March 21, 2021

The Mystery of God: The Mystery of Love and Sacrifice

A Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent by Canon Simon Butler

Mark 14:1-11

Please excuse me if you are already heartily sick of being reminded that it’s the first anniversary of lockdown. It’s not an occasion that merits any celebration.

What we can celebrate, however, is the dedication of the countless nurses, doctors, scientists, key workers and others who have gone above and beyond. For those of us who have been most affected by Covid-19 and, to a lesser extent the rest of us, we are immensely thankful to those who have done this, putting themselves at risk for the sake of the health and wellbeing of others. If you do take a moment to stop and pause on Tuesday, a National Day of Reflection on the first anniversary of lockdown, remember with thankfulness the service and devotion of these people. For those among us today, you have our heartfelt thanks.

Medicine and nursing, like priesthood, were once talked of as vocations rather than jobs or careers. As a result of the social change that took place in the 1980s which historians are now beginning to call the Thatcher Revolution, vocation began to be replaced with more transactional notions of work, with the emphasis on remuneration, reward and self-fulfilment rather than service and vocation. As a result of the determination to reduce the levels of public expenditure for the sake of the wider economy, public service become less valued as a career choice. The idea of vocation, which saw people encouraged to value the service they could give to others as part of the reward they got from their work – with the state agreeing to pay a sufficient wage to support a certain standard of living – became diminished.  This impoverishment of public service in favour of salary and status led to the concept of vocation disappearing from our national vocabulary. We can hope that, beyond the rhetoric of politicians who see public levels of affection for the NHS and other caring professions as something they can capitalise on and only envy, perhaps Covid-19 will do something to restore the concept of vocation to the public debate. As many have commented, clapping for carers means nothing unless it means something more significant about how we care for the carers.

Why this piece of social analysis at the beginning of sermon about The Mystery of Love and Sacrifice? Well, sometimes it’s easier to appreciate the significance of theological or doctrinal questions through a modern experience with which we are familiar. Doctrine only emerged from experience in the Early Church and, as long as we remain connected through history and culture to the Christian tradition, we will glimpse something central to our faith in the way in which our own experiences play out.

Vocation is of course a word that has its origins in Christian vocabulary. The idea of being ’called’, the Latin root of the word, comes from Jesus’ ministry of calling men and women to follow him. The primary vocation of a Christian person is to follow the call of Jesus: in the first instance it’s not a call to do anything in particular apart from to be a disciple. That’s the response we make at baptism and confirmation. To have a vocation at the most fundamental level is this: not to do something special or to be someone special, but to follow Jesus. Before I am a priest, I am a follower of Jesus; before you are a nurse, a lawyer, a parent and the many other ways we live out our vocation, we respond to the call of Jesus. It is worth asking yourself at the outset of this season of Passiontide about how you are doing in your response to that call. When was the last time you reflected on your baptismal or confirmation promises? What is there to celebrate and what is there to confess? A suggestion for a useful Holy Week devotion.

If there is a ‘how’ in the question of what it means to be a disciple, it is perhaps to remember that in our baptism and confirmation we are united with Christ in his death and in his resurrection. Our lives take on this cross and empty-tomb shape, as we are united with Christ in baptism in his love for the world and the sacrifice he makes.  In respect of the cross-shaped living we are called to, which is of course the focus of Passiontide, we might do well to ponder the action of the woman who anoints Jesus.

Let’s spend a few moments reflecting on the moment:

Readers are encouraged to reflect slowly on the next section, giving time to pray and be still where the … appears.

Now be with Mary as she brings the jar of perfume to Jesus…

Sit in silence and leave distractions behind…

Concentrate on quiet breathing…

You look at Jesus…

You see that God so loved the world that he has sent his Son to die for you and for all…

You are part of that story…

You break the seal on the costly jar. Judas gasps…

You pour out the perfume. Jesus looks at you and knows what you are doing…

The scent fills and fills the room. You know that Jesus will give his life for you…

This is how you anoint him for burial…

Holding this picture in your mind…

Reach out to the mystery and wonder that is God…

whose nature is a pouring out of Love…

Close your eyes for one minute, then reopen them and sit in silence for one more minute…

Take time to note anything that may come to you…


And now listen to this poem of Ann Lewin’s:

Deny yourself,

But first establish who you are.

He surely did not mean

We must deny our gifts,

Make ourselves nothing.

Premature self-denial

Ends in stunted growth;

What’s needed is not self-

Negation, but, springing from

Self-awareness, generous

Giving, not up, but out.[1]


Friends, the mystery of Love and Sacrifice is the ‘how’ of vocation, and is easily misunderstood. We so often think of sacrifice primarily as a negative thing, of ‘giving up’ as Lewin so simply points out. But the woman at the feet of Jesus doesn’t think of cost, she doesn’t do a risk assessment or a cost-benefit analysis, out of love she offers the most costly thing she has to the one she knows will give up himself for the greatest meaning of life. She gives out, but doesn’t give up.

This idea of sacrifice is at the heart of the biblical understanding of the word. We have cheapened the idea by reducing it to the idea of taking things away, by reducing it like Judas to the question of cost, rather than the offering of love. This is also why we have lost something profound from the modern understanding of work, when we stepped away from vocation and focused on the transactional. We cannot turn the clock back, of course, but we can and we must recover in our national consciousness this sense of service, honouring with the care that good wages and conditions of service represent, the service of others.

In Passiontide, the two weeks before Easter, our thoughts turn once more to the Cross of Jesus as the place of his ultimate love and sacrifice. On the Cross he becomes both the one who offers the sacrifice and the sacrificial victim, we can ponder the meaning of the word “passion”, which itself has overtones of both love and sacrifice. When we look at the cross let us look at it not as simply a place of suffering and torture but of it as a place of loving sacrifice, as Jesus gives his life for the world. When we do that, we do well to remember that the focus is not the idea of sacrifice of the giving up of something, or even worse, the shedding of blood to appease an angry god. Instead, what Jesus does is not give up his life as much as offer it in love for the sake of the world. This is his sacrifice, prefigured mysteriously in the breaking of the vessel in which the woman’s perfume was held. His body, broken on the cross, is the costliest offering, but one which allows the fragrance of his love to perfume the whole world. This is why we can say his sacrifice is pleasing to God, not because God delights in the shedding of blood, but because God does delight in the offering of life for the sake of others.

This is the Mystery of Love and Sacrifice. A life offered in loving sacrifice. The vocation of the Christian disciple is to do the same. What might that mean for you?


[1] Life Style¸ Ann Lewin, Candles and Kingfishers, 1993.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Enter your details below to receive the St Mary's weekly newsletter.

Get in touch

If you want to know more about St Mary's, contact the clergy or for another enquiry, please use the Contact Us facility below.

Contact Us