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Sunday Worship 20 November | Sacrificial Community

Updated: Jan 19

Today sees the end of our series on the five core values of the Baptist Union. As I have done throughout the series, I will recap where we've got to so far, but rather than that realing into our reading and reflection, this morning I want it to lead us into prayer.


We started by thinking about being a worshipping community, a people whose lives together and apart express the worth of God. We then thought about being an inclusive community, a people who show care and respect across every line of difference. Next we looked at being a missionary community, a people who join in with the work of God. And last week we reflected on what it means to be a prophetic community, a people who challenge power and injustice by speaking the word of God into the world.


I spoke last week about prophetic voice, and one way in which the Baptist Union seeks to have prophetic voice is through its participation in the Joint Public Issues Team, an ecumenical group which seeks to engage in public and political life. I will be joining an online seminar this week as part of an initiative to help local churches engage with their MPs, and will report back on that. JPIT also share daily prayers for justice issues, and we will use some of those in our own prayers this morning, as well as offering prayers on other current issues of injustice.


I also spoke about prophetic action, and so as part of our time of prayer, there will be a chance to engage with Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign, which this year focuses on protecting the right to protest, and start thinking about how we might engage with politicians.

Isaiah 58:3-12 (NIV)
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.


Mark 8:34-38 (NIV)
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

So we finish this series on core values by reflecting on what it means to be a sacrificial community. In some ways it is a difficult place to end. It's much easier to get enthusiastic about worship and inclusion and mission and prophecy than it is about sacrifice, so it might feel like we're going out on a low note. But bear with me, because there may be more to sacrifice than we think. Those of you who have been through this series will know how it goes by now. I will offer some questions and some thoughts, and give space for your own reflections, which we will begin to gather during the church meeting, and find ways to share and explore in the coming months.


My first question is about your gut response. What comes to mind when you hear ‘sacrifice’?


If it's not the Elton John song, then I imagine the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘sacrifice’ is the idea of giving something up. But what is being given up and why? If you type 'examples of sacrifice' into a search engine, the first results are about salary sacrifice schemes for electric cars and self sacrificing heroes in popular culture. It seems then that what is being given up is significant, but so is the cause that it is being given for. Someone chooses to give up some of their income for a particular benefit. One person gives their life to save the life of another. So sacrifice achieves something, it has a cost but it also has a reward, even if they are experienced by different people. Or coming at this another way, I'm a bit of a language nerd, so I like to look not only at what words mean, but also how they came to be. Sacrifice comes from Latin via Old French and Middle English, and literally translates as ‘to do sacred rites’. So there is a sense in which it is an explicitly religious or spiritual practice, something which connects us with the sacred.


Let's dig a little deeper. What do you understand of sacrifice in the Bible?


It's important to preface this by saying that I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, and it has been some time since I studied the sacrificial system in any depth, but my understanding is that the Mosaic code combines the two senses of sacrifice I suggested earlier, as something significant is given up and something significant is received, all as part of a religious practice which connects people to God. Sacrifice was a way of making right what had been done wrong or expressing thanks and devotion to God, and it involved the ritual killing of animals or the offering of grain and other crops. Everything had to be of the best quality, and once offered it was divided into two or three portions, so that some was reserved for God and some was given to the priests while some may be returned to the person making the sacrifice. It is against this background that Jesus’ death has often been understood. He was the sacrificial lamb without blemish, whose death was necessary to atone for the sins of the people. I do believe that Jesus' death was sacrificial in nature, and it makes sense that scripture would use familiar imagery to understand something that must at first have seemed utterly incomprehensible, but there are other ways of understanding it. Much depends on whether you think sacrifice was necessary for forgiveness or symbolic of repentance. Given the way God repeatedly spoke through the prophets to reject the sacrifices and the fasts of the people, my understanding is towards the latter. Simply performing the rites was clearly not enough to warrant forgiveness, which suggests the act itself was not what mattered so much as the attitude with which it was done, so perhaps sacrifice ought to be seen not as a crude transaction but a fresh connection. Back to Jesus then, and no one could have said the things he said or acted the way he acted and not found themselves on the wrong side of very powerful people. His death was the consequence of his life, and he knew that would happen but he continued his ministry anyway, because it was what we needed in order to understand how to live and because he loved us enough to take the risk and because he knew that ultimately life would come from death as a promise of eternity, so maybe it was in that sense that he gave his life in order to make things right. Perhaps you have not looked at Jesus' sacrifice in that way before, but one of the most exciting and frustrating things about theology is that it is wrestling with mystery, so I offer it as something to consider.


