Friday, April 02, 2010

Lifting up the Cup of Salvation

Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19, Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, John 13.1-17, 31b-35

On the Cross Jesus cried out, 'My God, why have you forsaken me?' But the Psalmist says that God listens to our prayers and therefore we should go on calling to him for as long as we live.

How are we to repay God's goodness to us? In a striking phrase the Psalmist talks about lifting up the cup of salvation and calling on the name of the Lord. How evocative that is of the communion service, when we lift up the cup in memory of Jesus' ordeal as a symbol of our own obedience to the way of the Cross.

'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones;' another striking phrase. Precious, I think, because we are never forgotten. We do not die forsaken. We are always precious to God, no matter how or when we die.

Roman Catholics would see an evocation of the Hail Mary in the next lines of the Psalm, and it certainly makes us think - yet again - of Jesus, who is not only God's faithful servant but also the child of his obedient serving girl, Mary. His death is, as we are reminded in the communion liturgy, a thanksgiving sacrifice and our response must be to offer our lives as a living sacrifice too.

Our reading from Exodus also reminds us of a sacrificial image - the Paschal Lamb offered as a sacrifice to ward off God's vengeance against the Egyptians. Its blood daubed on the lintel of the door post would mark the occupants out as God's people, specially protected from harm. And, furthermore, it's death was also a catalyst sparking a change in Israel's fortunes. The people were to have all their possessions packed, ready for the journey from slavery to freedom. Then, in verse 14, comes the mention of remembrance - not just a passive act of remembering something that happened a long time ago, but bringing its power and effectiveness into the present moment. This is what Jewish people still believe they are doing as they celebrate Passover.

But Christians have a new Paschal Lamb, Jesus - who was crucified at around Passover time and shared a final Passover meal with his friends. His death doesn't protect us from an act of vengeance, but it does protect us from dying alone, because Jesus has gone ahead of us through death, and perhaps it protects us also from the consequences of our own obsession with ourselves, for through this act of supreme love - laying down his life for his friends - Jesus offers us a new beginning, and a new chance to love others in imitation of him. If we identify ourselves with Jesus we are marked out as members of God's family, part of the new Israel. And his death is the catalyst for change - in our own lives and in the world as we seek to build God's kingdom upon earth. And then, of course, our re-enactment of the Last Supper is also, like the Passover, an act of remembrance - a calling into the present moment of the power and effectiveness of Jesus' death.

Paul's spare account of the original Last Supper makes all of these connections, but without spelling it out. He doesn't mention the Exodus from Egypt or the Passover Lamb but all the elements are there - the meal, the new covenant or treaty, sealed in blood, the identification with the Lamb of God and the repeated act of remembrance until he comes.

In John's version of the story, it isn't a real Passover meal, but a meal that anticipates the Passover when Jesus will be hanging in the Cross. And vengeance really is hanging in the air, but not the vengeance of God. This time it is the vengeance of the forces of evil, which are very close to Jesus in the person of Judas, the traitor. John can see nothing good in his motives.

The theme of servanthood recurs, as Jesus underlines that he is a servant king by the acted parable of washing his disciples' feet. Again, we are challenged to identify ourselves with him and follow his example, acting as the servant of others. It is through our acts of love and service that people will know we are Jesus' disciples, just as it is through his death that the world can see, once and for all, that God was with him and in him, giving glory to all that he said and did.

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