Many thanks, James Joiner, for this fine sermon!
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
The final line from our Ephesians reading this morning was a favorite Offertory sentence of my priest in Greensboro, North Carolina, and he recited it every Sunday morning after the Peace had been exchanged and the announcements had been made before we prepared to break bread together at the altar. It did what an Offertory sentence is supposed to do in the liturgy, it refocused our attention towards the Lord’s table after all the hustle and bustle of our prayers and glad exchanges and comments on the life of our community were through. He also habitually followed this sentence by asking our pianist for the number of the Offertory hymn, so in my mind this line of scripture is not only always spoken in his voice but always with the added dialogue between priest and musician, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. What’s the hymn, Joan?” After hearing it enough times, this line burned itself onto my heart. This was in the early days of my return to church from a very long time away from it, and this verse haunted me on long, ambling Sunday afternoon strolls around the city after mass, my mind full of urgent questions about how, exactly, I was supposed to go about loving all the unlovable people around me. “Walk in love,” I heard, passing by the man who slept beneath the bridge, “walk in love” past the garbage bins behind the grocery store full of perfectly edible produce with slight imperfections, “walk in love” alone, keeping all my thoughts close to my chest, unsure of how to even begin broaching the subject of my newfound savior in Christ Jesus within the mostly secular world where I worked and played.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Not a perfect sacrifice, as it is described elsewhere in the Epistles, though its perfection is presumed, but a fragrant one. I found this phrasing captivating and evocative. “What, exactly, is supposed to smell good about the cross of Christ?” I wondered. Is it the smell of lilies at the altar freshly opened on an Easter morning, or perhaps the lamb roasting in the oven? Well, actually, yes, in part, it is. In the most primitive, Biblical- even pre-Biblical sense of the term, sacrifices were supposed to smell good. Sacrifice simply meant the animal you killed for God. It was usually the fattest, choicest piece of an animal roasting on the open coals, the smoke of its fat rising to an invisible God somewhere past the sky. I was reminded of this one Autumn morning as I walked outside the doors of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City after Mass and passed onto West 46th St because I moved from one kind of smoke to another as I went. If you’re any kind of ecclesiastical tourist, you might know the parish I’m talking about by its nickname, “Smoky Mary’s”, so called for its profuse employment of incense during services, which, I’ve been told, is stored in the back by the barrel-full. Outside on 46th St, however, the smoke was of a different kind. One of Manhattan’s many street fairs was well underway, and the usual assortment of food carts were out en masse, their flat, black griddles sizzling hot with beef shanks and whole chickens whose flesh erupted into white, aromatic smoke upon contact. Our worship used to smell something like this, I thought. The alluring smell of something tasty rising up to heaven, drawing anyone with a nose to follow in, curious to see what’s cooking.
In the Torah, animal sacrifices were prescribed to cover a multitude of offenses, and for general thanksgiving as well. If you were truly sorry about something and didn’t want to get kicked out of the clan for it, you took a perfect, valuable specimen of livestock from your herd, that is- you took it out from the midst of your very own livelihood, and you gave it to the priests of the Holy Tent to carve and burn for God appropriately. If you didn’t have an animal you took a bird and if you didn’t have a bird you took some grain. It was symbolic. It was something that stood in for your very own self. It had to be symbolic. God didn’t need to eat a bull or a goat or even a handful of grain for that matter. God did not desire those things, he desired the people themselves. He desired a people who made his name known to all the world by walking in the ways of his justice and truth. And when, as it would inevitably happen time after time after time that the people fell short of that ultimate goal of total surrender to God’s way of justice, they would make sacrifice upon the altar of hot coals before his tent in reparation. They would make sacrifice regularly, in fact, to cover for any misgivings they had missed. They would make sacrifice because of how grateful they were for the blessings of their households, and for the harvest. They would make sacrifice to remember that everything they had belonged to God and came from God and was going back to God in the end. In one of the great anthropomorphisms of the Torah, God is revealed as delighting in the very smell of these sacrifices offered before him as the smoke rose heavenward. But the prophets tell us that what he loved even more than this was when his people acted with God’s justice and God’s loving kindness in the world around them. Hosea says that God delights in mercy and knowledge of God even more. “I desire mercy more than sacrifice,” God says to Hosea, “and the knowledge of my ways more than burnt offerings.” Similarly, Psalm 51 calls out that, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” When the authors of these Christian letters speak of Christ as sacrifice, they are pointing to this altar by a tent in the wilderness, they are pointing to a life of mercy for all who desire turning from their selfish ways to God, they are pointing to a heart that was broken by the cruelty of this world. They are pointing to the way that Jesus gave himself over to the life of God, not in a symbolic way only, but utterly, entirely. What is more, they are pointing to the way he was given over entirely to God for our sake, that all with eyes to see and ears to hear might know what God is like, that we might experience and taste and touch the very goodness of God’s way in the flesh, by the physical realities of our fingers and our mouths and our beating hearts. When a human soul is given up entirely to God, it does not take an alluring fragrance to signal its desirability to those about it. It is, in its own regard, effusive. More than a flower calling bees in Spring, more than the perfume of a lover long-since gone, the soul given up to God fills a room and calls down to our deepest yearning for what is good in this world. It is apparent , as the letter to the Ephesians says, every time that we are able to tell the truth to one another in loving-kindness, every time anger rises within us and we are brave enough to let it pass without adding to its rage, every time we forgive the one who has made mistakes in our direction and failed to live up to the radiant justice that God has given us up to making. It is, in other words, our own sacrifice to make, as well as Christ’s. Not always on a cross of wood, but often in the crucible of true friendship, honest speech, and the always ever difficult forgiveness offered up to those who hurt us.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” It isn’t easy, being members of one another, being open and honest enough with one another to act as a single body does, its nerves intimately connected, immediately communicating the next move that needs to happen. But it is good, and it is what God desires. It is what makes our Church a living sacrifice to God, a witness to the life of truth and reconciliation that is possible among us. And it is ours to claim as soon as we pass from the doors of this place on this day into a world that desperately needs to taste and touch that goodness, too. Walk around in it, move about in the effusive goodness God has given us this day, a banquet of unending love springing new from every step you make in God’s creation, and share it with the people you pass by. Your sacrifice of love will be Christ’s own, reaching out to those around you, and it will fill the air of any room you both shall enter. Amen.