This is the sermon I preached on Maundy Thursday 2011. It was part of a sermon series on John’s gospel, which left me with the crucifixion on Maundy Thursday! But, the more I looked into it, the more I understood that John’s account of the Last Supper was actually contained within his account of the crucifixion. I particularly used Beasley-Murray’s Word commentary on John, and Tom Wright’s little book, The meal Jesus gave us. There was too much information I wanted to get across, so I turned it into a narrative in 3 parts instead. I’m quite pleased with the end result!
Picture the scene:
The Israelites are packed, ready and waiting to go. Ready and waiting to finally escape from the slavery of Egypt into the freedom of the promised land. They are tired, and scared, and excited. Pharaoh has refused repeatedly to let his slaves go. Moses and Aaron have pleaded for their people’s freedom, but Pharaoh refused. Every time he refused, another, more serious, plague was visited on the land of Egypt. But, the Israelites are packed and ready to go. They have suffered long enough. Tonight is the night of the tenth, most serious, and final plague. The firstborn of every household, human and animal, will be slain by the angel of death. So the Israelites can smell roasting lamb, mixed with the stench of blood. They can taste unleavened bread and lamb as they sit, packed and ready to go, nervous and expectant, waiting.
For the Israelites have been told by God how to escape from the effects of this plague. The angel of death to pass over the Israelite’s houses, if they take an unblemished male lamb, and slaughter it. The Israelites are to slaughter the unblemished lamb without breaking any of its bones. They are to take a stem of hyssop and daub the doorways with the blood of the slaughtered lamb. Then, when the Lord sees the blood daubed on the doorways he will cause the angel of death to pass over those houses. The blood of the sacrificed lamb will save the Israelites from otherwise certain destruction.
But this is not a one-off event. Every year, once the Israelites have entered the promised land, they are to again slaughter a lamb. They are to slaughter an unblemished lamb, and eat it with unleavened bread. And as they eat they are to remind themselves of those momentous events, and of all that the Lord has done for them, in bringing them freedom. This is a lasting ordinance, to be passed down through the generations. It is to be a regular reminder of what the Lord did for the Israelites. It is to be the way in which the whole Israelite community are to be brought together. They are to be brought together as they slaughter the lamb and celebrate the Passover meal, with all Israelites, past and present. They are to taste again the unleavened bread and roast lamb. They are to be drawn together as if they too had been packed and ready to leave that momentous evening in Egypt. It is as if they were there, about to be led out of slavery to freedom. They too are part of that redeemed people.
And so it continued, year after year. But, a new taste was added to the bread and the lamb. A new taste of bitter herbs. Because the Israelites carried their sin with them out of Egypt. The Israelites carried their wickedness, their rebellion, their idolatry, their desire to put themselves first out of their Egyptian slavery. And so they spent forty years wandering in the desert, and the promised land was quickly tainted with their deeds.
Even their king, their anointed king, failed and fell. Their king, whom God promised that his descendants would inherit the throne for ever. After his most dreadful sins, adultery and having an innocent man killed, their king, David, realised the depth of his own sinfulness. He wrote a psalm of penitence and lament, crying out to God for forgiveness. David wrote “cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be made clean”. Water and hyssop, used to cleanse those who were unclean, to draw them back into a relationship with God’s chosen people and God himself. But David recognised that this was not enough. He wanted God to go further. So he pleaded with God: “create in me a pure heart, O God” A call for God’s recreation, for God to bring about a new creation.
So, picture another scene:
A group of Jews gather to celebrate the Passover yet again, to celebrate the great escape from Egypt. They are tired, scared, and excited. For as they celebrate the escape from Egypt, they are thinking about the longed-for escape from Rome. For Rome has replaced Egypt as the slave master; a slavery enforced by the legions, but a slavery this time of hearts and minds, not whips and chains. This group of Jews though, are excited because of what they have seen their leader do. He has challenged the establishment, those who have sold out to the Romans, and those who have sold out to legalism. And they are scared and tired too because their leader, Jesus, has done just that, has challenged the status quo, has challenged the powerful, and yet not yet overthrown them. They are waiting for him to finish the revolution, to bring freedom. And they taste the bread, and bitter herbs, and drink the wine of the past freedom, and long deep in their hearts, for the freedom that is yet to come.
When, suddenly, everything changes. The long-familiar comforting, hopeful words are disrupted and changed. The disciples are confused, perplexed. What is going on? Has Jesus gone too far this time? What does he mean? “This is my body, do this in remembrance of me”? “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”? What does he mean? What can this be?
So, picture a different scene:
Jesus’ disciples have fled, dismayed, scattered. So they do not see a new king enthroned. And nor do the crowd that does gather, outside the walls, in the heat, hot and sticky, with the buzz of flies. But a king is crowned, lifted up, and a notice heralds his kingship. The notice reads “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. He is crowned with thorns, and is lifted up on a wooden cross. But, this notice is a statement, an announcement, a challenge to all those who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as king. Pilate refuses to change the proclamation of kingship. The new king is enthroned as he prepares to return to his kingdom of heaven.
A king is enthroned, and the Passover lamb is slaughtered. Unblemished and unbroken, the Passover lamb is slaughtered. Blood gushes out of the wound. But, this is the final Passover sacrifice, the once-for-all-time sacrifice. There is the thud of nails and cries of pain. Jesus, the Passover lamb is unblemished with sin, and is unbroken because he is already, really, truly dead. Jesus, the Passover lamb has had sin laid upon him, and will cause the angel of death to pass over those who believe. Jesus, the Passover lamb will lead his chosen people out of the slavery of sin into the freedom of the promised new creation. And as signs of that water gushes out of his side, hyssop is used and so certain destruction is averted.
A king is enthroned, the Passover lamb is slaughtered, and a life’s work is accomplished. “It is finished!” cries the man who is God. His task is accomplished. But, Jesus’ disciples have fled, dismayed, scattered. So, they do not see the new king enthroned, the Passover lamb sacrificed for them, the task accomplished, the power of the Spirit beginning to move. The disciples see their hopes shattered, their dreams dead. They have not yet seen what we see, that first Easter day when Jesus rises to new life in triumph. They cannot see that triumph signposted in his death.
“It is finished!” A shout of triumph, that everything has been accomplished. “It is finished”! Our signal that Jesus’ work has been completed, and that our work has begun. The king of heaven has brought his kingdom to earth. And there is more. Jesus gives up his Spirit. Jesus gives up his Spirit to his followers. The king leaves his successors his Spirit the eternal, refreshing water of the Spirit to continue his work. For Jesus brings redemption from slavery, but more than that. Not only freedom from eternal judgement, but life as well. Life in all its fullness, life brought about by the Spirit. That is what Jesus brings to us, a new creation which starts now. The Spirit is handed over to the king’s successors on earth, so that the kingdom of heaven will be brought to earth, in the here-and-now.
So, Lord, we act host to your resurrection in our meal tonight, we remember and participate in your final meal, your final acts. As we do all this may we remember what has finished and what has begun. May we remember that our sin is finished, your task accomplished. May we remember that your kingdom has begun on earth. May we remember that your Spirit has been handed over to us. May we be brought together as your people, your body, as we all eat and drink the bread and wine and celebrate what you have done for us.
Lord, may we see you as king, as sacrifice, as Spirit-giver.
Lord, give us the courage to show ourselves as your disciples, following your will in our lives.
Lord, may we proclaim your death in all that we think, say, and do, until you come. May our remembering may not be simply with our minds, but with our lives. May we know our freedom, and live our lives to the full. And may your Spirit empower us. Amen.