May my words be heard in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is said, that there are places where the air is so thin, you can almost touch God. And maybe you’ve been somewhere, where you feel that you could literally reach through the veil between Earth and Heaven.
Actually, I would like to say, that we’ve all been to one of those places. Because, the place is just behind me. It is in this Church and Churches across the world. It is, The Altar.
Many years ago, when I was asked to approach the Altar, I had absolutely no idea what it was. I had assumed that it was a collective term for everything on the raised platform or, as many people still call it the stage, from where the service is led. I eventually discovered that the altar is the table that the clergy use for Communion. Much, much later I discovered that the Altar is a most sacred and Holy place.
During the Protestant Reformation, people felt that the term altar could be theologically mis-leading and many changed it to Communion Table. Anglicans felt that both terms were correct, because it is the altar from which we receive the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and, the table on which we celebrate Communion. Today, churches in the Reform tradition still call it a Communion Table and Anglicans generally call it the altar.
Whatever you want to call it, Altar is prominent in the Bible. It comes from the Latin altārium, which means “high,” and adolere, which means “to sacrifice.” It is a sacred place for sacrifices and gifts offered up to God.
In order for Christians to live by faith, we must first build an altar. There are over 400 references to altars in the Scriptures. The first mentioned is in Genesis 8:20 when after leaving the Ark Noah built an altar on which sacrificial offerings could be made. It’s also a place of dedication, to the Lord. Before the time of Moses, men such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Gideon made altars to commemorate an encounter with the Lord, to signify an event between the Lord and man and to preserve that place at which to worship.
Today, the alter is arguably the most important aspect of church and church service. A place where we offer everything we are and have to God. A place where we take all that we are and all that we have and place it on the altar.
It has a most incredible sense of the sacred. It is the most Holy object. It stands as a sign of Christ Himself, Priest, Victim, and Altar of His own sacrifice.
It is also symbolic of the Last Supper, the Altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Cross of Calvary, the Tomb of Christ’s burial and resurrection, and the Altar in Heaven.
And of course, this is where we celebrate the Eucharist together where we can find a real presence of Christ.
When Fr Mark commemorates and joins us to Christ’s sacrifice it is here, in this most Holy place where bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood. The bread of life. The blood which is our spiritual drink.
And as Fr Mark breaks the bread, the choir leads us in our song of prayer to Christ, the Agnus Dei, The Lamb of God.
It was John the Baptist who, according to John 1:29 called out:29 ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’
But what did he mean
Lamb or amnos, in Greek, means a young sheep. Of God, means ‘sent from God.’ Takes away, describes what the young sheep, the lamb, will do with sin. Sin, is the breaking of God’s law. It is everything opposed to God and it distances humankind from Him. Which is why sin and forgiveness of sin are major themes in the Bible. Sin needs to be cleansed. And finally, Of the world, refers to all humanity, for all time.
Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
A Lamb. Most of us are repulsed by the thought of animal sacrifice. But in history, God provided animal sacrifice to atone men and women’s sins and the altars they built were where this took place. In Leviticus 17:11 we read ‘For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar, it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.’ Atonement is a cleansing from sin, a reconciliation with God. So as a penalty for sin, the person would bring a lamb or goat as a sin offering to the Lord. It was an elaborate sacrificial system.
But then the Hebrews realised that these sacrifices were inadequate to really cleanse sin. After-all, God did not ‘owe’ them forgiveness just because they went though some ritual, nor was God impressed by this killing of animals. The Hebrews realized that man needed someone greater than mankind to actually atone for, and do away, with sin.
And that is the context in which John the Baptists says ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. The analogy of the sacrificial Lamb perfectly reflects the sacrifice of Jesus, to save all humankind from sin.
We are saved, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. When we come together in fellowship to take the blood and wine, the Eucharist is joining the Church in Christ’s sacrifice made available for us and for our salvation. It is the Lord’s Supper given to His Church ‘in remembrance’. It is participation in that sacrifice here and now that enables us to be transformed by the Spirit, discover the love of God and be renewed with the grace and strength that we need to persevere in faith.
And although humankind’s debt of sin has been paid once and for all by Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, Apostle Paul said in Romans 12, that we should offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.
So the altar is an altar of living sacrifice to God. In this act of the Eucharist, we die to self and say yes to God. We give our body as His temple and our heart as His altar. We give our mind to be renewed and transformed in His image. We give ourselves to Him.
Jesus Christ came for every age. His salvation must be given anew in every age. Sin is ever present in everyone, and here, at the altar, we are brought in closer communion with God our Father.
So close, that the air is so thin, you can almost touch the awe and reverence of God through the veil between earth and Heaven.
John 1:29 ESVA Leviticus 17:11 NIV Romans 12