Sin and Sacrifice

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At the end of May, on Trinity Sunday, I preached at my church. My sermon passage was John 3, the story of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, including the most famous Bible verse of all time, about how God so loved the world. (You can listen to my sermon here, if you want.)

The entire emphasis of my sermon was on God’s love—how the love of each of the Persons of the Trinity is without measure and pours in and through the other Persons, and how that love overflows even the Godhead and pours into our lives.

Two weeks later, I learned that at least one man didn’t care for my sermon; he disagreed with it. I was bewildered. How could you disagree with a sermon about the infinite love of God?

Turns out what I see as love, he sees as horrifying. That the Father would “give” His Son to us strikes some people as abusive, I knew, and I tried to address that in my sermon, to show that it was in love and for love that Jesus came, but the fundamental issue remains: the incarnation, the crucifixion involved sacrifice, and that strikes this man as unnecessary. He’s a good person, he says. So why the sacrifice?

This isn’t a new thought. Back in my working days, one of my Jewish colleagues was telling me about the upcoming feast of Rosh Hashanah. “We’re supposed to confess our sins!” she said with a laugh. “My sins! Honestly! Can you think of any?”

I was baffled. Could she really not see that she was a sinner?

She couldn’t. Nor can the man who disliked my sermon. I’m beginning to see that my definition of sin is different from these folks’ definition. Their definition seems to be cultural—I’m no worse than most people, and better than some, therefore I’m not a sinner.

That is not me. Not even close. I have a very felt sense of my own sin. By sin, I mean Simone Weil’s definition: a turning of my face in the wrong direction.

I turn my face away from God every single day. Almost every minute of every day. I look away from the Divine Face of love, to gaze at other things (mostly myself). I do not live in the communion with Him for which I was created.

My fundamental sin is incurvatus in se, a turning inward, a collapsing in on myself. Like Adam and Eve, I hide myself from God in fear. I hide myself from myself. Perhaps I am lucky: knowing my own failings, it may be easier for me to cling to the cross, to bless it, instead of finding it a stumbling block.

To me, the love of God expressed in the cross of Jesus Christ is beautiful: arms stretched wide to embrace the world, Jesus embodies the very opposite of my tendency to curve inward. His posture is what we are all called to—the posture not of self-protection or self-promotion but of self-surrender.

And self-surrender is sacrifice. It cannot be anything else. When the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being—that was a sacrifice. Infinity wrapped in flesh! How could that be anything but sacrifice? Eternal Community willingly become a separate being, separated from communion with Himself? Sacrifice! And then, the final separation:

When people ran away from God, they lost God—it was what happened when they ran away. Not being close to God was like a punishment. Jesus was going to take that punishment. Jesus knew what that meant. He was going to lose his Father—and that, Jesus knew, would break His heart in two.

Sally Lloyd-Jones

I do not see how God could be God if He did less than everything, if He refused to share our experience to the last dreg. That God would pour out Himself into human form and then unto death and the final separation from Himself—how else would Infinite, Self-giving Love reveal infinite, self-giving love?

And what can we do in response? All He asks of us. Which is only this: to believe, to trust, to abide in His love. To keep our faces turned toward His.

 

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Earlier this month, I got to spend a week with Susan in her lovely town of 150-year-old brick and red stone buildings nestled between the rolling green hills of eastern Iowa and the banks of the Mississippi. While I was there we visited Sinsinawa, a Dominican monastery on the other side of the river in Wisconsin. We wandered the grounds, meandered through the cemetery, and ate an al fresco luncheon on a stone bench overlooking an old labyrinth.

After lunch, Susan wandered off to journal and take photographs, and I stayed to walk the labyrinth. I never really understood the purpose of a labyrinth—it looks cool, I admit, and Celtic, with all those seeming knots that really aren’t—but beyond the cool factor, I’d never given it much thought. This time, though, with humid Wisconsin air clinging to my skin and clothes, and the sun blazing out and then ducking bashfully behind the clouds, and the cardinals streaking past in red flight, and the dandelions and clover growing up among the old stones of the labyrinth’s path, I found myself pondering.

The goal of the labyrinth—at least for me—is to get to the center. This is the goal of my life, too—to reach the Center, the Source, the Beauty and Love that beats at the heart of all that is.

But when I looked down on the labyrinth from my perch on the stone bench, I saw that it was a circle, and the outside of the circle was double, with rays like those of the sun slanting between the two rims. All of life is like that—held within God—but whether or when or even if we reach the center is up to us. God will not force us to walk.

I entered the labyrinth, and at the first curving saw that only a narrow membrane of stone separated me from the center. I could simply step over the stone and arrive at the center. But I did not; that would be cheating, and there is no satisfaction in that. Besides, you cannot cheat God. The path must be walked. In the spiritual life, there are no shortcuts.

I realized later that though I felt close to the center there at the beginning, I was about as far from it as I could be. And I thought, how very like God to grace us with a felt sense of His nearness as we begin our journey—sweetness and light to send us on our way.

As I walked, I moved away from the center, then drew nearer, then moved away again, and I reflected that the Christ-life is like this: we feel closest to God (sometimes) when we are furthest away. And when we keep walking the path He puts before us, however far away we feel, we are, in actual fact, drawing ever nearer to Him.

I kept walking. I prayed, “Thy will be done.” Had I walked the labyrinth a few days later, I would have prayed, “Into Thy hands.” It comes to the same thing: trust, and surrender. Simple words, but their meaning makes my timid, rabbity heart quake. I said them anyway. I walked on.

