Hebrews 13: 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
They did not mean for a church to start so quickly. The plan for Anne Garber and Gail Wiebe, the first Mennonite linguists among the Senufo people of Burkina Faso, West Africa, was first to learn their head-crackingly complex, multi-tonal language, get it into writing, and then start translating the Bible. Then, ideally, a home-grown church would start with a Bible already in their own language. But Anne and Gail had only just begun trying out the first few Bible passages in Senufo, when some Senufo people said to them, “We believe in this Jesus who sent you here, and something has happened to us. Does that mean we’re Christians now? If so, What’s next? Can you baptize us?”
After their baptism and the first worship services in Senufo, the next question for the missionaries was, “What sacrifices does God require of us? Of a cow? Of a chicken?”
That God might ask of us a cow or a chicken may strike us, in 21st Century North America, as rather odd. But it makes perfect sense when you consider how important sacrifices are all over West Africa, and not only among the Senufo. The community in which they live traditionally includes family, friends, relatives and neighbors, of course, but also all sorts of other beings, like the spirits of certain groves and trees, hilltops, rocky outcrops, streams and waterfalls, farmlands, as well as the spirits of dead ancestors, and the spirits of those waiting to be born. Honoring all these beings, visible and invisible, keeps peace and harmony among them. And there is no showing honor without some sort of sacrifice. The sacrifice might be as simple as the time and effort you make to greet your neighbors and relatives first thing in the morning. The next sacrifice up is food. When you cook dinner at night, you might reserve a little bit in a pot set to the side, in case a visitor shows up. People would pour out a little of their millet drink or their tea on the ground as a sacrificial offering to the spirits.
But as one of their proverbs puts it, “Even the teeth and the tongue don’t always get along.” If you have broken some taboo, or neglected a ceremony, then a sacrifice to honor the offended ancestor or spirits can also restore the peace. The bigger the offense, the bigger, more costly should be your sacrifice, from a chicken, to a lamb, to a goat, or a cow. There were even rumors and memories of the rare human sacrifice.
For the new Senufo Christians, the sacrificial death of the sinless Lamb of God on the cross of Calvary, and the fact that the supreme God himself offered this sacrifice to restore harmony in Creation, struck them like lightning. They understood immediately what C.S. Lewis called, in The Chronicles of Narnia “the Deep Magic from before creation.” Aslan the lion put it this way: “When a willing victim who had committed no treachery willingly sacrificed himself in a traitor’s stead… even death itself would start working backwards.” For the Senufo know intimately that life costs life. Meat, for example, does not come to them in pretty cellophane packages at the supermarket. From a lamb’s birth, through its raising, to its slaughter and its butchering and sharing among friends and family, everyone learns, graphically, intimately, how everyone and everything lives by the sacrificial surrender of life by something, or someone else. A scarlet thread of sacrifice is woven into the very fabric of life.
That’s why the new Senufo Christians wanted to know what sacrifices God asks of us in return for the sacrifice he made on our behalf? What sacrifices remain to us as Christians?
If that question still strikes us in the Western world as totally foreign, maybe we don’t recognize our own forms of sacrifice. Like war. So let’s not write the Senufo worldview off as just savage, barbaric, or backwards, compared to the Western worldview. Western, modern forms of ritual sacrifice are harder to recognize for the very fact of being ours. And they can be infinitely more costly and less constructive than that of a chicken or a cow.
We also know that anything that costs us little matters little to us. So our proverb, “Easy come, easy go.” To say that we love someone without that love costing us something by way of time, effort, care, concern or money, that’s self-contradictory. And yet Mahatma Gandhi observed that one of the seven deadly sins of the modern world was “religion without sacrifice.” Even before he died in 1948, Gandhi saw that the western consumer mentality would treat faith and spirituality as just so many products for sale on the marketplace of religion, that we could become religious consumers looking for the best deal, the most comfort, self-satisfaction, power, prestige or honor, for the lowest cost. And that’s why we still need to hear these words of Hebrews 13 about sacrifice, even though they were written for the first generation of Jewish Christians in the First Century.
Those first Jewish Christians also came from a culture and religion of sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, of grain and livestock for the remission of sins, or for cleansing from disease and defilement. Like the new Senufo Christians, they too were asking: “Now that we believe in Jesus, what sacrifices remain for us?” Their questions about sacrifice were super-charged with importance and emotion because they were being driven and excluded from the temple and the synagogues because of their new faith in Jesus, so they could no longer offer God any of the usually prescribed sacrifices.
The author of this letter makes it clear what the first Senufo Christians of Burkina Faso grasped: that God has offered, in Christ, the sinless lamb, the sacrifice that completes and fulfills all the sacrifices of lambs, cattle and doves required by Old Testament ritual law, a sacrifice which restores the harmony lost to our treachery, and which reverses even death. There is no sacrifice we can offer to improve on that.
