Wednesday before Easter


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Hebrews 9:16-28
Luke 22

The exigencies of sequencing the different accounts of the Passion separates Luke 22 from its natural partner (1 Corinthians 11; cf Thursday before Easter) but it allows us to consider the institution of the Holy Eucharist in the light of Hebrews’ elaborate Christology. Just as the First Covenant was sealed with animal blood (Exodus 12:21-22, Numbers 19:5-6, Leviticus 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7), all things that are sacred must be sprinkled with blood and without it there is no remission; the Temple made with hands where for the Jews, Tom Wright says (Simply Christian), heaven met earth, is replaced by heaven meeting in earth in the incarnation; whereas things of the Law could be cleansed with animal blood, heavenly things require a High Priest sent from heaven. Thus, the priest and the victim become fused because Jesus sacrificed himself for sin.

This Christology of priest and victim as the initiator of the New Covenant might apply equally to the Institution of the Eucharist and penal substitution in the death of Jesus. The Reformation saw a radical shift from emphasis on the former to the centrality of the latter which might explain the way the Readings have been chosen and yoked, allowing us only to infer a Eucharistic dimension in Hebrews which is explicit in tomorrow’s Epistle. Like most dichotomies, this one is false, born, as most are, out of a tactical need for differentiation, in this case between Reformers and Catholics. This is still a cause of tension between the traditions in spite of the recognition that the Eucharist and Crucifixion are symbiotic and that to debate their respective ‘mechanics’ which occupied so much theological energy in the 16th Century, is to call their mysterious nature into question.

As many Christian traditions choose today to think about the betrayal of Jesus, there is one final question we must consider: how credible is the whole Judas episode? Jesus, as he declares at his arrest, spoke openly in the Temple, he was a public figure; in the cramped environment of Jerusalem he would have been easy to find. Luke says that the authorities were frightened to make a move “for fear of the people” but what difference did Judas make? One answer, cited by the evangelists themselves, is that Scripture had to be fulfilled (cf Zechariah 11:12-13). The very inevitability of the events might explain why Luke has Judas, the instrument not the initiator, present at the Eucharist. There then follows a discussion of the name of the betrayer, significantly entwined with “strife among them” over who was the greatest. This leads to a dialogue on service and humility which will be rewarded with the heavenly life, featuring a moving address to Peter, looking beyond his denial: “... when thou art converted, strengthen they brethren.” Only Luke completes this episode by saying that Jesus “looked upon Peter after his third denial.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives is short but dramatic, showing Jesus supported by an angel and sweating drops of blood. These events, usually thought of sequentially, might have more impact viewed simultaneously. After the prayer, in a nice Lucan touch, Jesus finds the Disciples sleeping “for sorrow.” Judas effects the arrest of Jesus who is then blindfolded, beaten and mocked in the ‘softening up’ process before the trial. In Luke (cf Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial) Jesus is quietly pragmatic; his accusers will not believe him, listen to him nor let him go. He says that he will sit on the right hand of God but then uses the odd phrase “ye say that I am” when asked directly whether he is the Son of God.

Luke’s genius is to help us to see Judas the betrayer and Peter the denier alongside each other without making the customary radical distinction. He says that Satan entered into Judas and Jesus warns Peter that the devil will sift him like wheat and the two figures are still both present when dissention breaks out between the Disciples. These two figures are not so far from each other as might be supposed and they are not so far from the rest of the Disciples who are allowing the solemn Passover meal to degenerate into petty and fractious competitiveness. Jesus uses the occasion to respond generously, promising that there will be places for them all in the Kingdom (we do not know at what point Judas leaves) and after the denial we are left to imagine what facial expression Peter saw but we have o reason to doubt that it was a face of sad and generous forgiveness.

Luke’s approach is a warning against separating society into good and bad, separating the law-abiding and the criminal. In demonising criminals we are not only setting them apart as a different class of people, we are also setting ourselves apart which has two serious consequences: the first is that we are tempted to deny our own sinfulness; the second is that we are tempted to deny our solidarity with all God’s creatures, loving the sinner but hating the sin. We do not know what trials others have to face nor the means they have for facing them; but we do know how far we have gone ourselves, as individuals and members of society, to ensure that those who are poor and weak receive resources and strength which might reduce the temptation they face. We only have to analyse the prison population with its high illiteracy levels, widespread mental health problems and endemic addiction to see the extent of our own failures.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is there a conflict between being Eucharist-centred and a belief in penal substitution?
  2. Consider a picture of Jesus, supported by an angel, sweating drops of blood
  3. How similar are Judas and Peter and how different are they from the other Disciples?
  4. What do the different accounts of the trial of Jesus tell us about the Evangelists and about him?
  5. How responsible are we for the relationship between poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system?

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