IN NOMINE JESU
In non-Christian, and even in some “Christian,” denominations, the Good Friday self-sacrifice of Jesus is largely, if not totally, ignored or rejected. In Judaism the high priest enters the Most Holy Place in the Temple once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer up a sacrifice on behalf of the people. It’s repeated every year. Why? The Jews don’t believe in or recognize Jesus as the long-promised Messiah. “But in those sacrifices,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (10:3-4). In Roman Catholicism the “sacrifice” is made every time the Mass is celebrated. The priest prays over the bread and wine used for the Eucharist and asks God to bless these elements as an acceptable sacrifice to Him. What this communicates is something I once saw on a church sign years ago (not a Lutheran one, thankfully): “Jesus did His best; now you do the rest.” Both the Romanist Mass and that church sign are saying the same thing—namely, that Jesus’ Good Friday sacrifice on the crowasn’t enough, that we have to finish what He started. The Lutheran Confessions very clearly condemn such an error. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession says, in part: In addition, we have shown that the Scriptures, which are cited against us, in no way favor the godless opinion of the adversaries concerning the opus operatum. All good men among all nations can judge this. Therefore the error of Thomas [Aquinas] is to be rejected, who wrote: That the body of the Lord, once offered on the cross for original debt, is continually offered for daily offenses on the altar, in order that, in this, the Church might have a service whereby to reconcile God to herself. The other common errors are also to be rejected, as, that the Mass ex opere operato confers grace upon one employing it; likewise, that when applied for others, even for wicked persons, provided they do not interpose an obstacle, it merits for them the remission of sins, of guilt and punishment. All these things are false and godless, and lately invented by unlearned monks, and obscure the glory of Christ's passion and the righteousness of faith. [Ap XXIII 61-63]
To pose the “Lutheran” question, what does this mean? It means we should fear and love God, that we would reject the errors of false teachers who insist that a sacrifice be continually repeated, but follow the clear words of Holy Scripture that teach us that the only perfect sacrifice for our sins was made 2,000 years ago on a Friday we call “Good.” We don’t need to repeat the sacrifices, but we need to receive the Sacraments. We need to receive what God has promised in His Means of Grace. We need to receive what is most certain and true, God’s holy absolution, whereby He forgives us for Jesus’ sake, for the sake of the One who made the perfect and ultimate sacrifice once and for all time, for you, for me, for the life of the world. We need this certainty, especially during these uncertain times as we live in the midst of a pandemic.
To rely upon anything else than the gifts Jesus won for us on the cross and gives to us in His Word and Sacraments for our salvation and comfort is to be caught in uncertainty and doubt. This is what I’ve long referred to as “pumpkin-patch” theology. Go back to that Charlie Brown special where Linus is evangelizing about the Great Pumpkin. On Halloween night the Great Pumpkin flies through the sky, looking for the “sincerest” pumpkin patch he can find and, and finding it, showers toys upon all the good little girls and boys. The question I pose is this: How do you know when (or even if) your pumpkin patch is sincere enough? In other words, how do you know if your good works—your sacrifices—are good enough? If you begin to ask yourself these questions, then your focus is on the wrong subject. If you wonder about these things, then you are fixing your eyes upon yourself and not upon Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. If you are fixated upon what you’re trying to do to appease God and not upon what Jesus has done, and continues to do, for you, then you are guilty of self-idolatry. You see, when you try to do good works or make sacrifices to gain God’s favor, you are actually driving yourself further away from God and the forgiveness He gives in His Word and Sacraments. God sees what’s in our hearts—no matter how hard we try to hide it; He sees the sinfulness—the evil—that lurks within us. Think back to Genesis 4 and the offerings made by Cain and Abel. The writer to the Hebrews says, “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (11:4).
God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because He saw Abel’s faith in Him, and, for an absence of faith, God rejected Cain’s offering. Even so, God had a better sacrifice than Abel’s in mind when He promised Abel’s parents, Adam and Eve, a Savior from their sins. We hear in our text: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (vv. 13-14). It is only by faith in Jesus Christ, who sacrificed Himself on the cross once and for all time on that Friday we call “Good,” that our works in service to God and our neighbor He calls good. We don’t need to make sacrifices to merit God’s favor because God Himself provided the Lamb for the sacrifice when He sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus, whom He loves, to the cross to atone for our sins and the sins of the whole world. The sacrifice for your salvation has been made completely, total, and perfectly. “It is finished!” your Savior said from the cross, words just as true today as they were on Good Friday. “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (v. 12). The writer to the Hebrews also says, “Every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (10:11-14). By the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Old Testament sacrifices have given way to the New Testament sacraments, where God gives us the gifts Jesus won for us on the cross: the gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation—gifts given to us through the public reading and preaching of Holy Scripture, through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion—where our Lord gives us the very body He gave and blood He shed on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith, even in a time like this. He gives you His Word, the Word we hear and speak in Divine Service. From the introduction to a previous hymnal we read: Saying back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is His Name, which He put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are His. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where His Name is, there is He. Before Him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim Him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words He has used to make Himself known to us. The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him. He gives His gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. [LW, p. 6]
It is only by our Lord’s sacrifice for us, and the Holy Spirit at work in us, that we are able to make right sacrifices to God—by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; through our time, talents, and treasure; and as we live in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. By God’s grace we look forward to the fulfillment of His promise of the eternal inheritance in heaven, thanks be to God. Amen. IN NOMINE JESU
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