Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sermon at Parish Mass Maundy Thursday 2012

Exodus 12: 1-4 [5-10] 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

We began this week with the crowds, outside in the sunshine, acclaiming Jesus as King and Messiah, as he entered Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!”
What a contrast that is with tonight’s intimate scene of the upper room. Now it is night; Jesus and his disciples are wary: the temple police have put out an arrest warrant and Jesus is being hunted. The acclamation he received Palm Sunday must have seemed revolutionary – indeed it was, but not in the way Jesus’ opponents think. They think of him as a rival within their understanding of power, a danger to their established order.
But the acclamation of Palm Sunday, with its Old Testament references, indicates that Jesus is King and Messiah in an unexpected, subversive way. He is King without violence, revealed in humility. He is a Messiah who will include all people, not exclude the stranger. He is a priest who will do away with sacrifice. All of this seems contradictory to the normal human way of thinking. But this is because it is God’s rule, God’s kingdom of love, breaking in to the human kingdoms of death and oppression and fear, and overturning them.
All of this takes concrete form this night.
The context is the Passover, the defining story of the People of God called Israel. A people saved by God and with a destiny to bring salvation to the nations. But a people saved – so it seems – through sacrifice, their identity bound up with the death of the firstborn in Egypt and the sacrificial rites in the temple. God, it seems, delivers his people, but at the cost of violence inflicted elsewhere.
But Jesus as we have been seeing is the law in person, the dwelling place of God among his people. He is in his person the definitive revelation of God. Jesus is the key to a new interpretation of the law and prophets.
The Passover Lamb of old was slain to avert the wrath of the destroying angel in Egypt, so that the angel of death would “pass over” the homes marked with the lamb’s blood.
Now Jesus, at the Passover meal, gives his disciples a memorial of his death, to make it effective for ever. What better thing could he choose for this than the sacrificed lamb, lying there on the table? But he does not.
Instead, at this supper Jesus substitutes the Passover lamb with a piece of bread, which becomes his body. The sacrifice is set aside. In place of the substitute victim of the lamb, Jesus takes his own death and turns it around. His life, which was to be taken from him by the violence of others, becomes a gift, a free offering, in love, this is my body given for you. Bread and wine are transformed into his body and blood, for the people who will be his body, his life, in the world. Betrayal and murder are transformed into love.
Now who is it who experiences the death of the first born? It is the only begotten Son of the Father, who takes that death upon himself, in an offering of self-giving love. The Passover is reinterpreted, the sacrifice subverted: God is on the side of the victims, all of them, liberating them from death.
And at this supper Jesus gives his command of love and his example of humble service. This is what the new people of God is to be like. Unlike any other revolutionary movement in history. A community which is to be the perpetual transformation of violence and betrayal into love. A community continually brought into being through the Eucharist.
For this Jesus consecrates himself as a priest, the priest who will do away with sacrifice by his offering of himself. The priesthood of Aaron, with its sacrifices of animals, is ended. The priesthood mysteriously signified by the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek is established. Melchizedek came to meet Abraham, bearing bread and wine. He is a priest without a sacrifice, and is described as the King of Peace – both contradictions, to our normal way of thinking. But both describe Jesus. Both describe the new way that God is bringing to birth this night. Jesus is indeed the great high priest – but in a completely different way to the priests in the temple.
The Last Supper discourse in John goes on for many chapters, and concludes with what is called the high priestly prayer of Christ. This is a prayer in which he consecrates himself and his disciples, to be this new priesthood. And in John, the disciples are all who love Jesus and keep his commands. Jesus confers on the whole church a priesthood and a kingdom which are an extension of his own.
John does not make a distinction between disciples and apostles, all are equal in this consecration.  But John does not describe the institution of the Eucharist. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul do. In that narrative it is the apostles who receive the command to “do this in remembrance of me”, and who by that command received the power to do so. The power to consecrate and offer the Eucharist, the real participation and making effective of Christ’s once-for-all offering of himself. From the first it was the apostles and those they ordained who ordered the worship of the Church, ensuring the continuity of each generation with the apostolic tradition.
These two aspects of priesthood are not contradictory. The church as a whole is a priesthood and a kingdom, chosen and consecrated by Christ. The priesthood of the ordained ministry, in succession from the Apostles, is a particular representational sign of the priesthood of the whole church. It acts as a sign of continuity linking each particular Eucharistic community to that first gathering in the upper room. Thus the church appears as one visible historic community, a true body, which is nonetheless complete in all its parts.
In each Eucharistic gathering the church is made present and real, the new people of God, the kingdom of peace and the priesthood which changes sacrifice into love. It is that community, and none other, which is to change the world. In each Eucharist our violence and betrayal, and that of the world, is taken up and transformed into love. In each Eucharist our rivalry and desire for domination are humbled and transformed into service.
This is no mere calling to mind events of the past, but is the means established by Jesus by which the world will enter the kingdom of God. That begins anew at every Mass. Tonight, it begins with us.

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