And on. And on—and seemed to be moving ever further away from the center. At one point, I was walking the rim of the labyrinth, about as far away from the center as it was possible to be, and reflecting that the important thing is not how close I feel to God—after all, the whole of life is enfolded in Him. What matters is whether I am close to God. Every step of obedience, of faithfulness, draws me nearer to His heart, though I may feel light-years away.

I cannot rely on feelings, which are ephemeral as a cloud and fickle as the weather. I have to rely on faith. This is not to say that feelings are unimportant, only that they are irrelevant. How close I feel to the center of the labyrinth as I walk its rim is no indication of how close I actually am.

And at that precise moment—I am not making this up—I turned a corner and looked up and gave a little gasp, for there, directly before me, was the center of the labyrinth. Five steps, and I was in the center. I laughed out loud, for it was too perfect. Had I been writing a story instead of living my life, I could not have included this detail, for it would have smacked of improbability and authorial contrivance. But what can I say? It happened just like that, to my immense delight.

I stood in the center of the labyrinth, looking around me at the long, convoluted path I had just walked, at the apple trees lining the drive, at the wooded copse beyond a sun-dappled meadow, at the shining white stones in the graveyard, and I laughed at myself and quietly thanked God for this little parable, perfect right down to that final, wonderful turn and my gasp of surprised delight.

 

The Stories Are True

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It happens every once in awhile, and always it is unexpected.

Once, it happened in my kitchen while I was washing a bunch of rainbow chard. Another time, it was at a Taize service when we sang the name of Jesus over and over and over again. Still again, it happened when I beheld a bowl of creamy roses on the butcher block in my kitchen. Once, it was the crisply striped sleeve of my husband’s shirt hanging innocently on a hanger in our closet.

Madeleine L’Engle calls it kairos, when chronological time seems suspended and we glimpse eternity. Emily Starr called it the flash, the momentary parting of the veil between heaven and earth, when we see with a sense that is not physical, when we know with a knowing that transcends mere knowledge.

It is an encounter with Mystery, with Truth, with the ineffable Divine.

~

I stood in church, my brothers and sisters standing, too, all of us singing our praises. One song ended, another began, a song I have loved since we first started singing it two years ago.

Come broken and weary
Come battered and bruised
My Jesus makes all things new
All things new

The words washed over me as I sang, and toward the end, these words struck with particular force:

O hold on to the promise
The stories are true
That Jesus makes all things new

And then—the flash.

The world fell away, and I stood as if on a promontory. In the far distance, a fair city gleamed through mist. The land between that city and me lay fertile and green, a patchwork land of counterpane, and all the patches were stories, and every story pointed the way to the fair city. A whole, shimmering Reality unfolded before my gaze—and yet surrounded me, too—and I knew it was…Real.

I saw—truly saw—not just believed or surmised or accepted, but saw—that good stories matter, that they exist to point to God, to show us how to live, to reveal ourselves to us, and help us see that we are not alone.

All the stories that have most shaped me, the writers whose words have mattered most in my life—L.M. Montgomery and Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Goudge, George Eliot and the poet-king David, Asaph and the sons of Korah, Saints John and Luke and the Apostle Paul, Charles Sheldon and Sheldon Vanauken and Madeleine L’Engle, and so many others too numerous to count—I saw them all in one shining moment, saw how their words helped me to feel less alone, to realize that I am not special. And what a relief that was!

Oh, the gift of that sudden knowledge that I am not the outsider I have always felt myself to be, that my particular way of being in the world is not wholly new and therefore has been charted before. There are maps, blessed be God, and I don’t have to blunder through the wilderness of my being as if it were all new, uncharted territory. I have compatriots and kindred spirits to light my way and companion me through the dark places.

They surrounded me. Even as I stood above them, looking out from my mountaintop vista, they were beside me, even within me. I was not alone! The glorious company of the saints—real saints and fictional ones—marched before me through that land of counterpane, each of them bearing her own story to the fair city, a story that mattered beyond her story, that touched thousands of other stories beside and before and behind her. The stories were knit together, a patchwork of such beauty that tears swam in my eyes.

I stood, singing the words—hold on, rise up, awake!—and weeping for joy. The stories were real. They were true. I didn’t simply believe it. I knew it.

It was a strong knowing—a deep and abiding sense that the stories mattered, and that they mattered deeply, because we needed them desperately. We were starving in a paradise of plenty, dying of thirst in the midst of a freshwater sea, lost in a land that was charted and known.

In the silence after the song I almost shouted aloud, “The stories are true! They’re true! O friends, they’re true! For the love of God, take up and read!”

I didn’t, of course, because I’m a good Presbyterian, and we do things decently and in order. But sometimes, I wish I had.

I think people need to know. They need to know they’re not alone. They need to know the road they’re traveling has been traveled before. They need to know there are signposts to show the way, and inns where you can stop for a pint and a good night’s sleep, and friends for the journey. And that no matter how alone you feel, someone, somewhere, has felt that way before. And they’ve written a book about it.

~

Nine months have passed since I glimpsed this storied vista. Last week, we sang “All Things New” in church again, and though I had no moment of kairos this time, I remembered, vividly, the vision of nine months ago, and the longing came upon me again to shout from the mountains:

“The stories are true! They’re true! O friends, thanks be to God, they’re true!”


Photo by highlights 6, Creative Commons via Flickr. “All Things New” lyrics by Andrew Peterson; music by Andrew Peterson, Andy Gullahorn, and Ben Shive.

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