The Sacrifice which Saves and Sanctifies

Maundy Thursday Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 78:15-26, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-15

In many of the liturgies for celebrating Holy Communion used in the worldwide church, including the form typically used in this congregation, at the conclusion of the prayer of Consecration, the Celebrant proclaims “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” with the people responding “therefore let us keep the feast”.

With these words we are remembering that what happened on the night Jesus Christ was betrayed into the hands of sinners, which stretches forward in time to reach us gathered around the Lord’s Table today, like a stone cast into still water, ripples back through the history of the People of God. The night that Jesus was betrayed is not like any other night. For that was the night he celebrated the Passover with his disciples.

The Passover is the feast which commemorates God saving his people from slavery in Egypt by rendering judgement against the gods of Egypt, slaying the first born in all the land, so that Pharaoh would drive the Hebrews from his country, that he would let God’s people go. On that night the people of God were commanded to slaughter a spotless lamb, painting their doorposts with the blood, providing a covering for them that would spare them from judgement. And not only does the Passover provide a covering, but by eating the flesh of the spotless lamb the people partake of that purity which was acceptable to God. The Passover is a foreshadowing of a sacrifice which is both saving, and sanctifying. A sacrifice which identifies the people of God as the people of God, with the blood over their doorposts, and prepares them with strength for the journey out of the land of slavery, to follow God on the way towards his good purposes to be his royal priesthood in the midst of the world.

The blood is a witness testifying that those who dwell in that house belong not to the false gods of Egypt, the gods who enslave and oppress, but to the true God, the God of the Hebrews who seeks and saves the lost. They are saved by the blood of the lamb on that night when God cast down those things which opposed his good purposes. They are made clean by the unblemished sacrifice which sanctifies all who partake of it.

It is the night of this festival that Jesus is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

And on that night he takes bread and breaks it, giving it to his disciples. And he says “this is my body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me”. Afterwards he takes a cup of wine and says “this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Flesh and blood, like the lamb which was killed and eaten that night. Like the blood painted over the lintel. Jesus proclaims himself to be the true sacrifice given for all people, the sacrifice prefigured by the Passover but now revealed in its fullness. And this sacrifice, like the Passover, saves and sanctifies God’s people, giving us strength to leave behind slavery and dwell in the world as witnesses to the God who saved us and is even now working his good purposes.

The Passover is the beginning of the work God was to do through this people, leading them into the wilderness, to mount Zion, to give them the law, to drive out the wicked nations from the promised land, to guide the people in keeping the law, to raise up kings and prophets, an ongoing work spanning generations. They eat this meal with their shoes on and their belts fastened, ready to depart as soon as the meal is finished, for a journey far longer than they could have possibly imagined.

But at this passover, Jesus takes off his outer robe, presumably unfastening his belt, and he kneels down to wash the feet of his disciples. We know from the Gospels that foot washing was something done for a guest who had arrived at a home. One would not do such a thing before a journey, but after. In this act, Jesus announces that we have come home, that in him is the promised land, that in him the work of God is fulfilled, that the hopes of the Hebrews find their answer. It was he who was waiting for the slaves, to welcome them into his presence, freed, washed, sanctified, and called God’s own.

By washing his disciples feet Jesus testifies that those who seek to belong to him can only do so by being made clean by him, as the flesh and blood of the Passover Lamb purified the Hebrews, so the flesh and blood of Christ makes God’s people clean throughout all ages. But the foot washing isn’t just a metaphor for some invisible, spiritual action. It is also an example set for us which Jesus commends to his disciples. It is a work on our behalf, and a call to follow Christ in real, physical terms. In the mystery of the Gospel, Jesus calls us to respond, and communicates through outward and visible signs and inward and spiritual grace.

In the supper which he gave to his Apostles to celebrate as a perpetual remembrance of his passion, death, and resurrection Jesus makes available his flesh and blood for our salvation and sanctification. In this supper we are welcomed home, greeted by Christ who stoops to wash our feet, cleansing our impurities and claiming us as his own. And in this home, this promised land where we now dwell with Christ, he leads us in his way of love, pouring himself out in humility and inviting us to do the same. In the Gospels the washing of the feet is called the job of a servant, or perhaps a slave. But in Christ true freedom looks like service, because he has served us by giving himself up for our salvation, and he is working in us to make us ever more like himself.

Around this table we assemble unworthy and unclean, ready to lay hold of the flesh and blood of the spotless lamb by faith, in the eating and drinking of this bread and wine which is hallowed by Christ’s word. He will make up for all that is lacking in us, but changing us ever more into the people he desires us to be, counting ourselves as less and less, and others more and more, that his reign of love may spread over all of God’s creation.

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