Paul tells us today in his letter to the Romans chapter 12 that we are to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.” I’d like us to think a little bit about the word sacrifice, both how it’s normally used, and how differently Paul uses it.
A sacrifice is, in common language, something you give up. When you sacrifice something, it is lost to you. We are experiencing sacrifices in all kinds of ways right now because of the pandemic. We have lost getting to go to ball games. We have had to give up coming together to see a friend get married with lots of loved ones. In this season, each of us is sacrificing, giving up things, for the common good all the time.
In the same way, in religious contexts, a sacrifice is usually something you give up or even destroy. Once it’s sacrificed, you’ve lost it. Various world religions past and present have structured their lives around sacrifice, the giving up of animals or things in order to please or appease God. This can be something like burning a container of clarified butter, leaving a fruit or vegetable at an altar, killing a goat or cow, or in some ancient cults even human sacrifice.
Whatever it looks like, when you sacrifice something, it’s given up, dead, gone. You give it to the deity you believe in, and therefore you don’t have it anymore. It’s a sort of exchange, by which your loss of an animal or a valued possession then merits forgiveness or favor or help from your deity.
That’s what sacrifice means in most contexts. But that’s not at all what Paul says today. In this passage from Romans 12, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” So in this kind of sacrifice, you don’t lose what is sacrificed. It is still living. In fact, it becomes better, according to Paul: you become better. You become transformed by a renewed mind, more able to discern the will of God, more equipped with gifts to serve the world.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Why do we Christians get to sacrifice ourselves but still keep ourselves? Why is sacrifice in Christianity so different than sacrifice in other religious traditions? Why a living sacrifice all day long, and not a dead one at a special ritual? Well, because of the previous 11 chapters of Romans.
You see, for us, the one true sacrifice has already been made. On the Cross Christ offered himself up for our sake. God offered God to God – by definition there can be no greater gift, no more powerful sacrifice, and in that one action any need for further sacrifices was swept away. Human efforts to do something else to satisfy God become laughably redundant.
The whole point of the previous 11 chapters of Romans, of the Mass itself, really of the Christian way of being, is that the sacrifice has been made already, and now our lives, if we say yes, our living is swept up into it. What Christ did on the cross is already ours. What he did as he rose from the tomb is already ours. Every time we come to Mass we are reconnected with that sacrifice, ingesting it, being filled once again with the unique and irreplaceable power of God offering God to God, in case we’ve lost track.
That sacrifice has already made us holy and acceptable. There is nothing supplemental that we could add to it, as if there were some further deity out there who needs appeasement or is still keeping a running list of our sins. As Christians we have the opportunity to live in the freedom that was released into the universe when God offered God to God, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. To live in that, and let its finality and enoughness live in you.
You will have many temptations not to live that way, not to acknowledge the sacrifice that has already been made on your behalf. Many of us forget, day to day, that there is nobody out there to please or appease because God offering God to God has already accomplished our enoughness. We act as if the full and final sacrifice hasn’t been made. But it has. So I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.