As his death approaches, Jesus pauses to celebrate a meal with his disciples. Breaking the bread, he declares, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Lk 22:19). With these words, Jesus gives context and meaning to what is about to happen to him. His death, though senseless and incomprehensible as it will seem to his friends, is a sacrifice—an offering of himself for the world.
Later, the apostles interpret Jesus’ death as not only the keystone moment of salvation history, but as a model for his people. The apostle John writes, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16). Imitating Jesus means holding our own lives lightly, willing to lay them down for others. Contrary to the contemporary cry of our culture, we do not belong to ourselves alone. We belong to Christ, and as members of his body, we belong to one another. God calls us into an imitation of Christ’s life of giving, as he treated his body as the physical means of communicating God’s love to the world.
If you are a woman, as I am, perhaps at this point you are beginning to get nervous. History bears an extraordinary number of stories of women whose bodies have been abused. In the midst of a continual stream of sexual abuse scandals from celebrities, not to mention our own lived experiences of harrasment and abuse, the claim that our bodies are not our own, that they are meant to be given, sounds dangerous. Again and again the bodies of women have been taken and used, not given and received, and from that context perhaps we want to distance ourselves from this particular language of sacrifice.
Honesty requires us to acknowledge the way that sacrificial language can be used violently, co opted to force and compel submission to abuse. We should not imagine that our theological words are invulnerable to distortion and perversion; we must speak carefully and circumspectly. We must resist violence cloaked as dutiful submission. Yet, that resistance should not take the form of resisting the sacrificial life, but of understanding and living out of the example that Jesus has given to us.
When Jesus offers his body on our behalf, he does so in freedom, not compulsion. The Father did not demand that the Son do so; the Son did not unwillingly concede to the plan of salvation. Instead, the Father and the Son together are united in their mission. Of his own life, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:18).
Our bodies cannot be demanded by others; a life of sacrifice must be willing, not in response to coercion or guilt. The givenness of Jesus’ body does not violently compel our own bodies to be given. Instead, his sacrifice makes possible a life of Spirit-animated giving—freeing us from sin and bondage, he frees us to say “yes” willingly. In this willing giving we turn the tables on evil—as Aslan, offering himself to the White Witch, breaks the Stone Table and thus the witch’s magic. Evil cannot countenance the free act of love—it knows only force and self-preservation.
Jesus is under no compulsion. His submission to the Father’s will is foregrounded in the mutuality of Trinitarian love. Anterior to Jesus’ giving is a security of identity, love, and belonging. Jesus knows who he is, and he rests in the Father’s declaration of his belovedness—a declaration that comes prior to his sacrifice. Out of that identity, he gives. Not to please or earn love, not to prop up his own self-worth or position. God declares at the Jordan River and on the mount of transfiguration that Jesus is his beloved son—the Father is well pleased with him.
In the same way, our bodies’ sacrifice are not a means of securing love, but the response to a love that has already been given. Our own bodies cannot be given truly until we, like Jesus, rest in the Father’s love, until our bodies are not a tool in a game of self-validation or appeasement of others, but a gift, freely given, freely received.
As we speak this week, and into the future, of Jesus’ sacrifice, may what we communicate bring people into greater freedom and belovedness as children of our gracious and good heavenly Father.