Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No More Sacrifices - the God of Easter and the Death of Death

Sermon for Easter Morning
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

"If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."

You have died. You have been raised. Your life is hidden with Christ. You are thus dead to Death and it's power. You are free.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus, Death itself was mortally wounded. Jesus’ death is the death of Death. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen, wrote a book called The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. In the book, John Owen unfolds what it means for us to believe that in the death of Christ the power of Death has been emptied. Death has been emptied of its power over us. The great Anglican poet, John Donne, wrote in his poem Death Be Not Proud a summary of how Christians now live in the light of death because death no longer has power over us. He wrote,“Death be not proud. Though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow die not, poor death. Nor yet canst thou kill me.” The poem ends with, “One short sleep past, we awake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.”

Because we are united with Christ’s death, we too are dead to the power of Death and we are free. Because we know that our life is hidden in the one whose life is more powerful than Death, we are free. Because we know that Christ has hold of us - and Christ will not let go - we are free. We are free from the power of Sin and Death and the Devil. They have no ultimate claim on us. Christ has proven the one sufficient sacrifice. Therefore, the only sacrifice we need to offer God is our own broken spirit and broken, contrite heart and the living sacrifice of love for one another and for God.

Because that is the only sacrifice and worship we need to offer, we need not sacrifice falsely as humans again and again have been inclined to do. In our attempts to appease the powers of Death and suffering, humans have all too often sought to sacrifice others that we might gain some security from the powers of Death.

The idea has a powerful hold on the human imagination. We see it in mythology in the idea that if you sacrifice a virgin to the dragon, perhaps the dragon – a symbol of Death – will not burn and destroy the village. Or, the legends of tossing a virgin (why is it always a young virgin?) into the volcano to appease the gods of the volcano.

But it’s not just human mythology. The hold that idea has on us has been acted out in history. In the Old Testament, time and again God tells Israel, “Do not sacrifice your children the way your neighbors do". The ancient Carthaginians tossed their children into the sacred fire, hoping that in doing so they might appease the gods and buy some time against the Romans. The ancient Aztecs carved out the hearts of their sacrificial victims to feed the gods and to buy themselves some security, making a contract with Death.

But we need to beware lest we pat ourselves on the back and say, “We don’t sacrifice people. We don’t carve out their hearts on some sacrificial altar or toss people into the fire.” I think, if we are honest with ourselves, we need to acknowledge that all too often we have indeed offered up sacrificial victims for our own security and way of life, hoping to stave off the power of Death.

We sacrifice young people when they are asked to offer life and limb in battle on our behalf.

We sacrifice innocent people who are killed in our wars. Estimates in the current war(s) suggest that some 50 to 100 thousand innocent Iraqis and Afghanistanis have just happened to get in the way of our sense of security. We call it collateral damage, but it is human sacrifice for our security.

We sacrifice criminals, hoping that if we kill the killers we might feel a bit more safe. If that worked, Texas would be the safest state in the Union. Even if it worked, we would have to ask ourselves if that sacrifice is the kind of sacrifice we want to offer - especially given the evidence that many truly innocent people have eneded up on death row.

We sacrifice the unwelcome intruder of the womb in abortion.

Whatever its hoped for promise, embryonic stem cell research is the sacrifice of life in order to stave off Death for some others.

More subtley, perhaps, we sacrifice others in an economic system in whch the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and whole parts of the world suffer so the status quo can be maintained.

There is another way, ironically, in which we sometimes worship death. We prove ourselves to fear Death more than we trust the God of life. We worship Death when we make death the one bad thing, the one thing that must be resisted and put off at all cost. We go to extraordinary lengths to make life keep going after its time. I think the Anglican bishops who gathered in Lambeth in 1998 made a helpful distinction. To help someone die, or to cause someone to die, even to remove suffering, is to collude with the powers of death. But given modern technology to extend life indefinitely through artificial means is not the same thing. It is no less “playing God” to keep someone alive by extraordinary means than to let them die by withholding or withdrawing such means. And the time comes, if we know our life is now hidden with Christ in God, when we can, with peace, say, “Enough is enough. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us or to our loved ones.”

All such recourse to violence against others or ourselves is a false sacrifice and is a particpation in the way of this world which is death and not the Spirit of Jesus Christ which is life and peace (Romans 8:6). But, if Christ has made the one sufficient sacrifice, then we can take shelter at the foot of his cross and lay down our hammer and nails. And we can learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13)

Christians who know that the death of Christ was indeed the death of Death are freed from the fear of Death and the myriad ways humans have sought to appease its power. Indeed, Athanasius, the early Christian theologian, claimed that Christians laugh at Death because we know it has been defanged. We know that it has been emptied of its power. We worship the one who was crucified yet lives. Even, though, this side of the kingdom of God we all die; we know that Death has no real power over us. We worship the crucified and risen Lord, the one who has defeated Death, the one in whose life our life is hid. We need not fear or worship the power of Death and we ought not sacrifice others to that fear. Because we know that Christ, crucified and risen, has defeated the power of Death, we need not sacrifice the life of others to protect our own life. The death of Christ was the death of Death. Our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. And we are free.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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