I was reading Hebrews today and I was struck by the imagery which is central to that book. Jesus is not only the High Priest which represents the people of God to God. He is also that sacrifice which he himself gave over to God to make atonement for the sins of the whole world.
Some of my more left-leaning friends have a real problem with this imagery. Is God just a blood thirsty warlord desiring violence and vengeance upon God’s people? Doesn’t God have another, less bloody, way?
I suppose that God has any way open that God desires. While I really like Anselm’s “Why God became man,” I’m not convinced that this is the only way that God could bring freedom and love to the whole world. God could have done it another way. God is a creative and powerful God. I suppose that God’s choice to do it this way and not some other is even more profound than Anselm’s proposal. (Anselm, for a little refresher, said that God had to become incarnate because humanity owed honor to God that only humanity could pay [i.e. the wages of sin are death], but only God could afford. Only God was righteous enough to be the holy debt payer. Thus, the incarnation.)
If God could have brought hope, healing, and restoration in some other way, why this one?
I think it is because God had indeed chosen to bless all of creation through this one people, the Jews (Genesis 12). God blesses Abraham to be a blessing. So when God’s patience with human sin and disobedience grew to the fullness of time, God acts decisively in Jesus of Nazareth. God becomes incarnate to take on the consequences of the truly righteous life. While the previous sacrifices bore the weight of sin in a kind of ad hoc way, death at an altar, this sacrifice bore the actual weight of actual sin. People could not bear the conviction which comes from perceiving the truly righteous One. So when sinful people enter the very presence of the Holy, they kill Him. The Jewish people needed to see God’s love poured out in a language which they could understand. The language of sacrifice made sense to them. They could understand the unblemished being given for the sake of the blemished. It was a picture of grace. And so God moved in that way and not some other.
God could have given some other way, but why would God move in some other way when the Way was established by the history of a people to go this way. Ironically, the theology of St. Anselm was also this kind of contextual explanation of faith. Anselm used categories of justice and honor that were particularly persuasive in his medieval feudal context. That doesn’t make them bad theology, it just means they are a new contextualization of God’s saving action.
What would a 21st century contextualization of Jesus’ work look like? What does it mean that Jesus is our High Priest and Highest Sacrifice?
Our contemporary society sees the collective sin of nations and ecclesial bodies and longs for a group which will not primarily look inward. We see the sacrificial action of a generation led by rock stars to do justice in AIDS-ridden Africa and we are inspired. Why? Because so much of our experience tells us that people can simply not be relied upon to choose the other. Darwinism and Nietzsche have, in their own ways, told us that the most healthy thing a person can do is look out for themselves and get the most that they can for themselves and possibly their clan. These pervasive ideologies have turned the Christian doctrine of sin on it head (which is explicit in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality).
The royal priesthood and holy nation which Jesus gathered around himself were not priests in the sense of killing animals for the sake of the community in the temple. This priestly community, like Jesus himself, gave of themselves for the sake of others. One of the things that is saving about Jesus in the 21st century is the calling he placed on the community who followed him to give themselves in love and service to others. He gave a community a vision of the future which did not bind them to the success of their ability to reproduce or their initiating the “will to power.” This community follows Jesus’ model of self-giving, knowing that the rewards of secular striving will not endure as the new heaven and new earth will. God will have the final word, as the resurrection proves. We are called to be both priests and sacrifices, just as Jesus was.
I dare say that this kind of community will speak to a 21st century Western world what Hebrews spoke to a first century Jewish one or Anselm spoke to an 11th century Medieval one. God’s work as High Priest and Savior is not limited to a paradigm of any particular period. If Jesus truly saves universally, then he will save us from our current sin and trappings as he did first century Jews from theirs.
He is a Good Savior. He is our High Priest. He gave himself as the Highest Sacrifice.
We are called to be Good. We are called to be priests. We are called to give ourselves as sacrifices.