I can hear my father, even now speaking the words of the old communion service—the words that always seemed to stick with me, to settle in my heart and make me ponder the meaning.
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee. Humbly beseeching thee, that all we who are partakers of this Holy communion may be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction and although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice. Yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses.”
(UnitedMethodist, Book of Worship).
As a child, these were the words that always captured my attention in the communion service. These were the words that made me wonder. I wondered what they meant. I wondered how we could be a holy and living sacrifice. What could these words, these phrases mean?
And then there were other words—unworthiness, manifold sins, bounden duty. I didn’t know know what this all meant, but I felt like it was important. It always felt like I was just about to understand, but I just couldn’t quite get there. So, every time we had communion, I waited for my father to get to those words. Maybe this time I would know. I would understand.
And each time, I was still confused.
You see, I had learned early on that Communion was all about forgiveness. One Sunday morning, when I was four, my mother explained it to me. I still remember that moment. She told me that we confess our sins and receive forgiveness. So communion was a celebration of forgiveness. But to my young ears, those words—manifold sins, bounden duty, unworthiness—did not sound like the freedom of forgiveness. And as I grew older and heard the Bible stories in Sunday School, I was pretty certain that sacrifice meant something had to die.
Where was I going wrong in my understanding?
And then one day, we started using a new communion service and the words that I waited for were no longer there. And I forgot about my struggle.
Then another day, when I was first in seminary, I was reading Romans and there were the words that were deep in my heart—the words I struggled with:
“So brothers and sisters because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God.” (Romans 12:1)
These words sounded freeing to me. Being a living sacrifice wasn’t because of our unworthiness, but because of God’s mercies. And Paul even went on to tell us what was meant by living our lives as a living sacrifice. It was all about focusing our hearts and minds on the grace and mercy of Christ and not the influences of the world around us.
By focusing our hearts and minds on God we will be able to more easily fulfill the next assignment that Paul gives us. It is a three part assignment that includes: not thinking too highly of ourselves, learning to know the gifts that God has given us to use as we work together, and giving our gifts freely with no strings attached.
In that moment I understood that being a holy and living sacrifice was something that was possible because God makes it possible for us. Not only are we given the gifts to serve and help others, but God places within us a yearning for God that when we pay attention to God we feel this yearning deep within us. Since that moment, I have continued to think about what it means to be a holy and living sacrifice for God.
The events of this summer—the rallies turned violent with seemingly more and more prevalent voices of hatred and prejudice and greed—have fueled my thoughts and turned me once again to these powerful words that express a call upon the lives of gospel believers. If we are to be a holy and living sacrifice for God, then hatred and prejudice and greed and judgement are incompatible. Indeed, the meaning of these words have become even more intense, even more urgent in meaning as violence and hatred have taken on a whole new level, where people have forgotten that the whole of humanity is loved by God and that the whole of humanity is yearned for by God.
More and more as I think about these words I remember that God is more about mercy than judgement and longs for us to be so as well, but it seems that humanity finds judgement easier and maybe even more satisfying. For me, it is painful to realize that humanity would rather be judgmental than forgiving, filled with hatred rather than grace-filled. To prefer judgment and hatred over forgiveness and grace is opposite to everything that God stands for.
I find myself knowing that now more than ever, those who follow Christ need to be a holy and living sacrifice and proclaim mercy and grace and love in the face of hatred, violence, and fear. And I find myself knowing that now, possibly more than ever, it will not be easy.
As I have been reflecting on these words this summer, I am aware that my reflections are shaped by recent travel to Germany and to a Sunday afternoon that I spent in Buchenwald, one of the concentration camps that was active during World War II. There were two reasons for choosing Buchenwald as a place to visit. One was that it was located in the area where we were visiting sites important to Martin Luther and the 500 anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The other reason is that it was to Buchenwald that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was transferred toward what was the end of his life and it was to Buchenwald that Elie Wiesel was marched to toward the end of the war. In the shaping of my faith these two people—one Christian, one Jewish—have had a profound impact.
On that afternoon another reason emerged—one that I did not “see” coming. I have had a strong interest in the Holocaust since I first learned about it in the 9th grade. As I was studying ethics in seminary I had the opportunity to study Bonhoeffer in depth and to take several courses where I researched and wrote several papers about his theology and about the Holocaust.
Then, about three years ago, I discovered that I am descended from two German Jewish families who were converted to Christianity somewhere around the early 1600’s. It is entirely possible that these two families were forced converted, but they remained Christian. This is a question that for which I will continue to seek answers. On that afternoon, in Buchenwald, that discovery was very close in my mind and heart as I walked through the foundations of the barracks and made my way through the museum that offered displays that offered more understanding about the people who lives were forever altered in that place. It didn’t feel quite like my story, but it felt much closer than ever before and I found myself thinking that the world is too close to forgetting all the lessons that humanity learned from the Holocaust. We can’t do that. We can’t forget.
In the weeks after returning home I have been reading Bonhoeffer again. I have been reading the writings of Holocaust survivors. And I have turned again to Elie Wiesel and what I have discovered is a whole new depth to the call to be a holy and living sacrifice.
Bonhoeffer was hanged in at the concentration camp at Flossenburg. Just days later the camp was liberated. While he did not survive the concentration camp ordeal, the words of his writings are a holy and living sacrifice. It seems that his faith grew and blossomed in the midst of this most horrible end and we find such beauty in his writings that remind us of God’s great love for all:
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but You do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with You there is help;
I am restless, but with You there is peace. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
It was just last summer, 2016, that Elie Wiesel died. He survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and was just a teenager at the end of the war. He made his way to America and spent the rest of his life as a holy and living sacrifice, making certain that the world would never forget what happened during those nightmarish years of concentration camps—of death camps. His writings remind us over and over of the sacredness of all humanity. In his book Night, he wrote:
“Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” (Night)
For Wiesel, writing was the avenue for preserving the memories of those precious innocent people who lost their lives. Keeping God in his heart and mind gave him the focus to move through pain and tell the story so this would never happen again.
Certainly, I hope that God is not calling us to be a holy and living sacrifice in the midst of such horror, but especially in these days when acts of hatred seem to be trying to destroy acts of love, when prejudice seems to be emerging more and more, when certain parts of humanity refuse to acknowledge all parts of humanity, God is calling each of us to be a holy and living sacrifice, so that the love and grace and mercy of God may be felt throughout this world.
May we respond to God’s call with courage and mercy and grace.
To God alone be glory.
Postscript on 9 September 2019: I read these words of mine that were written two years ago again this morning. At that moment, when I wrote these words, I did not imagine that our world could seem even darker, that the need for me to live a life that is a holy and living sacrifice would be an even deeper call, but the world seems darker and my call seems stronger and more urgent. These days I find myself back in a local congregation and I find myself again a student of ethics and social justice and oddly enough, both are challenging and freeing.
The thought that strikes me this day is that not only am I called by the Holy One, who loves me deeper than any other, to explore what it means for me to be a holy and living sacrifice, but I also am called to help others to think about what this means and to find ways for their lives to also be a holy and living sacrifice.
May it be so.