I’ve already mentioned the prophets, so at this point I want us to think back to our readings. What does Isaiah 58:3-12 say about the sacrifice God asks for?


Isaiah is talking about fasting rather than the sacrificial system, but fasting is itself a kind of sacrifice as it involves giving something up (most usually food and drink) as well as taking something up (a commitment to prayer), and it was likewise intended to bring the people back to God, so it still seems relevant here. There is also a clear link between this reading and the verses from Amos that we began the service with, in which God explicitly rejects sacrifice in favour of righteousness. It seems that the people had been performing their fasts but continuing the sort of behaviour that was the reason for them, when it was in fact their exploitation and their violence that they should have been fasting from. This is what I was saying before about attitude being more important than action, and sacrifice not automatically bringing about salvation. We are not saved by a magic trick, but there needs to be a deeper change in ourselves. Through Isaiah, God tells the people to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke, to share food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, to clothe the naked and not to turn away from flesh and blood. Clearly then sacrificial practice is not just about making right with God but about making right the world, and that is a fast because it will involve giving up some things and taking up others. I spoke a little last week about how the values we have been considering are woven together, and here I think we can see mission and prophecy, a call to a way of life which gives itself to doing the work of God and speaking the word of God, to building God’s kingdom and realising God’s dream.


Let's think about our second passage now. What does it mean to ‘take up your cross’?


When reflecting on this verse, I think it's important to remember that the resurrection hadn’t happened yet. When Jesus called his disciples to take up their crosses, the only reference point they had was the criminals they had seen crucified outside the city walls, and so the cross meant only abject humiliation and painful death. It must have been a bewildering and terrifying thing to hear, and yet they didn't immediately run a mile. Jesus invites us to take up our crosses too, although that may look rather different. We are unlikely to face death, although there are places in the world where that remains a frighteningly real possibility, but we may face rejection or ridicule, or be called to give up wealth or power. When I started writing this bit, it felt for a moment like I was going to say that the disciples must have decided the reward was worth the risk, and we are faced with the same decision. That would certainly seem to fit with what I said earlier about sacrifice, but the truth is that for all Jesus' talk about saving lives and forfeiting souls, faith isn't a cost-benefit analysis. It's not based on calculations but on conviction. Jesus warns us that following him may at times be difficult and even dangerous, and we have to decide if we are willing to do it anyway, but we should do that because we believe it is the right and true and good way to live, not because we think we will get something out of it.


So we come to my final question. What does a sacrificial community look like?


I have usually given the Baptist Union the first word on each value, but as we did the recap a little differently this week, they'll get the last word instead, or at least near enough. This is what the Baptist Union said about being a sacrificial community: "Following Jesus in accepting vulnerability and the necessity of sacrifice. Seeking to reflect the generous life-giving nature of God. Baptist communities will resist the temptations of worldly power and triumphalism. We will recognise the importance of vulnerability and the necessity of sacrifice as the path to resurrection and new life. We will embrace the call to live with paradox and failure. We will seek to reflect the generous life-giving nature of God." Reflecting the generous life-giving nature of God surely means that we should demonstrate the generous life-giving nature of God, that we should give what others need and not just what we don't, in terms of our time and our gifts and our money. And I think there is something really interesting in those ideas of vulnerability and paradox and failure, which are not perhaps about giving anything up or giving anything away so much as a willingness to take risks, to do the difficult and the dangerous as we follow the example of Christ. So perhaps to be a sacrificial community is to be a community that holds nothing back as it pursues God and lives that others may also live.




Jesus the Saviour, the risk taker who lost everything, the fool who accepted the shame of the cross, the failure who died a criminal’s death. Through your poverty we are made rich, for you open to us and to all people the path to resurrection and new life. Jesus we must walk your way Inspire us to be a sacrificial community.

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