Friday, March 21, 2008

Holy Thursday

This was preached on Maundy Thursday, 2008

Holy Thursday, Year A, 2008
Luke 22: 14-20

All during Lent, you know if you’ve been here that Cam, our Rector has been reinterpreting the gospels for the day. Today is my turn. What you’ve just heard is from the NRSV – the new, revised standard version, which is what most mainline protestant denominations use in Sunday worship, as well as many Roman Catholic churches. But here is the SRV: Sare Revised Version, of Luke 22: 14-20.

When it was time to sit down and have the traditional Passover meal, Jesus took his place at the table, and his disciples-cum-apostles took their places, too.

“You don’t know,” Jesus started, “how much it means for me to sit here with you all, share this Passover meal. It’s not just another holiday meal to me, friends. You all know that trouble is brewing and I’m the one stirring the pot. I’ll be in the thick of things, and I’ve got a hunch that this will be the last holiday meal I’ll eat in this world. But eating is a fine thing, and better than that,” he said. He took up a loaf of bread and said a quick word of gratitude for it. “It’s just bread, but it’s the stuff of our mortal lives. Take it. Eat it,” he said, passing it around. “And when you do, remember the New Covenant of God: Justice and Peace – it’s what makes our mortal lives worth living. And remember how it will have had to be forged: with my very body.” Then he took up the cup of wine and did the same thing. “A covenant requires blood to seal it, that’s tradition, so here’s a toast to tradition: Whenever you drink wine, remember that it will have been my blood that seals this covenant.”

There ends the reading.

Now, I’ll grant you that this is not a direct or literal translation – if it was, Jesus would sound less like a Floridian. But then, it isn’t meant to be any of those things – it was reinterpreted to increase understanding of some of the underlying themes. So let me expand on some of those.

What we’re watching here is an older ritual being turned into a new ritual. Or, if you like, a new, clearer meaning being laid on top of, and being incorporated into an existing ritual, like you might incorporate yeast into bread. Now, the existing ritual is the Passover meal, which still is the traditional Jewish celebration of the Exodus, and the redemption of the people of Israel, no longer slaves, but free people. Moses was the star of this show, and he was the beginning of the prophets of Israel – the first and the best. And what Moses was doing was returning this community of people to the path of the covenant – and now we go deeper into the history of Israel. The Covenant was made with Abraham. Follow me and do what I say, says God, and I will give you land (which means you can be self-sustaining), family (which means you will live forever, through your descendants), blessing (which means you will be successful and vibrant), and you will be a blessing to the nations (which means you will model for the world what it looks like when a community follows a single god of justice – which we theologians call ‘ethical monotheism’ 24 centuries later, ethical monotheism has become very popular, but it wasn’t then, not so much.). So, the covenant was made with Abraham. It was delivered by Joshua. It was restored by Moses. And if you will, refined, by Jesus. Justice and peace were not unheard of concepts – they were, in fact, supported by all the laws of the people, but they were not lived out.

Lest we start indulging in a little self-satisfied anti-Semitism, let’s have a humble look at our own history and laws, as a country – just a slight detour, I promise.

Over my desk I have a beautiful picture of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, with the Cherry Blossom trees all in bloom around it. And there is a quote of his that he wrote, on that picture. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is in the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson wrote, and yet how long did it take for all men to actually be seen as equal in the sight of the law, by the letter of the law? And how many years for all humans be seen as equal? And how often, even today, is there injustice that flies in the face of this particular declaration? All the time. In every city. In every state. Now we’ve got this justice thing down in theory, but we’ve yet to master the practice of it – not on a personal level, and not even on an institutional level, a systemic level.

Jesus noticed just this sort of thing in his own time – it wasn’t an issue of racism or gender bias that he was inflamed about, however, and there was no separation of church and state – or, if you will, temple and state. Unless, you consider the Roman Empire. There was a great division between the will of the Emperor and the will of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (which in later centuries, got all turned around and mixed up – but that’s another story for another time). And his noticing, and his preaching, and his riot in the temple, it got him executed.

But before that happened, he had one last holiday meal with his friends - his followers, the ones who would carry on once he was dead. And so woven into the older ritual that celebrated being liberated from oppressors and returning to the promise of God, is the newer ritual that celebrates a future of justice and peace, and the promise of God. Passover gives birth to Communion.

Bread to feed the body,
that’s the reality of it, that’s what we can hold in our hands. And the symbolism is

the bread that IS the body.
But that’s just the beginning of the symbolism. Because

the bread that IS the body
is the symbol of the new promise, the new covenant of Justice and Peace (which isn’t a new concept, but at least a renewed promise). And

the bread that IS the body
is the symbol of what it took to create it, someone died to make this real, one man seen as a sacrifice, because sacrifice was the way to see things like this, back then, though the thought, the literal thought of human sacrifice horrifies us now, as it should. And it harkens back, for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, it harkens back to the symbols of the long-time existing covenant with that justice-loving God (so different from all the other gods lounging around, rewarding pride and arrogance, ignoring suffering and injustice, rewarding warriors, ignoring casualties – those gods, we’ll have nothing to do with those gods, thank you very much)

the bread that IS the body
harkens back to the old covenant with our justice-loving God who will not ignore it when your behavior – personal behavior, or corporate behavior - has hurt someone else, and requires you to sacrifice something of your own, money, or crops, or livestock, because that practice harkens back to even older beliefs that a wrongdoing, a sin, is something you carry with you until you give it to something else – put it on an animal, like a goat, pack all the sins on goat and shove it out into the desert, and that is where the idea of a scapegoat came from – it’s a substitution that expiates your sins, because atonement is required.

The bread that IS the body
says don’t get so involved with atonement that you cede your responsibility for
being part of the solution.

The bread that IS the body
says you can’t have peace through victory, even though Rome says you can. True peace comes only through justice. When people are treated justly throughout the world, then we will have peace, true peace.

The bread that IS the body
says you can apologize for injustice until you’re blue in the face, but you’re still a part of the problem until you start doing justice. And

the bread that IS the body
says you don’t need to be perfect at these things, but you do need to be trying, because the Kingdom of God is here, the New Covenant is made with my body and my blood (for those of you that still insist on the old way of sacrifice) and for it to work, you must participate.

The bread that IS the body
is our daily reminder, every time we eat, that we must participate in the Kingdom of God, the dream of Justice and Peace, to make it work.

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