Freewill Sacrifice of Self

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Mitchellville – November 2, 2003

"The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day." (Luke 9:22)

Consider for a moment all the time that is given by various people so that we can have church each Sunday. Without including the minister, because preparing for and conducting the service is the most important part of his employment, there are the chancel girls, the usher, and the organist who spends many hours selecting and practicing music for each service. There are the people who bring the flowers, clean the church, and who prepare the refreshments for after the service. And there are the people who watch the children in the nursery and those who teach the Sunday School classes. Finally, there are all the members of the congregation who, by coming to worship together with the others add to the sphere of worship and enhance the experience for everyone.

All this voluntary activity by members of this congregation serves to illustrate the doctrine of the "freewill sacrifice of self." This can be said because in every case that we have mentioned as an example, there was willingness on the part of each of these individuals to put aside their own plans for hobbies, or travel, or the desire to sleep in on a weekend morning, and instead each one has come to the church to offer something of themselves to this congregation and to the Lord. We could say that in a sense each person has laid down his or her own life for the sake of their friends – not that they died, but that they have chosen to regard the needs of others and to be useful to others rather than serve their own desires and needs. There is heaven in such a choice, because these are the kinds of choices that the angels delight in making.

AC 997. People who are governed by charity, that is, who dwell in love towards the neighbor – from which love the living delight contained in pleasures derives – have no regard for the enjoyment of pleasures except on account of the use that is served; for charity does not exist if there are no works of charity. It is in the exercise of it, that is, in use, that charity consists. Someone who loves the neighbor as himself never experiences the delight of charity except in the exercise of it, or in use. Consequently the life of charity is a life of uses. Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses. Every pleasure therefore that springs from charity finds its delight in use, and the more preeminent the use the greater the delight. For this reason it is the very being and nature of a use which determines the happiness that angels have from the Lord.

We all know how complex life is today; there is no need to dwell on the fact that everyone seems to be committed to doing too many different things both inside the home and outside of it, that there seems to be too little time for anything or anyone else. Going to work, running errands, taking the kids to music lessons, Scouts, and sports – we spend most of our time dashing around tending to our own affairs, meeting the demands of life in the natural world.

Fortunately, there are times when we stop, when we think about higher things, when we put aside our worldly concerns and schedules in order to approach the Lord. In fact, such reference points have been built into our lives for this very purpose. For example, the birth of a new baby is one of those times because it is so carefully designed to get and hold your attention, and then bring you into tune with the spiritual world. Having a baby is one of the few great adventures left in this sterilized and regulated world, because it involves a conscious decision to enter into the unknown with no guarantees. As if the pregnancy and birth were not enough, there yet remains the continuing excitement of getting to know and love this entirely new person that completely disrupts every aspect of your carefully planned life in its self-centered demands for food, attention, and love. And while it is shattering our carefully designed lifestyle, the baby enters our life full of the sphere of heaven, bringing unimagined spheres of innocence and peace to replace the unimportant things that have been lost. The sweet innocence of that child brings us closer to heaven, and to the Lord, than we have ever been before.

AC 997:2 The situation with every pleasure is that the more preeminent its use is, the greater is its delight. Take one example, the delight of conjugial love: since the seedbed of human society derives from it, and from that seedbed the Lord's kingdom in heaven, which constitutes the greatest use of all, it therefore contains ... so much delight within itself as to constitute heavenly happiness. The same applies to all other pleasures, their differences depending on the excellence of their respective uses. Those uses are so many and various that they can scarcely be divided into genera and species. One use will relate more closely and directly to the Lord's kingdom, or the Lord, another more remotely and indirectly. From these considerations it is also clear that all pleasures are available to man, yet only for the sake of the use they serve; and thus though they vary according to the use they serve, they share in and receive their life from heavenly happiness.

This happens because when we feel something, we want to express it, to give it life in the world of nature: we pat the dog; we hug a friend; we kiss our spouse; we exchange rings in the wedding ceremony; we take the bread and the wine in the Holy Supper; we note the beginning of the life of a child with the sacrament of Baptism; we do things that serve to fix and make permanent the loves that we feel. And in every case where we do some thing that confirms and expresses our loves, we have in fact made a freewill offering of ourselves, we have committed ourselves to a certain course of action, we have limited our own choices for the sake of something good.

In Genesis we read the story of how Jacob's daughter Dinah was to marry Shechem the son of Hamor on the condition that Shechem and all the men of his city were to be circumcised. This was an important sign of their willingness to form a peaceful relationship with Jacob, and so they agreed. Then, when all the men of the city were recovering, Simeon and Levi came into the city and murdered all the men, and took their sister from Shechem's house. Then, the rest of the family came and plundered the city. But the amazing thing is that when Jacob heard about his sons' treachery, murder, and destruction, his main concern was that his word would no longer be trusted among the peoples of the land, for in those days a man was only as good as his word, and once tokens were given, men would rather die than break their commitments. (See Gen. 34)

Promises lightly given are not promises at all, and we recognize this fact by the elaborate system we have devised to record agreements between people, by having them witnessed, and by having courts dedicated to resolving arguments about what the agreements actually require.

