The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
10th September 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the story of the Passover.
I’m going to start this sermon by giving what is in effect an extremely advanced notice. The story of the Passover is read in church every year as the Old Testament reading on the evening of Maundy Thursday. This is very important, as it locates the Last Supper and the night of Jesus’ betrayal in the context of the Passover and the slaughter of the Passover Lamb. Unfortunately there are usually more people in the choir than in the congregation on Maundy Thursday, which is rather a pity. You can put the date in your diaries now: Thursday 28th March.
But getting back to why it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Passover…
This is a foundational story for Jews and Christians alike. For Jews, the Passover is God’s decisive act of deliverance: the Egyptians are punished for their oppression of the Israelites, the Israelites are able to escape slavery in Egypt, and are eventually led into the freedom of the Promised Land. The Passover has been celebrated by Jews every year for thousands of years, as they share a ritual meal comprising many elements but including unleavened bread and wine. Through the course of the meal they recount the story of the Passover, in which God’s justice and God’s saving power are forcefully revealed.
For Christians, the Passover story has been the primary framework for understanding Jesus’ work of redemption from the very beginning. The gospels don’t quite agree on the exact timings – John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels recall it slightly differently – but all agree that Jesus arrest, trial and death, and the events leading up to it, happened at the time of the Jewish Passover celebrations. For this reason Easter and the Passover tend to fall at around the same time of year.
In Christian tradition, the story of the Passover and the bigger Exodus narrative are given another layer of meaning: whilst a literal historical sense of the story is still acknowledged, there is also a spiritual interpretation connected with Jesus’ death and the events leading up to it.
The slavery of the Israelites in Egypt is understood as referring to the alienation and unfreedom of the human condition, in which in the language of both St John the Evangelist and St Paul we are slaves to sin. Jesus becomes the Passover Lamb, the Lamb without blemish, His Blood poured out as a propitiatory offering. This sacrifice delivers us from that wrath which is the response of a just and loving God to a selfish, indifferent and cruel humanity. But this same sacrifice also liberates us from our alienation and unfreedom, releasing us to enjoy the fulness of life in Christ, which is our Promised Land. And as the people of Israel share in eating the Passover Lamb as a sign of their corporate identity as the people of God, so too we share in the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist, consuming the Lamb of God under the form of the consecrated bread and wine, elements which are themselves derived from the Passover meal. By this we are assured, as the Prayer Book puts it, that “we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of” His “Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people”.
The twentieth century also saw a renewed emphasis amongst Christians on the moral and political aspects of the Passover, as the story was taken up both by Liberation Theologians in Latin America, and by Martin Luther King and others in the USA; their political interpretations of the Passover provide an important counterweight to the sometimes excessively spiritualized understandings of the story that have dominated Christian theology.
There are two other aspects of the Passover that are important in connection with the Last Supper and so also with the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The first is the teaching element. In our Old Testament reading this morning, the Lord says: “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations”. There is a sense of a tradition and a story to be handed down through the generations, and this is indeed what the Jewish people have done and continue to do. But the language here also reminds us of Jesus’ language at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me”. Again there is the same sense of a tradition being handed on, and Christians too have faithfully obeyed this command through 2000 years. The sacred shared meal keeps alive the story of our redemption.
The second is that the Israelites are commanded to eat the Passover with their loins girded, their shoes on their feet, and their staff in their hand. They are to eat it hurriedly. This is because they are shortly to pack up and escape from Egypt into the wilderness. Those who like to keep their church services on the shorter side may perhaps appreciate this instruction! At the Last Supper too Jesus and the disciples are shortly to leave the Upper Room, and Jesus is to accomplish His own Exodus. Ultimately the disciples are themselves to be sent out into the world, not to escape Egypt but rather to proclaim the gospel and to bring others to the table. The liturgy of the Eucharist ends with the dismissal, and the gathered congregation is sent out into the world, that the forgiveness of sins may be made known to all, and that through this sacrament of our redemption, people from every tribe and nation may be incorporated into the mystical body of Christ, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.