On Sacrifice

Posted on: May 10, 2021, by :

A reflection for ANZAC Day at  he Avenue Church of Christ, 25th April 2021

The conjunction in 2021 of ANZAC Day and the fourth Sunday in Easter, with its ‘Good Shepherd’ theme (arising from the lectionary gospel reading, John 10:11-18 which tells of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep), seems to mandate a focus on the nature of sacrifice.  ANZAC Day marks the sacrifice of those who give their lives, or perhaps a chunk of their lives, in military service.  And the Good Shepherd points to Jesus, whose ‘sacrifice’ on the cross has been one of the foundational motifs of Christian theology.  So, sacrifice it is.

But the theology of sacrifice has had a bad rap.  It has been seriously misunderstood and misrepresented, especially in evangelical Christian circles.  So today, drawing on both the ANZAC story and the gospel story, I want to invite you into a reflection on the nature of sacrifice that might point in a subtly different direction to the traditional understanding.  I hope you enjoy the journey.

Something important before we get into that: each week in our gatherings we acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land on which we meet, not as a mere ritual, but as a genuine expression of our appreciation for their care of the land and their accrued wisdom.  On this ANZAC Day we want also to recognise that many indigenous people have served side by side with people of European extraction in the armed services, and our acknowledgement of country thus includes our gratitude to them.  We are grateful to be able to meet on the land of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation, and we pay our respect to their elders past, present and emerging.

What picture is conjured in your mind by the term ‘shepherd’?  If it’s the typical Australian image then it is probably one or more people, on horses or dirt bikes, ‘driving’ or pushing a mob of sheep across dusty fields, dogs circling, harassing any sheep who dares to separate from the mob.  It’s a noisy, driven, chaotic process.  But a person in Galilee in the time of Jesus (perhaps still today) would have a very different image in mind: a person leading a small flock of sheep, speaking gently, calling them to follow, calling them by name, the shepherd’s presence giving the sheep a sense of security, comfort and peace. 

It’s a very different picture, a very different understanding of the role of shepherd, and it makes a huge difference to the way we might read and understand the story of the ‘good shepherd’ from the Fourth Gospel.  For example, the phrase ’lay down my life’ (John 10:15) probably conjures up images of violent death, of irrational sacrifice, perhaps martyrdom.  But the meaning behind the Greek words that are translated ‘lay down my life’ does not necessarily imply death at all.  It conveys a sense of devotion, of ‘giving my all’, of putting my whole being, my heart, into the task (in this case, shepherding the flock).  The good shepherd may be prepared to die for the sake of the sheep in their care, but sacrificial death is not the only intent of the phrase ‘lay down my life’. 

Of course, we tend to read it with hindsight as a reference to the ‘sacrificial death’ of Jesus on the cross.  But if Jesus did say these words, that could hardly have been his expectation or implied meaning when he spoke them.  The death of Jesus as a sacrifice (to appease the ‘wrath’ of God) did not emerge in Christian theology until perhaps the fourth century CE.  And yet it colours the way we read the words of Jesus and the gospel stories because it has become a major motif in the Christian faith.

When you hear the word ‘sacrifice’ how do you feel?  Does it evoke positive feelings (like when you hear the word ‘party’ or ‘adventure’ or ‘discount’)?  Or does it evoke more negative feelings (like when you hear the word ‘traffic’ or ‘hard work’ or ‘pain’)?

My guess is negativity wins out – the idea of sacrificing something, of giving something up, does not have much appeal in contemporary life. In fact, in religion it’s often associated with the radical fringe who do reckless or violent things in the name of their faith – the martyr culture that more recently has become associated with the radical edge of the Muslim faith, but which also has a strong history in the Christian tradition.

But the true meaning of ‘sacrifice’, at least as it’s used in the New Testament, including in this ‘good shepherd’ passage, is quite different.  The clue to the deeper meaning is evident in the Greek word that we translate as ‘sacrifice’, the word ‘thusia’ . You’ll recognize it as the core syllable at the heart of the word ‘enthusiasm’,  which suggests that the gospel meaning of the word ‘sacrifice’ may have more to do with the positive qualities of passion and fervor, a sort of fire in the gut, than it does with the negative associations of pain and suffering.

Again, in the history of the Church, sacrifice has been associated with ‘giving up’ things we enjoy (as in Lent), or perhaps paying a price we’d rather not pay for the sake of our faith, on the basis that some ‘sacrifice’ is warranted as ‘punishment’ for our sins. 

But sacrifice is not really about self-deprecation or self-denial.  Rather, it’s about being prepared to give yourself completely and willingly – whole-heartedly if you like – to a cause you consider worthy.  Sacrifice is thus life-giving, not life-denying: life-giving for the person making the ‘sacrifice’ and life-giving for the community that benefits from it.

You can see how this understanding sheds a different light on the nature of ‘sacrifice’ as it is used in the gospel stories.  It’s not about violent, unjust death.  It’s not about ‘someone has to die for this’.  Rather, it’s about willing devotion to a cause, or a community, that seeks life (not death) for all people.  Read this story of the Good Shepherd with that perspective and you hear a very different teaching from Jesus.

Actually, we are quite familiar with this application of the concept of sacrifice – we see it at work all the time:

* it’s the underlying motif of the ANZAC celebration – sure it is focused around those who literally ‘gave their lives’ in times of war, but it incorporates all those who willingly serve – who give their lives metaphorically – for the sake of the community they seek to protect.

* it also reflected in the simple act of being the one who bothers, or dares, to pick up someone else’s rubbish on the beach or in the street, or who stops to enquire after the welfare of the person who seems upset, or who takes time to make a call to someone who is lonely or struggling … … all those little, unnoticed acts of self-sacrifice, expressed as a sort of bravery to do what we feel to do, even though it might cost us something – to speak up when silence might be easier, or to step up when stepping back might be safer.

* it is reflected, too, in the actions of those who work in the service of others – on mission fields, in soup kitchens, in women’s refuges, in community service of all kinds.  Wherever people choose to put themselves out for the sake of others, the gospel call to sacrifice, to ‘laying down one’s life’ is being played out.

* dare I say it, but it’s reflected in the words of Nathan Buckley who, asked whether he is anxious about the extension of his contract, responded by saying he will be comfortable with ‘whatever is in the best interests of the club’.

* and, of course, it is evident in the generosity of people who give willingly of their time and money to support causes such as the ANZAC Day Appeal, or the Good Friday Appeal, or the Graeme Blair Memorial Fund for ALMS.

All these ‘sacrifices’ are not made begrudgingly or under coercion – they are made willingly, freely, generously, because we believe the cause, the effort, is worth it.  We probably don’t even count it as a sacrifice – it’s just what we do – but those sacrifices are exactly what Jesus is pointing to as the way to life for us and for those we serve.

As mentioned previously, sacrifice of this nature really is life-giving not life-denying: it is satisfying and fulfilling for the person making the sacrifice, and it is a source of delight and sustenance for the recipient. Win-win if you like.

I don’t think it is too long a stretch to suggest that it is sacrifice of this nature that Jesus proposes as the way to salvation for the world. Significantly, it is also the theology behind the Micah passage has been incorporated into the HeartWell Community mission statement: Will I come before the Lord with sacrifices, with burnt offerings? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? No!  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  [Micah 6:8]

That’s the deep meaning of true sacrifice, and its practice can change – redeem, restore, renew – the world in which we live.

David Brooker

25th April 2021

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