When you put your hand to a contract, you are giving up something of self, be it money or your labor, for the sake of something you wish to gain. When you come into the church to worship, to be confirmed, to marry, to baptize an infant, to take the Holy Supper, you are demonstrating your willingness to give up what is merely natural and disorderly for the sake of your eternal spiritual life, and you are doing so with the Lord, your friends and family as witnesses. This is so important because it gives you something to focus on, to remember when you are tempted to fall back, to change your mind, to be less than your talents and your wisdom make possible.

Like prayer, a sacrifice creates a conjunction between the Lord and mankind. Because the Lord, being totally Divine, cannot be conjoined with anything that is natural, He is instead conjoined with us through the things that we have in us from Him; such things as the truths we have learned from the Word, and the affections and delights we have for doing what is good and kind. The Lord can conjoin Himself with good and with truth because they are spiritual things that are given by Him to mankind. When we contribute money to the uses performed by the Church through the offertory or when we give of our own time through volunteering to do the work of the various committees, we are not saying that the Lord has need of the things we offer, but rather we are acknowledging the fact that all things are His gifts to us. By sacrificing, or giving up things that we have, we are lifting our minds into a heavenly sphere, and allowing the Lord to draw near.

We make our sacrifice in many different ways. We can bring gifts to the church to represent our acknowledgment of the Lord as the giver of gifts. We baptize our children in the Lord’s house to strengthen and confirm our promise to put away the loves of self and the world and so raise that child to love the Lord and keep His commandments. Or we can make our sacrifice by giving up the evils that we love, our loves of self and the world, our desires to have dominion over others. This is accomplished through a life of self-examination, repentance, and reformation, and is represented when the adult comes forward to take on himself the promises made in his name by his parents in the rite of confirmation or the sacrament of adult baptism.

We must keep our perspective, however, and remember that the loves of self and the world are also gifts from God, given to each of us to make it possible for us to live in the natural world and so prepare for a life in the spiritual world. The love of self helps us by making us protect our bodies, feed them, and care for them. The love of the world is what makes us curious and interested in finding out about things, and consequently to learn about the Lord and spiritual life from the Word. Without these two loves, life in the world of nature would be dangerous, and short. The problem comes when we allow these loves to become our masters rather than the servants of our own rational choices.

The whole function of a church is to assist us in getting our lives in order according to truth so that the Lord can order our various loves so that those that are to serve do so, and those that are to lead, such as the loves of the Lord and the neighbor, can take their proper place at the head. Our freewill offerings to the Lord, our ritual giving up of things from the world for the sake of spiritual life, were designed to help us keep our various loves in the proper perspective.

Bringing our loves under control, freely giving up things that we love, but that we know are harmful to spiritual life, is not easily done, nor is it done without suffering. But then there is nothing in the Word to tell us that we should expect that life is to be easy. On the contrary, there is much to warn us to expect that life will be hard and full of suffering, but that it is a sign of maturity and spiritual growth for us to learn how to suffer pain for the sake of what we know is right, to give up short term pleasure for the sake of long-term spiritual growth.

It becomes apparent from observing children, for one of the ways in which we judge a child's maturity is by observing whether or not he is capable of delaying gratification for the sake of a long-term reward, that is whether the child is self-disciplined or impulsive, whether the rational mind which knows what should be done has taken control over the will which wants to do all kinds of things.

Denying our own will causes pain. The Lord knows this, for He Himself suffered the same pain when He was in the world. We read in Matthew, From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. (Matthew 16:21) He endured temptations from the deepest hells and overcame them. He felt His own body crying for life when He had the power to heal, to overcome, to come down from the cross, and yet He chose to suffer, to give up the life of the body, for the sake of something greater – the salvation of the whole human race. Oh yes, the Lord knows the suffering He requires of us, but He also knows the reward that will surely follow.

So let us take this opportunity to reflect upon the work we have to do to accomplish the Lord's work in this world. Remember that each of us present has already made some little freewill sacrifice just to come to church today. Some have done more than that, and every little gesture, every gift of selflessness, brings us ever closer to the sphere of heaven. Let us remember the successes we have already had, and derive strength from the memory of the battles already won, so that we can go ever forward, freely, rationally, giving up the unimportant but attractive things of self and the world for the sake of eternal life. AMEN.


First Lesson: Mat 16:21-28

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. {22} Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!" {23} But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men." {24} Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. {25} "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. {26} "For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? {27} "For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. {28} "Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."

Second Lesson: AC 2813 (portions)

The Lord's Divine Rational as regards good could not suffer, nor undergo temptations, ... but Divine truth once it had been bound was that which could be tempted, for illusions, and still more falsities, are what invade it and so tempt it. ... It was Divine truth that people no longer acknowledged at the time of the Lord's Coming into the world, and therefore it was Divine truth from which the Lord underwent and suffered temptations. Divine truth within the Lord is that which is called the Son of Man, whereas Divine good within Him is that which is called the Son of God. Speaking of the Son of Man the Lord many times says that He is to suffer, but He never says this when He refers to the Son of God. ... [2] In all these places 'the Son of Man' is used to mean the Lord as regards Divine truth - that is, as regards the Word in its internal sense - which was to be rejected by the chief priests and the scribes, suffer insults, be scourged, spat on, and crucified. Amen.


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