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A New Sacrifice for Sin: Sermon for the III Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2024

        



    Two weeks ago we began our Lenten Series, focusing on the events of Holy Thursday and what led up to them during Holy Week, especially the scene that we see today of Christ cleansing the Temple, turning over the tables of the money changers and expelling those who were turning His Father’s house into a marketplace. We saw how what is going on here is so much more than a lesson on the way to behave in church. In expelling the money changers and the animal vendors, Christ is making it impossible for the old sacrifices of the Jewish Temple to be offered, because now, without the money changers, there was no way to change their everyday currency into the pure Temple coins that were unstained by commercial traffic, and even no sacrificial victims to buy. He is upsetting the whole order of Jewish sacrifice in order to establish a new sacrifice by which sins can now be forgiven.


            Except that here, in St. John’s Gospel, we are not in Holy Week, only days before the Lord gives His life for the whole world, but at the very beginning of His public ministry. We have only advanced to the second chapter, and already He is disrupting what is most sacred to the Jewish people. As we saw two weeks ago, it is St. John who is most at pains in his Gospel to present Jesus as the new Passover sacrifice, who in His sacrificial death on the Cross becomes the true Lamb who saves not only the Jewish people but all of sinful humanity, who sets aside for Himself a new Kingdom.


            So it seems really strange that John would take this event out of Holy Week and present it here at the very beginning of his Gospel. On the one hand, it still takes place during the Passover, so the upsetting not only of the money changers’ tables but of an entire ritual order at the time of the year when it is most important still shines through. But even more importantly, St. John brings us this seminal moment to the beginning of the Gospel to show us something that is absolutely essential for understanding all the words and actions of Jesus throughout His whole life: that everything takes place under the shadow of the Cross.

            When asked for a justification for His actions, Christ responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” As St. John notes, when the Jews are confused about how He will raise up in three days the Temple that has been under construction for 46 years, “he was speaking about the temple of his body.”



            A perpetual temptation for those who believe in Jesus has always been to seek a Christianity without the Cross. St. Paul also notes today how central that mystery of the destruction and resurrection of the Temple of Christ’s body really is: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The Jews were scandalized by Christ. Nothing could replace the Temple sacrifices, and the one claiming to be the Messiah, the savior of the Jewish people, could not end in the seeming defeat of Roman crucifixion.


            But it is not only to Jews that Christ’s Cross is a stumbling block, and not only to the nations that it is foolishness. We too so frequently seek Christianity without the Cross. We want Christianity without the Cross when we expect fuzzy feelings to be the primary result of worshiping Almighty God. We want Christianity without the Cross when we think that we ought not have to suffer, when we think that God has abandoned us because He has not taken away a difficulty we have to face. And perhaps most completely, we want Christianity without the Cross, when we think that we can follow Jesus without having to obey.


            It is common for people to assert that because Christ’s definitive sacrifice did away with the Jewish ritual law, we can also assert confidently that the moral prescriptions of the Old Testament no longer bind Christian believers, who instead have a new law to follow that overcomes the prejudices of the past (which turns out to be more of an anti-law). Or, without denying necessarily that there are moral requirements of Christian discipleship, we could just pose the question, “Why do we have to talk about all these rules? Doesn’t this get in the way of talking about Jesus?”


            The problem with that idea, that we just need to bring people to Jesus, and let Him sort out all this moral stuff later, is that Jesus was clearly very concerned with fulfilling religious obligations. “Zeal for your house will consume me,” the disciples recall as He purifies divine worship by cleansing the Temple. And at the same time, He also demonstrated a serious concern with the way that we live outside of divine worship, such as by telling the disciples that those who do not care for the least of their brethren have not cared for Him (and will depart into eternal punishment). So Christ continues to be a stumbling block both for: Those who think that the way you live isn’t so important so long as you believe the right things (that is, once you really believe in Jesus, nothing can threaten your salvation), and for those who think that believing the right things isn’t so important so long as you live the right way (that it doesn’t matter whether you are motivated by belief in Christ, so long as you do good things for the world). (Although that later category seems to be shifting, as living in the right way takes a back seat to religiously-charged political affiliation, which means that, for that mindset, believing the right things about Jesus isn’t so important so long as you believe the right things about politics. It turns out that we’re actually becoming more religious rather than less – but that’s a whole different story!)


            Contrary to both these poles of American pseudo-religiosity, Christ calls us to a following of the moral law that is a death to self like His life-giving death. As we said two weeks ago, we began the season of Lent with a declaration of our own mortality symbolized by the ashes on our heads: “I want to die.” The choice to follow the moral law puts to death an old order in us, the order of sin, just as Jesus fulfilled and closed out the old dispensation of the Jewish sacrifices. Jewish sacrifice contained sin (or, contained the impact of sin). He was destroying it. The big difference here is an essentially different relationship to sin. Will sacrifice merely contain sin – limit its impact – or is there a sacrifice that can actually destroy it?


To the vexing problem of the abolition of Jewish ritual, and the perpetual validity of the Old Testament moral law, here we find a solution. Christ’s actions show that the old order that is truly passing away, is the order of sin. Every time that we choose to reject sin and follow the moral law, that fulfillment of what has passed, and the transformation of what is to come begins to take place in us.


The sacrifice to be offered now to the Father is the sacrifice that will not only limit the impact of sin, but can actually forgive it. The sacrificial victim is immolated upon the altar, put to death, bleeding out, deprived of life. At all times in the Christian life, we are called to do the same, offering ourselves to God as a pure and living sacrifice. Thus St. Paul writes to the Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Our Lenten sacrifices are one particularly eloquent way in which this happens – bodily discipline transforms the dispositions of our hearts to desire to make this spiritual offering of ourselves.


But sacrifice for its own sake is incomplete. The sacrificial victim to be slain upon the altar of our spiritual worship is sin. The moral law might seem a stumbling block both to those who reject it and to those convinced that God won’t love them until they manage to live up to it. But both of these are impediments to the destruction of the Temples that Christ really wants to bring about. Together with the fall of the older rights of worship, there are many other Temples in our hearts that need to be torn down – temples where not the incomplete rites of worship of the Jewish temple are offered, but the satanic worship of sin take place. These are the temples that must truly fall not to be rebuilt.


The worry, though, is often that when those temples fall because you choose to abandon sin and follow the Lord, that a part of you might die with it. (Think back to Advent and the novelist Graham Greene and his mistress refusing to meet Padre Pio: “I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint.”) It’s easy to gloss over that death: Don’t worry, God will fulfill all of your true desires! He’ll make it all okay!


But that too is a Christianity without the Cross. This process of death to self, of immolating the sacrifice of sin upon the altar of virtue and grace, of allowing the false temples in our hearts to be destroyed, is painful and lifelong. But it is not a process you have to endure alone. Jesus established the Church to perpetuate this Sacrifice in time, by offering It in a unbloody manner upon the new altar. He promised to remain with His Church until the end of the age, and that promise is fulfilled in the Eucharist. When we receive Holy Communion in a state of grace, the temples of sin having been cast down by Christ’s forgiveness, especially in the Sacrament of Confession, a new temple can be built up, the temple of a life lived in union with Him by adherence to what He has taught.

 

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

III Sunday in Lent, A.D. MMXXIV


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