jacob’s messengers come back saying that Esau is planning to meet Jacob with an army of four hundred men. So you can imagine. When Jacob hears this, it sends a chill through his blood.
The first thing he does is pray. The second thing he does is assemble a present to appease his brother — a huge collection of goats, ewes, and rams, camels and colts, cows, bulls, and donkeys. Maybe this is a sacrifice; it is definitely currency.
After ushering his wives and children across the water, Jacob was left alone. A man who looked like God wrestled with him all night until dawn. Could’ve been an angel. Could’ve been God. Whoever it was knocked Jacob’s hip out of joint, and Jacob would not let him go until he got a blessing.
Now the moment had come. With a blessed soul and a sore hip, Jacob looked up and saw Esau heading toward him with his army. You can tell what the story is planning —Esau is supposed to kill Jacob. You can tell what Jacob is planning —maybe Esau will accept this huge present and let me live. What nobody saw coming is what Esau did.
Jacob went out ahead of his wives and his children and he bowed his face to the ground. But Esau ran to meet him. Jacob had to get up. Esau wrapped his arms around him and kissed him. And Jacob wept. And Esau wept.
Who are all these people? What are these animals? asked Esau. He didn’t even want the present! Jacob looked at Esau and do you think he realized he had been wrestling him all night. When I look at you, I am seeing the face of God. Jacob said that to Esau!
I mean it’s Esau we’re talking about! This story is not about Jesus. It’s not about the father in the parable who rushes out to greet the prodigal son who finally came home. Of course that guy can forgive! This is Esau — hairy, hungry, easily-duped Esau. This is the guy who Jacob looked at —and saw God.
If Esau had something in him that allowed him to forgive his brother, there’s a frightening possibility that we might have this too.
There’s the vivid possibility that we might have the forgiveness of God in each of us, that we have the power to be makers of peace —not with all the world or all the nations, but with the person who hurt you who was not supposed to hurt you. You could forgive him! Not the terrorists, or the dictators, or the villains, I mean your own brother.
I can’t tell you that you have to do this. I can’t even tell you how to do this. All I can tell you is that whenever a person forgives another person, look at him for a minute and just see if you don’t see God.
Paul says it like this: “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled with God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” More than Jesus’s death is what God did with it, turning death into life. More than the sacrifice is the greater hope it is given for. And what if that hope is the mercy of God? And what if we have some of this mercy in us.
This is the weekend we honor the sacrifice of those who died serving our country. It’s a complicated holiday. Alongside patriotic celebration, there is grief. Where there is grief, there is guilt. Those feelings always manage to wrap around each other. But wherever there is grief and guilt, there is grace; grace is what grief can turn into.
It could be that those who died serving our country intended to give their lives as a sacrifice, or at least, they knew this was a possibility. It could be that we come along after-the-fact, and name their death as sacrifice, and change the trajectory of their legacy. Now we will not let their death be in vain. Instead we’ll tell the story of their lives being given to a greater purpose. Of course, then, it might be kind of on us to help bring about this greater hope in our world.
Something I have learned from Church of Peace is that Memorial Day is not about an abstract notion of patriotism or sacrifice. For people in this room, it is personal. We know actual people who have given their lives in service; we could tell you their names. We know that nobody’s life is summed up by a single sentence, not even if that sentence names a person’s rank or how she died.
Every life is a story of stories, and every sacrifice points toward a greater hope. And what if we could learn forgiveness from those who died? What if we could learn it from them…
I mean we already understand sacrifice. It’s picking up something valuable in my own two hands and giving it up or to a greater hope. And I don’t need all your stuff, says the LORD. Stop killing your firstborn —my firstborn. I don’t need your calves, or your rivers of oil, or your money. Just come home. I just want to restore our relationship, says God. There are tears on his face. I just want you.
God lives for the day when we will learn more than sacrifice. And you and I know. More than sacrifice is mercy. It is what we were made for. Amen.