"Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats" (Isaiah 1:10-11).
Today, on Passion Sunday, we enter the final two weeks of Lent, which the Church has named "Passiontide," or "The Season of the Passion." During these two weeks, the Church’s ancient Lenten course reaches its climax as we contemplate our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s dying for us on the cross. As much as it is humanly possible, and with the supernatural help of God’s grace, we are meant to let nothing in this world divert our attention from our Saviour’s Passion and death.
Just as his death on the cross was the door through which Jesus Christ had to walk in order to come to his glorious resurrection from the dead, we must pass through Christ’s passion and walk the way of the cross with him to enter into Easter, not just as a day of celebration, but as a complete way of life. This necessity explains the dual nature of today’s lesson, constituted by the collect, Epistle, Gospel, and lessons. We must recount the historical events of Christ’s Passion and then apply them to our own living.
In the Gospel, when our Lord says, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58), he claims for himself the "I AM" of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He declares that he is the God of the burning bush and of the commandments made man. Because Jesus of Nazareth is God, the Eternal Son of the Father in heaven, and because he is the Christ, the promised Messiah come to save the world, he must die. But he will not die by accident or by natural causes. He will die because he is rejected and despised by those who are the slaves of this fallen world, who will kill him so that he can offer his innocent Blood for the sins of the whole world.
On the day that our Lord declared himself as the God of Abraham, his enemies sought to kill him by stoning, declaring his Truth a blasphemy. But this was not the time and that was not the manner of the death he had accepted as our Saviour, according to the prophecies that had revealed his death in the Scriptures. He hid himself from his enemies that day, which we remember by covering the crosses in our churches from now until Easter. But that covering also recalls for us the death sentence under which he lived until it was executed upon him so terribly at Calvary.
Today’s Epistle leaves no doubt about the significance of that death at Calvary. All of the sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament had a single purpose: to point to Jesus Christ on the cross, whose one sacrifice of himself, once offered, he took into the holiest place of all—the presence of his Father in heaven. Jesus Christ on the cross is not only a sacrificial victim, he is the one and only High Priest who, raised from the dead, was able to offer the sacrifice of his own Body and Blood for our redemption.
Jesus Christ’s one sacrifice of himself, offered for the remission of the sins of the whole world, means that there is no more need for sin offerings. The sacrificial ordinances of the Old Testament regarding animal sacrifices for sin are done away because their purpose is accomplished. The one, true, all-sufficient sacrifice has been offered forever, and so the author of Hebrews can ask:
For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14).
The answer, of course, is that the Blood of Christ can do (and for the faithful has done) what no animal sacrifice could do—cleanse us forever from our sins and give us a new and eternal life in God’s fellowship and service. This question and answer, moreover, are absolutely necessary, if we are going to understand today’s Old and New Testament Lessons, and to learn from them how we should live a new life in Jesus Christ.
The prophecy that lies at the heart of every blood sacrifice is this—sin is death, and the only thing that can take sin away is life. Think of the first three sins recorded in the Bible. The sin of Adam and Eve brought death into the world for the whole human race. Their son Cain offered a false sacrifice that did not appeal to God in heaven for a new life out of death but attempted to tip God with his produce, as if God were a beggar, dependent on mankind to be fed. When God refused Cain’s false sacrifice, but accepted his brother Abel’s humble sacrifice of the blood of his lambs, Cain killed Abel, just as the Cains of another generation would crucify the holy Lamb of God who offered his life for the life of the world.
God does not need sacrifices, but the fallen human race needs life. The only true sacrifices are those that cry out for mercy, that declare that a life squandered in sin can only be replaced by another life that only God can give. The righteous ancient sacrifices said, "I am as dead as this animal without you, O Lord. I owe you a debt of life which I cannot repay on my own." The sacrifice of Jesus Christ perfected these sacrifices by saying, "O Father, I offer my life for the redemption of the world, paying with my own Blood the price that the blood of animals or of sinful men could never pay to you. I offer my life to replace the life that mankind has lost in sin, so that those who live in me will live forever, together with you and the Holy Ghost."
And while we do not offer sacrifice for sin today, our Lord having covered all our sins with his own Blood, we do offer what we call in our Prayer Book "sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving" (see Heb. 13:15 and Romans 12:1). By these sacrifices we say, "We thank you, Father, for giving us a Saviour and a new life that we did not deserve and could not obtain on our own. We offer our own lives, then, the new lives that you have given us, not as a sacrifice for sin, but out of gratitude for our salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, and to submit ourselves to you as your loving children by adoption and grace."
This is the righteous sacrifice of the New Testament, but whether we are speaking of the New Testament or the Old, the alternative to sacrifices of repentance, obedience, and love are almost too awful to ponder. We heard God, through the Prophet Isaiah, call the Israelites who only went through the motions of religion and who thought of their sacrifices as bribes to God "the rulers of Sodom" and the "people of Gomorrah." Thus, any sin unrepented, any part of our life, work, or worship that we will not allow to be washed with the Blood of the Lamb of God, anything that we do not offer to God in praise and thanksgiving makes us just as worthy of destruction and just as repulsive to a Holy God as the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But now that Jesus Christ had died for our sins, such degradation and destruction are never necessary. We can turn to our Lord Jesus Christ at any time for forgiveness, as long as we are willing to accept with that forgiveness the grace to become the children of God that we ought to be. And if we do belong to Christ, and we are the children of God, we should expect the same hatred from this world that Jesus Christ and all the righteous have experienced since the Fall itself. St. Peter calls this hatred in today’s New Testament Lesson a "fiery trial," which we can only sustain if we remain under Christ’s protection. In fact, we are to rejoice if we suffer for belonging to Christ: "If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you" (1 Peter 4:14).
Isaiah wrote, on behalf of God, "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil" (1:16). Thus, every consideration of our living a good life in this world, and an eternal life in the world to come, must lead us back to Jesus Christ on the cross. We are washed in his Blood, and we are washed in the water of Baptism that represents our entry into his death and our promise of sharing his resurrection. It is only this washing that allows us to cease to do evil and to live as we should.
Therefore, when we contemplate the death of Jesus Christ in this Passiontide, we are also contemplating our life. The more of Christ’s Passion that we share with him, the more life that will be in us. And the best possible use of the next two weeks is that we should become so full of the death of Jesus Christ that each of us will also find ourselves overflowing with the new life that he gives by this one perfect sacrifice of himself.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne