Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 11th March 2012

11 March 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

I am using this series of Matins sermons this month to think about the meaning of the cross of Christ, and to look at some of the ways the Church has sought to understand how it brought salvation to human kind. Last week I tried to examine the problem to which the cross might be seen as the answer, the unease that seems to lie in so many areas of human life. That sermon is now on the Abbey's web-site as will this one and the rest of the series be. Today I want to think about one image that has often been associated with the cross, the notion of sacrifice.

There is a problem in seeing sacrifice as solution to any problem. Advocating sacrifice was part of the propaganda used to persuade huge numbers of young men to give their lives in the First World War. That experience of almost unbelievable slaughter and carnage: 60,000 British casualties on the first day of the battle of the Somme and nearly a million from all the forces involved killed in the whole battle, did not encourage a positive approach to notions of sacrifice and that undoubtedly affected some churchmen’s approach to the notion in the last century. But let us stand back from that bit of relatively recent history for a moment and look at what sacrifice might be about.

As a notion it has many dimensions, and some are frankly rather unappealing to the contemporary mind. The sacrificial system of the Jewish Temple, for example, where animals were killed for a variety of reasons in the hope that their death would in some way bring the believer closer to God is probably not a process that has a huge appeal in the minds of most people at least in the West today. Yet echoes of that are obviously there in the early church’s understanding of the death of Jesus. The author of the fourth gospel clearly tries to associate the death of Jesus with the death of the Passover lamb, which was part of the Jewish celebration of their escape from bondage in Egypt, and the early church certainly saw the cross as a ransom price to be paid to release human kind from its bondage to the devil. In the early centuries of the church there was a widespread assumption that demonic forces were at work in the world, and release from their power was seen to be vital. The notion of a ransom paid to the devil would have made far more sense against that background than in the intellectual world most of us live in today, where it seems frankly incredible.

It was an Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, St Anselm, who was to make a change in that. He offered the theory that the sacrifice of Jesus was one that was needed not to pay off the devil but rather to satisfy God in order that human beings could be forgiven. His view and those that flowed from it are sometimes called satisfaction theories; the death of Jesus satisfies God’s need for justice in order that forgiveness can be offered. There are sections of the Church still today for which such an approach is critical and I suppose its strength lies in its recognition of just how serious a matter sin is. If one thinks of sin not as the peccadilloes that cause some sensitive souls an unnecessary sense of guilt, but rather the real human sinfulness shown in such matters as the holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, or in the gross betrayal of trust or even the simple selfishness and self-centeredness that can cause grave damage to other people, then as a theory it has some power. Perhaps people caught up in such expressions of wickedness can find the notion that God has somehow paid the debt himself a release, although exactly how the debt can be paid by someone else, even Jesus himself, is not entirely clear. A rabbi was once asked by a former Nazi soldier if he, the rabbi, would forgive the soldier for his part in the holocaust. The rabbi replied that while he could forgive him personally he could not forgive him on behalf of all those who had been killed. One can see his point.

And that view of atonement that sees it as a satisfaction required by God has another objection; it almost makes God out to be a sort of monster, requiring the death of his Son in order to be able to forgive other people. There is no doubt that the notion of penal substitution, which is what that variation on the satisfaction theory is called, gives some people a great sense of release, but for others it frankly repels by the notion of God that it presents.

But one interesting variation on the theme has been provided by some more recent writers on the atonement. They believe that the religious metaphor of sacrifice suggested that sin is like a sort of pollution from which the whole human race needs to be cleansed, and sacrifice is the mechanism by which that cleansing takes place. The sacrifice is what the penitent has to offer by way of reparation for his or her wrong act, and the sacrifice of the cross is seen as the costly gift that paves the way for reparation and grace. But it is provided not because God needs it, but because we sinners need it. That certainly does redeem the notion of sacrifice from some of the more unacceptable elements of penal substitution theory, and it works for the Christian person in assuring them that somehow through the sacrifice of Christ he or she is forgiven and the damaging consequences of sin are somehow removed to pave the way for a new and better relationship with God.

But how does all of that relate to the unease and disquiet that I spoke of last week; unease in national life, in more domestic communities, or in the secrets of the individual heart and mind?

I think there can be no doubt that guilt can be a very destructive element in relationships, whether between individuals or within groups, and it can become a sort of self-fulfilling destructive power when it provokes a response of anger, blame, and then further guilt. Something that breaks the destructive cycle of claim and counter-claim, of blame and guilt, does have the capacity to bring healing and health in relationships, and the knowledge that whatever we may have done wrong we are really and deeply forgiven and loved by God can then provide the ground on which we can begin to build more honest and more forgiving relationships with others. Perhaps no one has put that better that Charles Wesley in his very well-known hymn ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ when he wrote:

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
he sets the prisoner free.

Liberation from guilt and blame when things go wrong, not only our own liberation from the guilt that we have, but the liberation we can offer to others who may have been equally caught up in their own guilt: that is liberation indeed.

It is, of course, far easier to see how that can be offered in the more immediate communities of which we are all a part than in a nation at large. But just think how different our society would be if newspapers sought to advocate understanding, forgiveness, and healing rather than the self-righteous blame and counter blame they so easily indulge in. Of course forgiveness cannot be offered cheaply. Some people do terrible things and without some measure of remorse it is very difficult to forgive. But forgiveness, understanding, and healing could, I believe, be a bit higher on the public agenda than they usually are. This is not just a private agenda for an ecclesiastical in-house; it provides an agenda for the communities of which we are a part, and the nations of which each of us is a part. And at a much more personal level I suggest it can also deal with that internal conflict that can so disrupt the life of a person’s psyche and imagination. Forgiveness, a deep and lasting forgiveness that provides the basis for a new clean start each day, is freedom indeed. And if that is what the sacrifice of the cross can achieve, then it has done its job.

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