A Sermon for Maundy Thursday (with apologies, no podcast today as I have to take the dog to the clinic)
There’s a story I not infrequently tell whenever I have to preach about the eucharist. I hope you’ve not heard it before, but then again, congregations on Maundy Thursday tend to be on the small side, so here it is for all to enjoy. A priest friend of mine, now long gone to glory, suffered from terrible depression all his life. His name was Father Jacques. He also liked a tipple. Everyone thought he was depressed because he drank too much. I used to think it was the other way around. Like so many people who have experience depression, he was one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met. His was also a dry sense of humour in the face of despair and addiction; he could actually make fun of really dire situations. Rumour had it that his very Catholic cleaning lady –so much more catholic and observant than he—once remarked: ‘Father, you’ve been drinking again, is everything alright?’
‘Just water, just water…’ he replied.
She said: ‘I can smell wine quite distinctly.’
But he answered: ‘Awww, Jesus be praised: he did it again!’
Now we all know what Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Mass, is all about, do we not? Just as Jesus changed water into wine at Cana of Galilee, God now changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of his Son so we can eat and drink from it and grow into his likeness, and have eternal life. It’s what Christ commanded: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ It’s what we pray every time we celebrate Holy Communion: ‘Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit and according to your holy will these gifts of bread and wine may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ But the whole thing has much deeper roots still. When Jesus said do this, what was this? An ordinary meal? The order for Passover? By calling the bread and wine his body and his blood, Christians gradually believed that Jesus himself gave new meaning to a tradition that stretched back thousands of years before: he gave a new meaning to sacrifice. Jesus was the lamb of God, sacrificed at Easter. We sing this every time as well to soaring, heart-rending melodies: ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us…’
It makes good sense of a lot of passages in Scripture, in Old and New testament alike. Jesus was crucified, spread out like the little lambs slaughtered for Pessah in the Temple, as we read in the Book of Exodus. The fourth gospel states that John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God and speculation about the necessity and the effects of Christ’s death are to be found in every letter of St Paul. Yet, let’s think for a moment and let’s think dangerously: how true is it? It’s an image, after all, a metaphor. Jesus was not a literal lamb, and God, as Scripture also states: God needs no sacrifices. No animal sacrifices, let alone human ones.
This is the message of so many of the prophets, so many! and I’ll quote a fair few to hammer this point home. At the very beginning of the Book of the prophet Isaiah, we read: ‘I loathe the multitude of your sacrifices, says the Lord. I have had enough of burnt offerings of lambs and the fat of fed beasts. I do not delight in the blood of bulls or lambs or goats… your new moons and your appointed feasts, my soul hates.’ Hosea, which our Lord explicitly quoted, also preached: ‘I desire mercy, steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ Amos again wrote: ‘I hate, I despise your festivals… even though you offer me your burnt offering and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of your fatted lambs, I will not even look upon.’ Some of the psalms even made fun of the whole idea:
I will take no bullock out of thine house
nor he-goats out of thy folds.
For all the beasts of the forest are mine
and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills.
I know all the fowls of the mountains
and the wild beasts of the fields are in my sight.
if I be hungry, I will not tell thee:
for the whole world is mine and all that is therein.
Thinkest thou that I will eat bulls’ flesh
or drink the blood of goats?
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
The idea that Jesus’ death was such a sacrifice, albeit of infinite value, certainly is in the Bible… but it’s one interpretation of his death among many. It made much sense to early Christians steeped in a culture drenched in animal sacrifice. Jews and pagans alike did this, but what of it today?
I’d say it’s an image that once was useful to understand a great mystery. If we take it too seriously or too literally, it stops making sense. If Jesus had to die so as to placate God, well, why did the latter not allow king Herod to do his nasty, bloody job when he was a baby?
Jesus, is God of God, light of light, true God from true God, ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’ as Scripture once more put it: if he is so, why did he have to die so that we be forgiven whereas he freely forgives at every page in the Gospels and eats in the presence of sinners every so often? Peter once took fright and blurted out: ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ But Christ did not depart.
So here we have it: we have modelled (or rather not we, but the church since the beginning) the celebration of holy communion on older Jewish and pagan sacrifices. We do not offer a bloody victim anymore, to be sure, but the bloodless sacrifice of bread and wine. And we eat the bread and wine as believers of old ate the offered meat and wine in the presence of the Lord. But, and it’s a huge but: on the cross, God himself showed us that he needed no such sacrifices to be reconciled with us. On the cross, God freely forgave. On the cross the arms of his compassion are wide opened, nailed open forever. To believe otherwise is to have the mind-set of an Aztec high-priest trying to appease his wrathful deities by cutting off a human victim’s heart, or like Agamemnon sacrificing his virgin daughter to obtain favourable winds from Artemis. It’s like throwing maidens in a volcano to prevent eruptions. It’s not a very Christian notion. It’s quite at odds with the portrait of the Father that Jesus gave: utterly, relentlessly forgiving, like the Father of the prodigal Son. A wrath of God against sin there may be, but never against sinners. Our God need not be appeased or placated. As Christ taught: there’s more joy in heaven for a single wrongdoer who repents than for a multitude who have no need of repentance. Let’s allow these words to sink in deep as we face the cross tomorrow: God’s joy is greater if we repent than if we never even had to.
May the all-cherishing Lord keep you and your loved ones safe and well in these troubled times and may we all celebrate the eucharist together soon. Through the same, our Lord Christ. Amen.