And yet, human nature has not changed. “Easy come, easy go.” We still need to make sacrifices in response to the supreme sacrifice offered for us. For the less our faith costs us, the less it will matter to us. In today’s passage, we hear about four sacrifices which remain for us Christians, in response to the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. They are: 1) the surrender of our status in society for Christ’s sake, when the author says, in verse 12, “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” The second sacrifice is worship, according to verse 15: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” The third and fourth sacrifices, in verse 16, are good works and generosity: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
I’m not going to spend an equal amount of time this morning on all four of those sacrifices. The last two, good works and generosity, have long been strengths and themes of Mennonite churches ever since we got started 500 years ago. Martin Luther rediscovered the power of God’s grace to save us and to justify us in the eyes of a holy God. Thank God. But our Anabaptist ancestors were also right to press Luther and ask, “Shouldn’t a saving faith look like something?” If faith is a fellow traveler with hope and love, should there not be at least a stirring and turning toward love, expressed in acts of love? Like the way Jesus loved? Even for his enemies? And so the Mennonite emphasis on saving faith expressing itself in practical, visible and sacrificial ways. Like with our service programs. Good works, in effect.
Generosity has also been a strength and a focus of Mennonite practice. That’s what impresses the people whom we have brought to Mennonite Central Committee World Relief Sales, even non-believers: that we would put so much time and energy and effort into helping people all over the world whom we will probably never know nor see. When a poppy seed roll sells at the Washington MCC Relief Sale for $1200 and the buyer gives it back and says, “Sell it again,” that strikes a holy fear into me. That plus the generous offerings of time, sweat and skill offered on behalf of the world’s need. Good works and generosity: let’s keep them going and growing. Just don’t forget that they are results and responses to God’s grace, and not ways in which we earn God’s grace.
This morning, however, I am focusing more on the other two sacrifices that remain to us: the sacrificial offering of our status and honor before the world for Christ’s honor, and the sacrificial offering that is worship. I do so because the exhortation to offer up our status as a sacrifice is timely, in light of current developments, and because we can easily lose sight of the importance of worship in our stress and emphasis on good works and generosity.
About the sacrifice of status, these first Hebrew Christians have lost much of their status in their native Jewish society as a result of identifying themselves publicly with Christ. Now nothing I’m going to say is meant to incite or encourage anti-semitism. The world’s Jews have unfortunately suffered much more at the hands of the church than vice versa. But we know from history and from this Letter to the Hebrews that in many places, the first Jewish followers of Jesus received much shaming and rejection from their families and synagogues. Jesus told them that would happen. That could have the effect of dampening their faith and their testimony, and of tempting them to sacrifice large pieces of their faith to make it more acceptable to their disapproving friends and family. But that is a fool’s errand that risks losing everything to gain nothing in return.
Instead, embrace the loss and treat it as an offering for Christ’s honor. And anticipate even greater honors to come. “Freely confess Christ’s name,” the passage says, for we have Jesus’ own promise that he will stand up and confess our names before the Father. “Follow him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore,” the author says. Here he is referring to how the body of a sacrificial lamb slaughtered for the offering of its blood in the Holy of Holies, inside the Tabernacle during the days of the Exodus, was taken outside to be burned like so much rubbish. So was Christ treated. But don’t flee from him. Stand with him; go with him.
Now if I were preaching on these words in Poland or Ethiopia, they would say, “We know that story; rejection, opposition and even persecution are recent history, within most of our lifetimes.” If I were preaching on these words in Iran or China or Eritrea, they would say, “These words are our current events.” But I wonder if these words won’t soon prove timely for us here and now, in what we used to think of as mainstream Christian America.
You may have noticed that the world is not getting nicer lately. Most people are still just trying to get by and to get along. We can and should work to have good friendships with everyone. But the extremes at both ends of today’s political and religious spectrums seem to be getting more extreme, more rude and crude, ever more offended and ever more offensive. I’m sad to say that some churches and Christians act that way. But I’m also sad to say that churches and Christians are also increasingly the targets of today’s heightening offense and offensiveness.
Fifty years ago, the New York Times ran an article about how church attendance could improve your chances of getting a job. More recent surveys however show that a resume and a job application are more likely to go into the trash bin if it includes evidence that you led or participated in college Bible studies or campus Christian organizations. It’s even worse for Muslim applicants. Secular society and large swaths of business are starting to have mixed feelings and second thoughts about if and how faith fits with their corporate cultures and the bottom line.
Reports from world governments and the United Nations agree that pressure and persecution on Christians and churches in much of the world are rising to historic levels from two opposite extremes: from very secular, anti-religious governments, like China and North Korea, and from militant Islamist groups, like Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or Islamic governments, like that of Iran.
