Christians are called to share in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Here is a support for this statement from the Scriptures:
I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)
In his Letter to the church in Galatia, St. Paul sets forth a powerful challenge to Christians. These Christians of Galatia, having initially accepted salvation through Jesus, had begun to follow the old practices of the Jewish covenant law. Paul was distressed by this, and launched an impassioned argument that it is not by perfect law-keeping that people are saved from sin, but only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the Cross made it no longer necessary to make the sacrifices of the Law of Moses. Nor was it necessary to live the lifestyle of the old covenant. Jesus’ new covenant-testament had its own lifestyle that the Galatians should have lived.
This places in context the sentence which is quoted above. It summarizes quite nicely the identity of a Christian who lives in the state of grace, and is called to sacrifice. What does this mean? Paul states:
“I have been crucified with Christ”
How is this? It is obviously not to be taken in the literal physical sense, in that Paul was not physically crucified. But is it instructive to point out that Paul did not say, “Christ has been crucified for me”, rather, “I have been crucified with Christ.” How? Did Paul do something to gain the benefits of Christ’s crucifixion – namely salvation? No – we just read how works of the righteousness cannot save a person. The only other option is that Jesus has done something to impart his merits into Paul’s life. This was not imparted simply by a relationship with Paul, but was given into Paul’s very flesh. Paul is able to say that Jesus’ crucifixion has entered into his very flesh, so that he can claim “I have been crucified with Christ.” So much so that Paul goes on to say:
“yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me”
Paul seems to be making a few statements here. It could be said that Paul is saying, “I was crucified, yet I live”, just as Jesus was crucified, and now lives. Paul could also be saying that his mortal life continues as before, yet it is really Christ who is living in him now, and not the old Saul of Tarsus. His life remains, yet is fundamentally changed. Christ did not live in him before, and now He does! Paul goes on to further clarify:
“insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.”
What does he mean by, “to live in the flesh?” Paul is obviously referring to his physical life. He is not saying that he would be physically dead without Jesus. Paul is referring to a kind of renewed physical life – a new life that begins today, in a renewed flesh. It is a renewed flesh that obtains its life not from works of righteousness, but through faith in Jesus. Paul chooses a fascinating title to use here in referring to Jesus: the “Son of God”. The Son of God is a reference to the historical Jesus, who is a divine person. Often used as a term for angels in the Old Testament, “Son of God” was the term used by Caiaphas in his Jesus’ trial, asking him if he really thought he was the Messiah (we remember that Jesus responded “I AM”, a claim of divinity, taken by all who heard it to be blasphemous). Paul’s renewed physical and spiritual life comes from the Son of God who personally loved him, and gave himself up personally for him. “Given up” in this context must refer back to Jesus’ crucifixion.
So, we have a Bible verse, placed in its proper context in the Biblical narrative, of St. Paul claiming that:
A. Jesus has imparted the merits of his crucifixion into the very flesh of Paul, so much so that, Paul can say that he has been crucified with Jesus.
B. Paul’s mortal life has been fundamentally changed into a completely new, transformed physical existence of “Christ in Paul”.
C. This life is made possible by Paul’s faith that Jesus personally loved him and died for him.
Here we come to the question of sharing in Christ’s sacrifice. Just as Paul shared in Jesus’ sacrifice, so do we. Paul sets forth for us in this short verse a great description of how Jesus’ one saving sacrifice interacts with our everyday physical existence. His saving sacrifice is imparted into our physical lives, so that we too can claim that our flesh is crucified with His. This has the effect of transforming us, not by redeeming corrupt flesh, or changing our identity, but by renewing our flesh, and identifying us as Christians. This is only possible by an act of faith on our part that Jesus Christ, a divine Messiah, personally loves us and died for us. If we lose that faith, we lose that life.
With this Biblical evidence in our hands, how should be treat sacrifice? Should get rid of our altars of sacrifice? Should remove crucifixes from our churches? Should we not have devotions to the passion and death of the Lord, to focus solely on the Resurrection? Should we stop calling some Christians “priests” of sacrificial ministry, because it is an affront to God? Should we not tell the “priesthood of baptized believers” about how their sufferings are Christ’s sufferings, and instead focus on how Jesus’ Gospel will make them happy and prosperous, diffusing all concern? (as if it actually worked that way!) Does this notion of sacrifice suggest that sacraments which impart God’s grace into a person is an invented idea? Does Paul’s teaching suggest that sacraments prevent people from making a faith choice in a personal relationship with Jesus, when faith is an essential part of receiving this new life anyhow?
In other words, is Catholic belief on the sacrificial nature of the Christian life incompatible with Paul’s teaching, as is so often suggested? No. Sacrifice is an essential part of being a Christian. We need to experience more sacrifice in our church life other than simply referring to the historical Crucifixion. We are called to share in Christ’s crucifixion, so that our mortal lives may be renewed, and that we might be one with Christ, today and forever. Ideologies that tell people that they don’t need to suffer will always be popular. We don’t need to suffer needlessly, nor do we need to work our way back to God via painful works of righteousness. But we do need to join in the sufferings of Christ, and make the sacrifices to which God has called us. It is our way to the glory of the Resurrection.