Sermon delivered Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Franklin, Tenn.
Two weeks ago, we began reading through chapter 6 of the Gospel of John in our lectionary, with the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Last week, some of the people who were fed followed Jesus to Capernaum and started asking him questions about who he was and what they must do to follow God. Jesus says that they must believe in him as the one whom God has sent, and tells them that he is the bread of life.
This week, we pick up the story with the people’s reactions to Jesus’s comments. “What on earth is this guy talking about?” they ask each other. “What does he mean, he’s the ‘bread of life’? And how can he have ‘come down from heaven’ when we know who his parents are?” It doesn’t make much sense to them – and it doesn’t make much sense to some of the disciples, either. Later in chapter six, after Jesus finishes talking about how he’s going to give his flesh as bread for the world and people must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life, the author of John’s Gospel tells us that “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66)
These teachings from Jesus about eating his flesh and drinking his blood lose some of their “shock value” on us because we are used to hearing similar language each week in the Eucharist. The bread is the “body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and the wine is “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” These words are probably familiar and non-threatening, maybe even comforting, for most of us, and since we hear this passage from John’s Gospel with a knowledge and understanding of the Eucharist, these words about eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood may seem metaphorical and benign.
But even within the context of the Eucharist, language about eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood has been controversial in the history of the church. One of the earliest accusations against the followers of Jesus after his death was that they were cannibals – because they spoke of eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. There were even rumors that Christians sacrificed babies to provide the flesh and blood for their cannibalistic rituals. The mistaken belief that Christians were taking part in such inhumane and abhorrent practices was used to justify persecution of Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus’s death. Although that particular controversy is likely over – I highly doubt that any non-Christians today perceive us as cannibals – the language of eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood still sparks debate among Christians – between those who believe that the consecrated elements of bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus and those who believe that the bread and wine are just symbols for Jesus’s body and blood.
But why is the central ritual of Christianity one that has to do with eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood? The short answer is because Christians believe this is what Jesus commanded his followers to do – to remember the last meal that he shared with his disciples, when he told them that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood.
But why did Jesus do such a thing? And why was he already talking about himself as the bread of life and his flesh as bread for the world in the middle of his ministry in Galilee? The key is found in the Jewish festival of Passover.
Those of you who were here two weeks ago may remember that Passover is very important to the theological claim the author of John’s Gospel is making about Jesus: that Jesus is the Messiah and the new Passover lamb. We looked at the ways in which John’s version of the story of the feeding of the five thousand portrayed Jesus as the Messiah, and I told you that I’d be talking more about Jesus as the Passover lamb in a few weeks. Jesus’s words in today’s passage from John’s Gospel about giving his flesh as bread for the world make more sense in connection with the Passover imagery that is so strong in the Gospel of John.
Passover is the Jewish religious festival that celebrates the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. You may remember the stories from the Hebrew Bible: while Moses was trying to convince the Pharaoh to free the Israelites, God brings a series of plagues on the land of Egypt as a way of showing the Pharaoh that Moses was serious and was indeed speaking the Word of God. The final plague was a slaughter of all the firstborn of Egypt – people and livestock alike. Before this horrific event happened, God instructed the Israelites to sacrifice lambs and to spread their blood on the doorframes of their households. The name “Passover” comes from the fact that this blood served a sign to God so that he would “pass over” those households with the blood on the doors and not kill anyone inside; the blood of the lamb was a protection against the power of death that overshadowed the land of Egypt. After all the firstborn of Egypt are struck dead, the Pharaoh finally agrees to free the Israelites. When he changes his mind and pursues them into the desert, he and his entire army are killed in the Red Sea while the Israelites pass through on dry land. Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus details God’s command to the people of Israel to commemorate that day as a perpetual ordinance, with specific instructions about how to celebrate the Passover – to kill a lamb and eat it with bitter herbs and unleavened bread.
All four Gospel accounts tell us that Jesus died in Jerusalem, sometime during the weeklong observances surrounding Passover. But while Matthew, Mark, and Luke all indicate that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples the night before his death, in John’s Gospel, Jesus’s last supper with his disciples is not a Passover meal, but takes place the day before the Passover. In John’s version, on Passover, Jesus is not sharing a meal with his friends, but dying on the cross, crucified at exactly the same time that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover meal. Thus John’s Gospel makes a powerful theological point: Jesus is the new Passover lamb whose sacrifice saves us from death. Just as the blood of the lambs saved the Israelites from the plague of the firstborn in Egypt, the blood of Christ shed at his death saves us from death once and for all.
This theology is reflected in our Eucharistic liturgy. When we say, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast,” we are affirming that Jesus is the Passover lamb whose flesh and blood we are about to eat. This is where Christian imagery about Jesus as the “lamb of God” comes from – it all points back to Passover.
Now, at this point, you might be asking, “So what? Why is this connection with Passover important to us as twenty-first century Christians?”
Most Christians in the world today trace their heritage to the Gentile group in the early church who were not part of the “in crowd” of Jesus’s first, Jewish followers. From that perspective, the fact the central ritual of our faith, the Eucharist, has its roots in the Jewish festival of Passover might not look so wonderful at first. After all, the whole story of Passover is about God choosing the Israelites and rejecting the Egyptians – about Jews being “in” and Gentiles being “out.” This sharp delineation between “us” and “them” was so strong in first-century Judaism that many Jews who had chosen to follow Jesus as the Messiah had a very hard time accepting the message of people like Paul, who believed that God’s will was for the community of Christ-followers to include all people, Jews and non-Jews alike.
There is certainly potential for Passover to be a triumphalist celebration of God being on “our side” and a rejoicing in the destruction of another people, and those of us of Gentile heritage who were once on the “other side” of that story should be particularly sensitive to the potential for our Eucharist to convey a similarly exclusive message, affirming that we and not others are God’s chosen people. But there are strong correctives to this perspective in both Jewish and Christian tradition.
Some aspects of Jewish tradition have broadened the theme of Passover celebrations to be not just about the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, but a celebration of and praying for the freedom and liberation of all people. There is an entire movement among modern-day Jews of hosting “freedom seders” or “liberation seders,” which are interfaith or multicultural Passover meals designed to celebrate all those who fight against oppression and injustice.
In the Christian tradition, there is a strong precedent to viewing the Eucharist as a meal in which we commemorate not only our own deliverance from death through Christ, but the redemption of the whole world. This theology is expressed beautifully in our Eucharistic Prayer D, the most ancient Eucharistic prayer in our prayer book and one that is also used, with slight variations, in Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. It affirms that “rising from the grave, [Jesus] destroyed death, and made the whole creation new.” Not “made us new” or “saved those who believe in him,” but “made the whole creation new.”
Jesus says in John’s Gospel that he will give his flesh as bread for the world, not just for the community of Israel or for a chosen group of his followers. The “Passover” we celebrate in the Eucharist is like those modern Jewish “freedom seders” – a celebration of our redemption from death and an expression of faith in the power of God to liberate all people from all forms of oppression and violence.