Tuesday, April 18, 2017

An Earthy Salvation: Maundy Thursday 2017

What began with the birth of a baby boy in a manger, near the bedding and waste of beasts…what began with the total descent of God into the human experience…the absolute and unequivocal embrace of all of the various horrors and sufferings that come with being human…what began on that night in Bethlehem came to its fruition over those last days of Jesus’ life…and it is into those days which we now plunge headlong. This salvation, this redemption, this grand work of wonder wrought by a God once thought to be far off, unapproachable, hidden behind a veil…this salvation is wrought in the earthly, fleshly, material things of our common life.  The table wine and the loaves of bread…a last supper with friends.  A basin of pure, cleansing water made filthy by the cleansing of filthy feet…a God enfleshed, debasing himself, taking the posture of a slave…all of this to make his friends, and by extension us, clean…holy…ready to take our place in the divine dance of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But, with the God of Israel, salvation has always been earthy, fleshly, centered on material things becoming sanctified, becoming the means by which humanity is made clean before God.  “Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household…then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it…the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” From the beginning, we know that God has never been one to simply demand intellectual assent to doctrine, or mere contemplation on God’s great mercy.  From the beginning, before even the events of the Passover and the Exodus…from the beginning, salvation and sanctification had everything to do with this world, with the things of this world, with the sweat, blood, and bones of things with breath in their lungs.  And, as we see from this Passover account, salvation came with a price.  For the people of Israel, on the verge of their Exodus from Egypt, the cost of their salvation was the bleeding out and burning up of pure, innocent lambs.  Their salvation depended on the death of something other than themselves.  And even more than pure, spotless lambs…their salvation involved the striking down of every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals. Even when the prophets came with fiery sermons calling for more than ritual sacrifice, the people of Israel still relied on living flesh being put to death in order for their atonement, their sanctification, to be made possible.  My friends, if this was the end of the story…a God perpetually demanding the death of others to make me holy…if this was all there was, I frankly would prefer to remain in my sins.

But, much to the surprise of everyone, surprising even still today…this very same God changed course.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The God who was once known as a God who demanded the spilling of another’s blood…the God who was hidden behind a temple’s veil…the God whose uncreated energies were once seen to be fatal to those unfit to be in his presence…this God became human in the fullest sense of what that word means.  This God became human and dwelt among us, experiencing all of the joys and beauty and the sufferings and horrors that mark the human experience…experiencing the tender caress of a mother’s hand, knowing the complexity of deep, yet flawed, friendships.  In Jesus of Nazareth, God lived among us, working wonders, healing the blind, raising the dead…in Jesus of Nazareth, God lived a life of service and sacrifice, culminating in his inglorious death upon a cross.

The God who once called for the death of others enacted the grandest of all Grand Reversals, declaring that the only blood left to be spilt was his own: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” This is no longer a God understood to be out there…a God of distance and disquieting Otherness.  This is a God who declares to the world, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.  Feast on the sacrifice of my own life, and be made whole.  Let my life, and my death, be all that is required for my beloved children to be made whole.  Meet me here, now, at this table, and all tables where my body is remembered and my blood poured out once again.  Meet me in this life, amongst the ruins and the revelry, amongst the dust-covered disciples of first-century Jerusalem, amongst the white-robed acolytes of 21st-century Los Alamos.  Meet me in the midst of your own lives of pain, and suffering…meet me here, now, and take my sacrifice into your own bodies, for no longer shall the world suffer on my behalf.  I will suffer on behalf of the world.”

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