Preacher Canon Robert Titley
We are moving through dangerous times. Quite how dangerous is not year clear. One country has annexed the territory of another for the first time in Europe since the Second World War; and the language of the Russian government – reserving the right to take ‘compatriots’ in Ukraine under its ‘protection’ – has echoes of Hitler on ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia seventy-six years ago.
In times like these language can become extreme, as when Jesus’ opponents see his patently good work in healing distress and attribute it to the work of the devil. Jesus’ reply is pretty trenchant, too: whoever is not with me is against me. For a moment, though, let us take a step back from that into tonight’s epistle.
The writer to the Ephesians describes the death of Christ as a sweet-smelling sacrifice. Sacrifice, however, does not smell too sweet to the modern nose. The idea of getting on terms with God by ritually killing an animal may seem so odd, so primitive, that the image may do nothing for you, or even be an anti-symbol. It is no coincidence that the term used in ancient times to describe the sort of burnt offering the writer has in mind now has a very different savour for us: the word is ‘holocaust’. And if ever we speak of sacrifice with approval, it is in the language of heroism, of self-sacrifice.
The pious Jew of Jesus’ day, however, as he sacrificed an animal in the Temple, might yet have had something in common with, say, the heroic fire-fighter risking her life to rescue someone from a blaze. Sacrifice means letting go of what is mine and making a gift of it. It is a statement that the receiver belongs in the same world as the giver. Giving something precious, giving yourself, even giving your life, these are increasingly costly demonstrations of the worth of another, of that person’s share, their stake, in the same world as you. Jesus, then, shows what we are worth in the sacrifice of his death. And the task of western leaders, as they consider sanctions against Moscow, is to judge how great a sacrifice is acceptable to show that Ukraine belongs within their world.
The opposite of sacrifice is to grab what is not mine and take possession of it, and the writer to the Ephesians lists some major kinds of grabbing: sexual greed, lust for money, and so on. He pictures two worlds, the world of gift and the world of possession, and (in a return to the extreme language of the gospel) he describes them as ‘light’ and ‘darkness’.
Our task here, in the Lord’s Supper, is to walk in the light. It is to let ourselves be drawn into Jesus’ sacrifice, into the world of costly giving and rich receiving which he shares within the life of God. In a few minutes we shall receive his life, all that he has to give us, in the forms of bread and wine. And then we in turn shall give, as we pray that we may offer our selves, our souls and bodies, to be ‘a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice.’
A reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice From the Prayer of Oblation in the Communion service of the Book of Common Prayer:
O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction. And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father almighty, world without end. Amen.