24 March 2016

Homily for Holy Thursday

"Life in the Blood"
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15, 34-35

There is a crimson, scarlet thread woven through all of Scripture. God told Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev. 17:11). The writer to the Hebrews tells all of us: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). In the shed blood of Jesus we have forgiveness. There’s life in that blood.

When a human being leaves a trail of blood, it usually leads back to him and pronounces him guilty of causing death. But when God Himself leaves a trail of blood through His Scriptures, it leads back to Him and proclaims Him our Giver of life.

Go back to the Garden of Eden. When Lent began, we remembered Adam and Eve and the fall into sin. Adam and Eve seek independence from God, but receive death instead. Remember: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). But right on the heels of that pronouncement of death, God promises life. He will send a Savior who will crush the serpent’s head. Not only that, but God Himself sheds blood to proclaim His gift of life: “The LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). The first Gospel promise, then the first shedding of blood. Life in the blood.

Fast forward to about 1450 B.C. God’s chosen people are oppressed slaves in Egypt. God steps in to rescue and liberate them from their cruel bondage. God institutes a meal to go with the rescue. Kill a lamb. Roast it and eat it, along with the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs and the fruit puree. Take the blood of the lamb and paint it on the door frames. When God goes through the land to kill the first-born of all Egypt, He will pass over the houses painted with blood. There’s life and deliverance for those covered with the blood.

Nine months after the children of Israel come out of Egypt, God makes a covenant with His people. God chooses His people, and He promises to be their God. They respond by promising to be faithful to Him alone. Moses presides at the Covenant Liturgy. He builds an altar. He sets up pillars representing the people. He takes blood from the offerings. He pours half of it on the altar—that’s the SACRIFICE. He pours the other half on the people—that’s the COVERING. Then Moses and other elders of Israel go up onto Mt. Sinai. They actually see the God of Israel, and He is gracious to let them remain in His presence. “They beheld God, and ate and drank” (Ex. 24:11). There really is life—and love—in that blood.

All of that Old Testament blood sets us up for the New Testament blood. Now it’s the Feast of the Passover. Jesus knows that His “hour” has come; it’s time for Him to complete His mission and return to His Father. He shows His deep love for His disciples by washing their feet. He also loves them—and us—by fulfilling and transforming the Passover meal. He says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk. 22:15). This would be the last Passover meal of the old testament; it would also be the first Passover meal of the new testament. That first blood in the Garden, that first Passover in Egypt, that first Covenant at Mt. Sinai—they all point us to Jesus. Now Jesus will be the ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice. Now Jesus will shed the final blood. Now Jesus Himself will be the highest and best Passover Lamb. Now Jesus gives the New Covenant. The life is in His blood.

1450 years before Jesus, the Israelites slew the lambs. Those covered with the lambs’ blood would be rescued. Those who ate the lamb would be sustained and nourished for their journey out of slavery. In A.D. 30, Jesus reveals Himself to be “the Lamb of  God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). You who are covered with the blood of Jesus are rescued from your oppressive slavery in sin and death. You who eat Jesus, the Lamb roasted on the cross, are sustained and nourished for your journey through the wilderness of this world. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). St. John proclaims God’s life and love in the blood this way: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the [atoning sacrifice] for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).

So Jesus gives bread and says, “Take, eat; this is My Body which is given for you.” Then Jesus gives a common cup of wine and says, “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Now this is NOT the language of cardboard cut-out representations. Nor is it the language of squishy symbolism. No, this is language of a last will and testament. And, as we know, a last will and testament goes into effect after the person who makes it has died. And once a last will and testament has been put into effect, cannot be changed. Its provisions continue.

Jesus gives us His last will and testament of forgiveness and life in His blood. When He dies it goes into effect. After He dies, the provisions of His will—His forgiveness, His life, and His salvation—continue. In the Old Testament, God promised life and forgiveness in the shed blood of animals. In the New Testament, Jesus wins life and forgiveness by shedding His own blood in death. In the Old Testament, God’s people looked ahead to the final sacrifice that would give perfect forgiveness for all time. In the New Testament, Jesus’ Church receives all the benefits of His sacrifice. Here is Jesus’ last will and testament for you: “Find your forgiveness and your life in My shed blood; focus your life and faith on the common cup of My blood. When you are covered in this blood, you have life.”

We live in a time when people are looking for some kind of spirituality. Many think “spiritual” means the opposite of “material.” Eastern religions such as Hinduism view the “spiritual world” as pure, while the “material world” is evil. We also see this Gnostic heresy alive and well in our Western culture. However, in God’s view—and according to the Bible, the spiritual world and the material world are linked and joined together—like body and soul in a person, or like flame and heat in a bonfire. God actually gives spiritual life through material things. He gives forgiveness and strengthens faith by using bread and wine, body and blood. Every time you eat Christ’s Body and drink Christ’s Blood, you receive rich, eternal, spiritual benefits—God’s rescue from sin; Jesus’ life to sustain yours.

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). When you eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood, you share in life with Christ. You also share in life with each other. Yes, we are in the Body of Christ. Together we are the Body of Christ. We need each other. “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Rom. 14:7). This is the precious proclamation of the common cup. We, you and I, are united and unified in faith and life in Christ. This also explains why, sometimes, we must have someone wait before they commune with us. If a person or a church body does not agree in the teachings of Jesus, we love them enough to say, “Let’s not commune until we share a common faith, a common public confession, in Christ’s forgiveness, life and salvation. Thus we show love for Christ and for one another by respecting His blood. After all, there’s life and love in His blood.

Now that you are cleansed and made whole by Christ’s blood—now that you receive life by His love—you get to live in thanksgiving. How so? “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13). The best thing you can do to thank Jesus for His agonizing death and His eternal love is partake of His Body and Blood—keep His last will and testament. What better way to proclaim Christ and His loving life than to gather in His house for His Supper on His day?

The writer to the Hebrews says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). And Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54). Amen.

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