Sermon for Maundy Thursday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I generally avoid basing what books I read based on whether a review is positive or negative. For one thing, I’ve long been of the mind that criticism as a genre is only interesting insofar as it uses texts or other forms of art to develop ideas rather than simply giving a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to them. For another thing, the world of publishing can be rather mean and incestuous, so expecting anything like an objective recommendation seems a lost cause. That said, I purchased and read a book recently based on a review, but it was precisely because the review in question was rather negative.

A few weeks ago the New Yorker’s James Wood wrote a review of Marylinne Robinson’s new book Reading Genesis, which is, as one might expect, her own reflection on the first book of the Bible. I have read both some of Robinson’s novels and a couple of her essay collections and loved them, so I would have likely eventually acquired a copy of this new book anyway. That said, I felt compelled to purchase it immediately after Wood’s review, which struck me as rather adolescently petulant. His problem with the book seemed to come down entirely to Ms. Robinson’s approach to the Bible as a whole–specifically, that she takes it seriously, regards it as scripture rather than mere bronze age mythology, and believes it to be a theological document instead of a purely literary work. In short, Wood’s problem was that she was writing as a Christian rather than as a “cultured despiser of religion” (to use Schleiermacher’s phrase) like himself. In all events, I’m glad I bought the book and I’m glad I read it, and I wish the New Yorker’s editorial staff would consider assigning reviews for these sorts of books to, if not their critics who happen to be religious (of which there are some!) then at least to those who are less openly hostile to faith. I’ve not considered canceling my subscription of course; it says something about my perhaps twisted priorities and cultural inheritance that I think of taking the New Yorker as just “the done thing”, like voting or cutting the grass or avoiding swear words in the presence of one’s grandmother. I may be having second-thoughts about this, though.

Anyway, back to Robinson’s book, it addresses and I think more-or-less satisfactorily answers a problem I have long had with one of the points of tension we find in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. Over and over again, God is shown to be either ambivalent or outright opposed to sacrifice. “Thinkest thou that I will eat bulls’ flesh and drink the blood of goats?” He asks, incredulously in Psalm 50. “If I be hungry I will not tell thee!” “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell your solemn assemblies,” God declares in the Book of the Prophet Amos. “Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offering of your fat beasts.” I could go on ad nauseam. The point which God seems to stress over and over again is that his desire is not for sacrifice, but for righteousness and gratitude.

And yet, these same sacrifices which God seems to despise he is elsewhere said to require. In the primeval history of the first half of Genesis and through the times of the Patriarchs and Judges God demands, receives, and looks favorably upon sacrifice if made properly. With the coming of the Jerusalem Temple the sacrificial system was codified according to God’s own Law. Yes, sacrifice became highly localized and its widespread use prorogued, but this dispensation of constraint was meant to further legitimize and sacralize the sacrificial system of temple worship rather than to discourage sacrifice as such.

So how do we deal with this apparent contradiction? As I said, I think Ms. Robinson finally answered this for me, and while the concepts she presents were already in my theological and exegetical toolbox, as it were, she says it so clearly that it finally sunk in perfectly.

What intention were the pagan gods of the nations said to have had for creating humanity in the first place? Simply to build them temples and feed them with the offerings of animals–and, all too often, human beings–to slake their hunger and avert their arbitrary wrath. This seems, by the way, to be a universal impulse within fallen humanity; this was ubiquitous not only the nations of the Ancient Near East. It was ascendant among peoples with whom the denizens of the so-called “Cradle of Civilization” had no contact whatsoever, from distant East Asia as early as the Third Millenium before Christ to (perhaps most infamously) the native tribes of Meso-America. These gods had no interest in establishing cordial relations with humanity. They were as likely to inflict death and disaster on the populace because humanity had become too noisy for them to nap as they were to send a good harvest in recognition of sufficient children slain upon their altars. To be appeased these gods received not just the lion’s-share but the entirety, and even this may or may not appease them.

But then God (by which I mean the one God who actually exists, the God of Abraham and Israel and Jesus) took this apparently universal impulse and, in anticipation of the day when no more sacrifice would be required, did more than merely constrain the practice. (For example, whatever you do, don’t sacrifice human beings, which seems clearly to be the lesson intended in Abraham’s binding of Isaac, despite what the pearl-clutching rants of those more sensitive and “enlightened” than I might have it!) He not only constrains the impulse but transforms both the practice and our hearts. No longer were the sacrifices meant to appease the capricious whims of the gods. They became a sign and a token which, once the savor of the bulls and goats would reach the nostrils of the Almighty, the meat itself would immediately be returned both to the families who had offered the beasts and to the poor in their midst who had no means of providing even what little was required. The offering retained the nature of a sacrifice while taking on the additional quality of a meal, shared in loving communion with God with family and with stranger.

This is why, I think, to finally turn to our lessons for this evening, there is as much concern in our reading from Exodus, with how the Passover lamb was to be provided, shared, and eaten than with the finer points of ritual sacrifice. This is why God insists that this meal be a perpetual ordinance and a memorial rather than an occasional sacrifice for whenever the children of Israel might again find themselves in as tenuous a situation as that of their last night of slavery in Egypt. This is why (and here we must as Gentile Christians acknowledge not only our debt to but God’s continued provision for his chosen people) two thousand years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, circumstances which would have simply caused the cult of any pagan god to go extinct, through centuries of persecution often scandalously perpetrated by our own coreligionists, the Jews have managed to maintain their faith and identity without a temple made by hands.

For us Christians, simultaneously grafted on to God’s original covenant people and made a new creation, there is yet another glorious, providential twist. In the hymn with which we end this evening’s liturgy St. Thomas Aquinas puts it succinctly–“types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here.” On this night when Christ establishes the Eucharist, it becomes clear that while our own Passover is both meal and sacrifice, the sacrifice itself is bloodless. No longer must a lamb be slain year after year for the sacrifice to be offered and the meal to be shared with friend and stranger. The Lamb of God, Christ Jesus himself, would do it once for all before receiving his crown of glory and giving himself continuously until we should join him in that place where he reigns for eternity.

To make the point more obvious we will, as we do every year, share a meal–the agape or “love feast”–which is more obviously a meal than the sacrifice we share at this altar–and we will experience first in the washing of feet and then in the reading of the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel during supper, what it is all about. It is, it should be no surprise, all about love. God’s love for us. Our love for him. The love we share one with another more perfectly, not because we are inherently loving or lovable (sometimes we can be anything but that) but because God’s love miraculously abides in us.

And so, before we retreat to dark Gethsemane and then to even darker Golgotha, to the pitch black of the tomb and the utter gloom of Hell itself, we tarry here a bit longer with our Lord and with each other. For he has given us all to one another, to cling closely to one another, to embrace each other with the love we cannot understand, much less express. Yet here we find the prize for which none can pay. Here we find the balm which heals the nations and our hearts. Here we lay claim to an inheritance not our own by right but given us nonetheless. Here we see and feel and hear and taste and touch the only thing that truly matters–perfect love made manifest in bread and wine; perfect love expressed (however feebly and imperfectly) in loving service and company shared; perfect love heard and accepted in the words of our Savior’s promise; perfect love which alone can see us through our darkest hours; love strong as death, strong as hell, strong as the designs of any man or angel. In this love we find life and hope and purpose. In this alone we must put our trust, for God’s love is the only thing that will not disappoint. God’s love is the only thing that matters.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.