In the face of such offense and opposition, we too may be tempted to back pedal and soft pedal those uniquely Christian beliefs that bear the offense of the cross, like saying that we need a savior to make a sacrifice on our behalf. Or “love your enemies.” From the direction of militant secular activists I hear that Christians are too strict morally, while militant Islamist extremists rag on the church for not being strict enough. In the New York Times last week I read an essay saying that Christian faith causes war and violence. In Eritrea, China and North Korea, the church is targeted in part because its members can’t be trusted to go to war. There’s no way to please or pacify either extremes, nor both, not if we’re getting grief for exactly opposite things.
But we are not commanded to earn, nor to keep, everyone’s respect. We are simply commanded to love everyone, friend and foe. Nor are we commanded to convert, convince and convene all the world. That’s not in our power anyway. We are simply commanded to follow Christ and testify to him, by works and by words, even if that means dying for friend and foe, should love require that. Christ is the only One whom we should fear letting down. His is the only opinion of us that finally counts.
God forbid that we Christians should offend the world by hypocrisy, arrogance or abuse of power. When news of rampant child abuse in churches first broke the cover of secrecy, thank God, that was distressing enough. But when we also learned about cover-ups and hush money, there are just no words for that. And so we have careful abuse prevention and response policies in place here at Zion, and are currently working to improve them. Should we ever have to “bear Christ’s disgrace,” as this passage says, let it be because we are too much like Jesus, not because we are too much unlike him.
I don’t expect the situation to get better for the worldwide church anytime soon. But I am not afraid this morning, nor am I advocating that we give in to fear, resentment or a persecution complex. Tough times are when we do our best work. Sometimes I even wonder, if Christ is to return to find a church ready for him, without spot or wrinkle, will the Western church have to go through a process of loss and of purification, like what the Ethiopian Mennonite Church went through 30 years ago? They lost all their sanctuaries, schools, much of their leadership, their seminary, even a hospital, to a hostile government. But what they lost in prestige and property, they more than gained in purity of devotion and power for mission. Sometimes I wonder, What would remain of our faith and of our churches if we should lose properties, publishing houses, tax exemptions and deductions, even seminaries and sanctuaries? I don’t think that will happen. But if it did, I would hope that we would offer up such losses as beautiful, willing sacrifices of property and prestige before the world, in exchange for the enduring and unshakable honor and standing that Christ bestows on all who stand by him and for him. For it is Christ, finally, who is being reviled and rejected.
But I would not have the confidence, nor the perspective to face such losses, without the second of four sacrifices which today’s passage enjoins upon us: worship. “Through Jesus,” the author says, “therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” Worship is itself a sacrifice, because, by praising and honoring God, we sacrifice our pride and our place on the throne of our own hearts. In worship we remove ourselves even from the throne of heaven, which we humans always want to claim, and lay ourselves upon God’s altar, offering ourselves as living sacrifices, for God to take up and use for his honor. We knew that we would be doing this here and now before we came here this morning, I hope. If not, let’s come prepared for it next week. It’s what we promised in our baptismal vows.
But my stubbornly idolatrous nature needs the weekly reminders of who should be on the throne, and who goes on the altar, on the Sabbath day, at the very least. That includes the giving of money and substance in the presence of God and each other, as well as the giving of words and time.
This is also a timely reminder for us Mennonites today, because we have rightly stressed peace, justice, service and community. We talk about our work being worship, such as feeding the poor, visiting the shut-ins, and advocating for peace and justice. And it is. But are we tempted to think that, if I serve the Christian community, and work to make the world a better place, that alone is worship enough? Or even that worshipping God with a congregation is a secondary, extraneous luxury that takes away from doing the real work of God in the world? Like rolling up our sleeves to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger? We are right to stress that worship without such works is only self-indulgence in the name of God. But I find it just as true good works without worship can also be self-indulgent, if it leaves us on the throne of our own hearts. I know, through experience, that my contributions to the world’s welfare are better for remembering who sits rightfully on the throne of my heart, and it’s not me. But true, sacrificial worship, finally, is about God, before it is about us, or about anything that it does for us.
That’s why such sacrifices remain for all Christians: sacrifices of worship, of good works, of generosity of time, money and substance, and finally, the sacrifice of status, pride and position before the world for the honor of Christ. Because a scarlet thread of sacrifice runs through Creation all the way back to “The Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8)” The cost of life is life. Our new Senufo Christian brothers and sisters in West Africa knew the truth of that even before they became Christians. We need to remember it, too. Otherwise, it’s easy come, easy go.
No sacrifice of good works, generosity, status or worship is too much, nor too costly, if it reminds us of the infinitely greater sacrifice that has set the universe aright and is already reversing even death. We can safely offer all these things up to God for his safe keeping, because God would never ask of us anything that he has not done, nor given, for us.