Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jesus Christ, Our Lamb

(A Maundy Thursday meditation based on Exodus 12:1-14; John 13:1-17; 31b-25)

[The image is Washing of the Feet by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311)]

The Hebrews celebrated the first Passover on the night before the exodus from Egypt. One component of the observance was the killing and eating of a lamb “without blemish.” The blood of the lamb was to be placed on the doorposts of each family’s house. When the death angel came to Egypt that night, the Lord said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). The New Testament interprets the death of Jesus as the ultimate Passover lamb sacrifice. So, for example, we read in 1 Peter,

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. (1:18-20)

Jesus was, as John the Baptizer put it, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Thursday night of Holy Week, like the night of the first Passover, is a night on the precipice. On that night in Egypt over 3000 years ago, deliverance was to come tomorrow. It was a night of expectation, of excitement, of tension, and of apprehension. It was a night of incompletion—deliverance was not yet [I was pointed in this direction by Thomas W. Mann, The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), p. 91]. The Hebrews were living in the already and in the not yet; nine plagues had come and one was yet to come and then would come the march out of Egypt, which they anticipated, and the victory at the sea, which they did not see coming. They ate the lamb, waiting for and wondering about what God was about to do.

On that Thursday night in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago, betrayal and arrest were to come later tonight and crucifixion was to come tomorrow. It was a night of expectation, of wonder, of anxiety, of apprehension, and of confusion. The disciples were living in the already and in the not yet; they had spent much time with Jesus and they had heard him speak repeatedly of what was to come for him, but still they did not understand it or expect it. They ate the bread and drank the wine, waiting for and wondering about what God was about to do.

On this Thursday night in 2008 in Augusta, Georgia, we find ourselves living on the precipice as we do on each Maundy Thursday and as we really do all of the time. We are living in the already and the not yet. Like all Christians who have shared in the Lord’s Supper over the past two centuries, we celebrate it on the other side of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But also like all those Christians, we do so with much yet to experience. We do so with unfulfilled hope and with incomplete faith and with inadequate love. And we find ourselves confronted again with Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

Those Passover lambs did not volunteer for duty; they were drafted. In contrast, and most remarkably, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Jesus gave himself up to be the lamb whose death would take away our sins.

In John’s narrative, Jesus performed an act that night that foreshadowed the kind of Messiah he was—he voluntarily condescended to wash his disciples’ feet. When he came to Simon Peter, that outspoken disciple expressed wonderment (“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”) and then denial (“You will never wash my feet”). I have always assumed that Peter was expressing some humility here, as in “You are too good to wash the feet of a sinner such as I.” But Barbara Bowe has given me a different perspective.

(Jesus’) action is meant to show us that the meaning of Jesus’ life and death is to call us to be a human community where we are all foot washers.
No wonder Peter objects! This example of Jesus called Peter, as it calls each of us, to a radical conversion wherein we relinquish status and power (as Jesus did) in love and embrace a posture of service to one another.
[Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p. 148]

Jesus taught his original disciples and us of the need to give ourselves up, to die to self, and to follow him. But, human nature being what it is, how easy it would be for us to say something like, “As the Lamb of God, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. That has no practical application to the way I’m to live.” The washing of the feet reveals that nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, washed his disciples’ feet and then he told them and us that we are supposed to do the same thing. We do it to show our love for one another. We do it in obedience to his command. We do it in remembrance of him. Bowe continued,

Just as the Synoptic institution narratives include a command by Jesus to “do this in memory of me”…, so in John Jesus commanded his disciples to repeat the action he performed: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). [Bowe, p. 148]

So we partake of the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus instituted on that first Maundy Thursday, in remembrance of him. We also wash one another’s feet—we also serve and love and give ourselves up for one another—in remembrance of him. We partake of his broken body and his shed blood in order to remind ourselves of what he has done for us, but in partaking of it we are also reminded of what he calls us to do for him and for each other. Therein lies the path to Christian sacrifice and service that leads to Christian victory.

In the book of Revelation, John reported a fascinating vision of the resurrected Lord. He said that he saw “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6). Through this powerful imagery John said that it was the slaughtered Lamb who was also the resurrected Lamb. Crucifixion precedes resurrection. Death precedes life. Sacrifice precedes victory. It is that way for Christ. It is also that way for Christ’s followers.

So as we remember his death, let us also remember our call.

He is our Lamb.

We are his sheep.

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