I’ve never lived in a war zone. I have lived through category 5 hurricanes.
We watched with anxious anticipation as we gathered our most precious belongings, our medications, our computers and phones, our pets. My congregations united to ensure that no one got left behind when we had to evacuate. Those who live alone, those who are sick, or those without transportation gathered in the homes of others so that at a moment’s notice we could pack the car and know that there is no turning back and may be nothing to return to tomorrow. I can only imagine based on my limited experience what it must be like to leave nearly everything behind and I weep for the thousands of refugees that are torn from their homes in fear. I was fortunate. I got to return and though we had to deal with damage to our church property, my home escaped with minimal damage.
This is a close approximation of what the first Passover must have felt like for Moses and the Hebrews living in Egypt just prior to the Exodus. There were probably some who declared they planned to take their chances and stick it out. There were probably some who were terrified beyond being able to function. There were others who did what Moses told them to do and trusted that God would take care of them no matter what happened.
God, acting through Moses had already sent 9 plagues to Egypt. The Egyptians were not particularly happy with these upstart slaves who claimed responsibility for a series of natural disasters that had wreaked havoc in Egypt. Now Moses has predicted that just as the Pharaoh had ordered the death of the Hebrew sons, Pharaoh was about to get a taste of his own medicine as the first born in every Egyptian household, man and beast were about to die. Staying was not an option for the Hebrews, but timing was critical. They had to wait for God’s time and listen to Moses’ commands or they would get caught up in the death and destruction.
God through Moses emphasized that this was not just a rescue effort, but a new beginning. The Hebrews were told that from now on, they were to count this month as the beginning of their new year. They were given very specific instructions concerning the final meal that they would eat in Egypt. It was to be something that they never forgot. Not just in their life time, but for all the generations to come. Each family was to pick out a spotless lamb on the 10th day of the month. They were to invite enough people to their homes for this meal that there were no left overs. . On the 14th day of the month, everyone in the community was to gather at twilight. Sundown, not sunup, is still the beginning of the new day in the Jewish culture. The lambs were slaughtered and the blood of the lamb was placed on the lintel and doorpost to mark the home as a refuge, a safe haven where death is not welcome. No one celebrates Passover by themselves; it is a community event. No one is to be left homeless on this night. The lambs were roasted whole. The people eat that night with their shoes on and their walking sticks in their hands. They are commanded to eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The unleavened bread and bitter herbs were symbols of both slavery and freedom, a reminder to us today of our slavery to sin and our redemption. The unleavened bread was the bread of the poor. It also indicted haste; it did not have to rise, and it was without yeast, as symbol of the power of sin in the Old Testament. At the Passover, even to this day, bitter herbs are dipped in salt water and charoset, a sweet apple dish is eaten. Sauces for dipping were a luxury of the rich, the free. The bitter herb represents the bitterness of slavery, the salt water the tears of the oppressed. The sweet apples reflect both the mortar of the bricks they made in slavery and the sweetness of their redemption.
Tonight, Maundy Thursday, we remember and in a sense participate in the last supper that Jesus ate with his disciples prior to his crucifixion. It is important to remember that the gospel accounts of this night are intended to convey theological insights, much more than historical insights. The gospel of Mark, believed to be our oldest gospel, and Matthew and Luke which appear to draw heavily on Mark depict Jesus’ last supper as occurring on the first night of Passover at the Seder meal. Their intent is to explain the meaning of the rite of Holy Eucharist as an expansion of the ideas already set forth in the Passover Seder and just as the Passover Seder is an annual reminder of God’s redemption of the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, the Eucharist is our weekly reminder of God’s redemption of all believers out of the bondage of slavery to sin and eternal death. As Jesus breaks the unleavened bread and shares it with his disciples, he associates himself physically with the symbol of God’s provision. Just as he breaks the bread, he too will be broken in order that everyone at the table may be fed. Just as God provided life giving manna in the wilderness, so too will everyone who partakes of the bread of the Eucharist be fed with eternal food. The cup of wine, which was probably the third cup of the Seder called the cup of Redemption, Jesus claims to be the sign of a new covenant sealed with his own blood, a covenant of Redemption which we sign when we share in the cup. A covenant is similar to an oath of allegiance to a king. The king agrees to protect and provide for his subjects and the subjects promise to be loyal to the king. Jesus, the king, enters into an eternal covenant with those at the table with him that night and at all the Eucharist that are celebrated in remembrance of that night.
John’s purpose in his gospel is different from Matthew, Mark and Luke and so he tells the story from a slightly different perspective. Throughout John’s Gospel, his primary purpose is to reveal the character of God through Jesus, the Incarnation of God. John set’s Jesus’ last meal as the night before Passover begins because he wants to make clear that Jesus is associating his own death with the redeeming blood of the Passover lambs. John suggests that Jesus is crucified the same day the lambs are sacrificed. So, Jesus’ last meal in John’s gospel does not contain the elements of the Seder, but focuses on standard hospitality. In a hot dusty country where almost everyone walks everywhere in sandals, the polite thing for any polite host will offer to have the feet of his dinner guest washed before dinner. Typically the lowest servant in the home got this job. When you have a room full of equals, nobody’s feet gets washed unless you wash them yourself. Jesus demonstrates who God is by taking on the job of the servant and washing the feet of his disciples. God leads, not from a position of power and authority, but from a position of service. Peter is embarrassed for Jesus and by Jesus when Jesus offers to wash his feet, but Jesus tells Peter that unless he allows him to get this close and personal and to wash the dirt off of his feet, he cannot be one of the disciples. Peter suddenly wants Jesus to give him a full bath. Jesus reminds him he has already bathed, an allusion to baptism and the repentance we receive at that time. We do not need to keep going back and repenting of the sins which we have already confessed and been forgiven. We just need to ask Jesus to wash off any new dirt that collects on our feet.
Jesus then tells them that he has done this as an example to them. If Jesus’ job is to wash feet, then we too are called to get down on our knees and wash each other’s feet. I wish we were doing this literally tonight, it is an incredible symbol when the group participates together. We are called to support each other in our walk in Christ, helping each other by forgiving one another’s sins even if it means humbling ourselves and getting up close and personal. Even it means we let others see our imperfections or we are called into an intimate relationship we have been able to avoid just sitting in a pew.
We may have survived the pandemic, and seem far away from war or natural disasters but there is one enemy we cannot avoid. It is called death. We never know when it will strike. We are called to be ready, symbolically to eat our meals with our shoes on and our staff in our hand. We are called to live in community and look out for those who are most vulnerable. We are called to stand inside the doorway, behind the lintel and door post marked with the blood of the lamb, Christ’s blood, and then when death does pass our way, we are prepared to journey to the Promised Land.