The New Passover – May 31, 2020
May 31, 2020
I start today with a disclaimer. It is this. I have some understanding of the Passover celebration. However, I do not claim to understand it as much as a person of the Jewish faith. The Passover is part of the Jewish culture. It’s part of their collective history. They have a connection to it that I will never fully know. Also, in calling this “The New Passover,” I do not wish to diminish in any way the importance of the Passover celebration or what it represents, not only for the Jewish people, but for all of God’s people! Moses is our patriarch, too!
Actually, whenever I think of it, I’m amazed at how the Passover celebration has come down to us through many thousands of years, and how well it has been kept and preserved by the Jewish people. I’m also humbled by the power and the depth of meaning it still has for them, a meaning that we non-Jews have a hard time understanding.
I say that, because that’s what makes our reading for today what it is. That’s what makes this so incredible. That’s what makes, what Jesus said that night in the Upper Room, even more “audacious.” And yes, I’ve been using that word a lot lately –“audacious!” My Thesaurus suggests “bold” or “daring.” But those words don’t quite do it. They don’t “fit the bill” for “audacious.” How about “scandalous?” One of my favorite professors in seminary, David Willis, liked to use that word! He would say that what Jesus said that night was scandalous! We might even say “shocking” or “outrageous.”
Well, Jesus was being all those things that night. Because he had the audacity – and there’s that word again – he had the audacity to change this celebration. He had the audacity to change the meaning of the Passover, and to make it about him! That’s what happened that night.
And this wasn’t the first time! Jesus had done this before. Remember earlier his ministry, when he referred to himself as “the Bread of life.” We talked about this early in our quarantine. You can go back and view that video again, if you’d like. Just go to our website. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the bread which has come down from Heaven.” That was a clear reference to the giving of the Manna in the wilderness in the Exodus story. And we know from that story, that Jesus putting himself into that story, was “uncomfortable” for the people to hear. But that was nothing compared to this. Jesus used the Passover celebration that night to tell his disciples about himself.
In Hebrew, the text of the Passover, the words they use for that celebration, is called the “Haggadah.” (And I also apologize for my poor Hebrew!) That word literally means “the telling.” It’s the telling of the story. We Presbyterians might call it the “Order of Worship,” like we have for a service. And I’m told there are many different variations of the Haggadah. But Jesus’ “version” that night was like no other! Because, “on the night in which he was betrayed,” Jesus changed the meaning of the Passover for his disciples!
Think about that There are two “Salvation stories” in the Bible. There’s one in the Old Testament, and there’s one in the New Testament. The one in the Old Testament is the one we’re talking about. It’s the story of Moses. It’s the story of the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. And it’s the central story of Jewish history.
As we think about that salvation story, you may remember that the part of the Bible we call “The Old Testament” has also been called “The Old Covenant.” Have you seen that in an old Bible somewhere? And when we call it that, we’re using another very important word that Jesus also uses here in the Upper Room. A “covenant” is an “agreement.” When God brought the people out of Egypt, he didn’t just give them the Law. He made a covenant with them. He said, “Here’s the deal!” “Here’s the agreement!” “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Jesus used that same word here! He said, “This cup is the ‘new covenant’ in my blood, which is poured out for you.” To say that was also scandalous! The disciples would have done a major “double take” when he used that word “covenant.” (“Did you hear what he said?” “New covenant?”)
Well, as I said, there are two salvation stories in the Bible. The one in the Old Testament refers to Moses. The New Testament salvation story, of course, is about Jesus. But in the Upper Room, Jesus does more than just make this a totally new salvation story. He uses the Passover and he ties it to the previous one. So, make no mistake here. If this is indeed the “New Passover,” then Jesus is seen as the “New Moses.” That’s what was happening that night! And all of those stories would have been swirling around in the heads of the disciples!
As you think about that, I want to remind you of another story. (I hate to bring too many stories in here, but this is important!) I want you to think about the story we call “The Transfiguration.” Do you remember that one? That’s where Jesus took his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, and went to the mountaintop. And there he took on a heavenly, supernatural, shining appearance. We talk about that story just before the beginning of Lent
Well, in that story, two men appeared with Jesus – also in this shining, heavenly form. Do you remember who they were? They were Elijah and… you guessed it – Moses! And these two great patriarchs were talking with Jesus. And from Luke’s account, we know what they were talking about! They were talking about Jesus, about his crucifixion and resurrection. So, think about it! Here we have Moses, the central figure in their salvation story, the central player in the Passover event, and he was talking about what? He was talking about the importance of Jesus! That makes what Jesus said in the Upper Room that night, so much more amazing! (And audacious!)
That night, Jesus said, “This cup is the ‘New Covenant’ in my blood.” And I want you to think again about that word “covenant.” And I want you to think about this. When we think about Jesus, when we think about this “new covenant,” do we think just about his “atonement” – just about “salvation?” Or do we think “covenant?” Is there an agreement here? In other words, do we think just about “being forgiven?” Or do we think about “being in relationship?” Those are important distinctions!
One other way to ask that is this. When we think of our life of faith, do we think of ourselves as “believers,” or do we think “disciples?” And there’s a difference between those two words, isn’t there? And I think this is where many Christians fall short. They think “If I believe, that’s good enough.” But they don’t think about the “disciple” part. They don’t think about the “following Jesus” part. They don’t think “covenant.”
I think it’s what prompted James to write what he did. In the second chapter of his letter, he wrote, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs. What good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, without works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
Now, those are controversial words. Some people don’t like those words. “Faith without works is dead.” Even the great Martin Luther, thought that sounded too much like what we call, “works righteousness.” In other words, it was teaching the people that it’s our “good works” that make us “righteous,” that it’s our good works that “get us into heaven.” He said, “No.” “It is by Grace we are saved, and not by works,” as Paul told the Ephesians. Luther called the book of James “an Epistle of straw.” And he didn’t even include it in his translation of the Bible.
And Luther had a point. Too many people have tried to go that “works righteousness” route. They think if they’re good enough people, that’s good enough. (Sometimes I think it’s because they want salvation, but they don’t want to have all that much to do with God!)
Well, I don’t think that’s what James was getting at here. I don’t think he was laying out doctrine for our salvation. I think he was simply writing from a place of exasperation. He was frustrated with those who thought that “just believing” was enough. He was saying that faith was about following Jesus. It was about doing what Jesus did, and loving like Jesus loved! He would say that faith is about being “in relationship with” Jesus, not just “believing in” him. And I hope we would say that, too.
So, this is the “New Passover.” It is the “New Covenant” God was making with his people through Jesus, that night. And like the old covenant, the new covenant was a “contract” – an “agreement.” But it was more than that! It was about a “relationship!” Once again, God was saying, “Here’s the deal!” “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” “I want to be in relationship with you.” And once again, like the Old Covenant, he was saying, “And this is how I want you to live.” “And this is how I want you to love each other!” Once again, he is saying to us, “Don’t just believe the faith. Live the faith!”
Eternal God, help us to be faithful to your covenant with us. Help us to be the people you want us to be. Help us to love as Jesus loved, to shine your light into our world, to know your peace and your joy, no matter what the circumstances of this life. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his kingdom in our midst, Amen,