We must peer beyond Passover lambs and scapegoats if we are to understand the LOVE that we call God – a Maundy Thursday sermon

Every Sunday I stand at the altar and preside over a mystery. A mystery that has its roots in the events we remember this Holy Thursday.  On Maundy Thursday, we gather together to contemplate mystery. But just because we know what will happen tomorrow, we cannot fully comprehend this mystery.

The various gospel writers have created a record of Jesus’ last evening that is filled with bittersweet images. Our mystery begins with the foreshadowing of what is to come as we hear the name Judas Iscariot. Judas, son of Simon, is perhaps the most trusted of Jesus’ disciples, after all Judas is the one who is trusted with the financial resources of this struggling little group. Even though we know Judas’ role in this unfolding mystery, we must remember that Judas is among those who Jesus loved to the end. But long before the silver changes hands, we already know enough to dread the betrayal.

Our mystery continues with the tender intimacy of a teacher washing the dirty feet of his beloved bumbling students, as Jesus breaks the bonds of decorum to demonstrate the fierce tenderness of loving service. The image of Jesus washing the feet of his followers still seems undignified all these centuries later. So, is it any wonder that the intimacy of Jesus’ tenderness is more than Simon Peter can bear? In order to get beyond their inhibitions, Jesus must spell it out for them.  “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Sovereign —and you are right, for that is what I AM. So, if I, your Sovereign and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you and example.” Jesus has washed their feet; all their feet, even Judas and the talk of betrayal continues as Jesus returns to the meal.

The writer of the Gospel of John does not record the details of the breaking of the bread or the passing of the cup. These details are recorded by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians and by the writers of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke: “on the night he was betrayed, our Savior Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, saying, “This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper, he took the cup and said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do it in remembrance of me.  For every time, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim Jesus’ death until Christ comes.” Week after week, year after year, generation after generation, century after century Christian priests have presided over ritual communions using what have become known as the words of institution. In remembrance of Jesus we eat and drink. The body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And therein lies the mystery. The mystery of communion. Sometimes the meal has transforming power, nourishing power, restorative, profound power. At other times the meal is just one more religious ritual carried out by rote, experienced without feeling, or impact. Sometimes the meal seems foreign to us, almost alien, perhaps even barbaric.

To peer back through the centuries that divide us from the meal itself is no easy task. We may have a faint understanding of the meal as some sort of reenactment of the Passover, when a blood sacrifice was used to ensure that God would pass over the first born of the chosen people. But what does that have to do with us? Surely, we don’t need a blood sacrifice to save us from the power of God? Most 21st century Christians have long since forgotten the Passover, and those who do remember have lost their appetite for a blood sacrifice. Unlike most of the Followers of the Way, we did not grow up in close contact with animals; our meat comes plastic-wrapped and there’s no need to even think about the fact that our life is sustained by the death of animals. So, simply describing Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose blood sets us free to be people of God, will not suffice. And we 21st century Christians have a dismal view of scapegoating. So, to simply describe Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, leaves a bad taste in our mouths as we try to understand the character of a God who would require a scapegoat to atone for our sin. The Jewish festivals of Passover and Atonement may have provided useful images to explain the horrendous events of this Holy Week to the Followers of the Way, who would have been familiar with the ancient traditions of sacrifice, but such images leave we 21st century Christians with a picture of a cruel, judgmental bloodthirsty God. So, we must peer beyond Passover lambs and scapegoats if we are to understand the LOVE that we call God.

I’d like you to imagine the people you love most in this world. Try to picture each of them gathered together in a room. You have gathered there for a meal. A meal that only you know might very well be your last. What would you say to them? What would you tell them on this night of all nights, when you know that your life with them may be over soon? What words of wisdom would you impart? How would you tell them that your life was in danger and you might very well be called upon to risk your life for the love of them? What would you say? How would you prepare them? How would you comfort them? What would you do? How would you want them to remember you?

Jesus gathered those he loved together, and to show them how very much he loved them, he served them. Gently, tenderly he bathed their feet. Sure, it might have embarrassed them. But they would never forget his touch or the sight of Jesus their Rabbi crawling around on all fours washing their tired dusty feet. Then Jesus explained to them why he was teaching them this particular lesson at this particular time. Jesus tried to be gentle when he warned them:  “one of you will betray me and even the best of you will deny me.” They didn’t want to believe him. They were distraught. So, Jesus tried to comfort them. Don’t worry.  It will be all right. Love one another, just as I have loved you. I will always be with you. Whenever you get together, I will be there. I will be right there, when you pour the wine and raise a glass to ask the blessing…I will be there with you. And when you break the bread and say the prayers I will be there.  As you drink and eat, I will be with you. When you eat bread and drink wine you will remember me.   And you will know just as surely as I know that God who is the LOVE that binds us together, God is with us. No matter how difficult things seem right now. No matter what the world throws at you, you will know that LOVE is with us. As you raise a glass to drink to me, you will remember the promise of all that I have taught you and you will raise your glass to the new promises that I have showed you. Every time you gather in my name and you eat and drink you will be proclaiming the LOVE I have for you and the way I taught you to LOVE and to be LOVE, and I will be alive among you and yes, the world may have killed me, so you will proclaim my death until I come again, in the breaking of the bread and the raising of the cup. In the meantime, I’ve taught you all that you need to face the violence that is to come and to put an end to the killing. Love one another. Love one another the way I have loved you. That’s how I want you to remember me! That’s how I want people to recognize you as my own; Let them see you LOVE one another! By your LOVE for one another the shall see the LOVE that is God in the world

It’s simple really. You gather your loved ones together and you try to prepare them for what is to come. You love them. You comfort them. You give them hope, because you promise that not even death will keep you from them. You trust them to love one another just as you have loved them. That’s how you want to be remembered, in the loving. Sure, you know they won’t find it easy. You are sure that one of them disagreed with your methods and was going to betray you. When this happens, things will get tough and one of them will deny that they even knew you and most of the others will just run away. But when they find each other, and they sit down together and they break bread and raise a glass then they’ll remember you and your love for them, and then your love will have new life. And when you’ve gone, well they’ll make a big deal over things. They’ll try to remember the details but over the years their memories will solidify and maybe they’ll put words into your mouth as they struggle to make sense of it all. When they try to explain it to their children and to their children’s children they’ll complicate things with elaborate explanations and complicated theories about what it all means. But the LOVE will remain. The mystery isn’t about the meal. Holy Communion evolved over time as we tried to figure out the mystery the real mystery. The real mystery is LOVE. LOVE is what we contemplate on this and every Holy Thursday. The mystery of LOVE. God is LOVE.  God loves us. We are loved. And so, we LOVE as Christ loves.

The Spirit of LOVE lives in us. When we gather together in the name of that LOVE that we call God, we rejoice knowing that not even death can separate us from LOVE. LOVE lives in the breaking of the bread and so we raise a glass of wine, ask the blessing and drink to remember that LOVE comes to us, LOVE may die, but LOVE lives again and again and again; there is nothing that can separate us from our God who is LOVE. So, as we eat and drink, we proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died.  Christ is Risen and Christ comes again, and again!

LOVE HAS DIED.  LOVE IS RISEN AND LOVE COMES AGAIN and AGAIN. SO LOVE.  LOVE ONE ANOTHER.  JUST AS THE ONE WHO IS LOVE HAS LOVED YOU. THIS IS HOW LOVE WILL KNOW THAT YOU ARE LOVE’S DISCIPLES THAT YOU TRULY LOVE ONE ANOTHER.   

One thought on “We must peer beyond Passover lambs and scapegoats if we are to understand the LOVE that we call God – a Maundy Thursday sermon

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