“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
Pentecost 14 September 10, 2017
September always seems a time of new possibilities, new beginnings. Not only is it the start of the school year, but the rain and the fresh cool air brings a sense of ‘girding the loins,’ of a new concentration of energy. At least in me. So it is interesting that on this first Sunday back from my summer vacation, the Old Testament lesson is the story of the Passover – a story, as one commentator wrote, that is about “a new beginning that must never be forgotten.”1 But it is a very strange story. It is set in the context of the final and devastating plague God sent upon Egypt because of Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites from slavery. As we picked up the narrative this morning, God has already turned the Nile to blood, sent frogs, gnats, and flies upon Egypt, a plague upon its cattle and boils upon the people, hail, locusts, and a pall of darkness – and now God threatens the worst affliction of all: “Thus says the Lord: About midnight, I will go through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die.”
The section of the Passover story we read this morning is written to serve two ends: the instructions on how to sacrifice of the lamb, the painting of its blood on the doors, as well as the manner in which it is to be eaten, is intended to both to ensure the Israelites avoid becoming victims themselves, and as directions for later generations regarding how they are to commemorate the Passover, the day God proved his enduring faithfulness and freed them from slavery. The passage reads almost as if there is no difference between the event and the commemoration of the event; as if the later generations share in that original act of redemption and God’s saving grace, by sharing in the ritual Passover meal.
These are God’s instructions – both for those original Israelites in Egypt and for the later generations to commemorate and so re-live that very event:
(You) are to take a lamb for each family . . . Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male . . . then the whole congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it . . . . This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in our hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord.
God promises to ‘pass over’ the houses upon which the blood is painted on the door. It is the blood of the lamb, therefore, which saves them. They are to eat hurriedly, because this is the night of their escape. The lamb is intended for food for a long journey! This journey will take them through the Red Sea and into the desert, as they set out for the Promised Land that God has assured Moses he is preparing for them.
So Israel is called out by a promise. Yet it has no idea, fleeing into the desert, just what is in store. This journey will prove to be life-long: not even Moses will ever actually enter into that Promised Land. It will prove to be a journey of trial and temptation, short sightedness and short tempers, anxiety, despair, rebellion; a journey of which God will later say through the Psalmist: “Forty years long was I grieved with that generation” (Ps. 95). Yet I have every sympathy for the Israelites. It must have been a completely bewildering time. Repeatedly, God will bring them to the brink – the brink of their own capacities, their own ability to provide for themselves – and then miraculously provide for them by his own hand: water from the flinty rock; manna as bread from heaven. Looking back, we can perhaps discern what would have been for them impossibly obscure: that God used this journey in the desert to teach Israel the meaning of faith; how to trust its whole life to the loving grace of God.
The story of the Passover is central not only for the Jewish people, but also for us. Jesus chose the Passover feast to share his Last Supper with his disciples. Doing so, he also used a meal intended to commemorate one new beginning in order to inaugurate another. Just as the Jews, sharing together the Passover meal, participate in the saving grace of the Passover, so we, sharing in the Eucharistic meal, participate in the saving grace of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ is God’s own sacrificial lamb. It is by his blood that we are liberated from slavery – slavery not to the ruler of Egypt, but to sin and to the one St John calls “the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31). Moreover, just as the sacrificial lamb fed the Israelites for their desert journey, it is by eating of the flesh of this lamb that we are fed for our journey.
Christ feeds us with himself: ‘food for the journey.’ A commonly used phrase. But what is meant by it? What is ‘the journey’? If the Israelites journeyed through the desert, a forty year-long preparation to enter into the Promised Land, the destination for which Jesus prepares his disciples is a place he calls “The Kingdom of God.” This kingdom is not a geographical place like Palestine. It is not even a purely spiritual place like the popular conception of heaven. Rather, the Kingdom of God is wherever Love reigns – whether in heaven or on earth. So we are to pray: “Thy Kingdom come on earth;” and so the words of Paul we read this morning: “Love is the fulfilling of the law” – for wherever Love is, God reigns, and wherever God reigns, there is His Kingdom.
Week by week, and in this parish day by day, we celebrate the Eucharist, to feed on the lamb, food for the journey. The journey is not our private journey: we are, like the nation of Israel, sent out together into the desert. Often we are uncertain, often afraid, rebellious, self-insistent – but Christ has called us and sent us out to prepare us for the Kingdom of God, to teach us what it means to love God, trusting to Him in everything; to teach us to love one another so that God’s law will govern us in our life together.
Which brings me back to the theme of new beginnings. Here we are, setting out into a new season. Let us come to the table and feed on Christ with sandals on, staff in hand. Where will he take us? Look at the person beside you. Look around the church. We are on this journey together. Rowan Williams recently wrote:
it can’t be said too often that the first thing we ought to think of when in the presence of another Christian individual or Christian community is: what is Christ giving me through this person, this group? . . . What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now? . . . Just ask that question and it will move you forward a tiny bit in discipleship . . .2
. . . and in our journey through the desert together toward the Kingdom of God.