Sermon in Ankara for Trinity XIII (6th September 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Last week we heard the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the Burning Bush, and today we heard about the Passover meal. Quite a lot has happened between the two passages! Moses has returned to Egypt and has repeatedly asked the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, for permission for the Israelites to leave the country. Permission was denied, and the Egyptians were subjected to a series of unpleasant plagues. The last and worst is about to occur. The first born of the Egyptians and their animals will be killed. The Israelites are to mark their doors with the blood of the lambs that they will eat, so that the Lord will pass over their houses and not kill their firstborn. This “pass over” of the Lord is what gives the feast its name.
It is an exciting story, and right in the middle of these dramatic events we are given instructions on how the Passover meal is to be observed. This annual celebration has remained the central feature of the Jewish Year, and it is a time when families gather together, eat the Passover meal, and remind themselves what it is that they are celebrating. Traditionally the youngest child present asks “why is this night different from other nights?” and then four questions about the Passover ritual, whose answers illustrate the theme of the celebration. Why do we eat unleavened bread? Because the Israelites were in such a hurry there was no time to bake proper bread. Why eat bitter herbs? As a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. Why dip parsley in salt water and bitter herbs in nuts and wine? As a reminder of the tears and labour of slavery. Why lean on a pillow? As a reminder of the delights and comforts of freedom. The answers provide reflection on how this meal is a great celebration of the people of Israel winning their freedom from slavery. So it has remained for the Jewish people, in good times and in bad, of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in the Promised Land.
For Christians too, Passover has special significance. Jesus and his disciples met together for their Passover meal in what we now call the Last Supper. They followed the Passover ritual and ate unleavened bread, which is why we use unleavened bread, in the form of wafers, at Communion. Just as the Jews recall that first Passover and re-enact it, so we Christians recall the Last Supper and re-enact it. We speak of Jesus as the Passover Lamb sacrificed for us. For the Jews the feast of Passover celebrates freedom from slavery, and so does the Eucharist for us. In the meal that we share with Christ we come to know freedom form slavery to sin and all the pressures of the world. Christians too are saved by the blood of the Lamb. The Jews escaped unscathed because their doors were marked with the blood of lambs. We Christians are free because Christ our sacrificial Lamb has died for us. The imagery of Easter is rich with Passover language, for the church has always known of the link between Passover and Easter, both in factual terms and in the metaphors of our celebrations, even down to the choice of lamb as meat to eat at Easter.
In our Gospel reading we hear of how to come to terms with disputes within the Christian community. The brother to whom Jesus refers may as well be another member of the community as of one’s own family. The passage flows neatly from the individual to the communal. Confront the sin directly, one-to-one, says Jesus, and only if that does not work involve others in the conversation. If that fails too, then take the matter to the church or Christian community as a whole. Unsurprisingly the Jewish teacher Jesus here reflects the traditional teaching to be found in the Old Testament.
Jesus goes on to speak about the power of agreement. He says that anything that is agreed upon by two on earth will be done for them by his Father in heaven. Yet Jesus does not stop there. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” our passage concludes, “I am there among them.” There is no question of agreement at this point. Jesus has not said that he is present whenever two or three are gathered in agreement. He has said that he is present whenever two or three are gathered together in his name. This includes the argumentative brethren just as much as those who have peacefully settled their conflict.
This is an important saying of Jesus. Christian communities and individuals down the ages are often found it difficult to deal with confrontation and disagreement amongst themselves, and have often fallen out with one another in the most terrible ways. This is not surprising, as none of us is perfect, all of us are sinners, and so continual agreement would be rather unlikely! Jesus, however, is saying that he is present with us his followers, even when we are arguing among ourselves, falling out with one another, or denying each other the right to call ourselves Christian.
We tend to picture ourselves in the presence of a contented Jesus on happy occasions like weddings, church festivals, or even church unions. We tend not to think so much of the presence of Jesus when we are denouncing, fighting or even killing our fellow-Christians. For if we did think about his presence with us on those occasions we might realise that Jesus was not now so contented at our behaviour. Jesus’ promise is to be with us all the time, and certainly when his followers meet, for worship or dispute, he is amongst us. This should lead us to a pause for thought as well as being a source of comfort. The Passover lamb once sacrificed for us, has brought us to freedom through his blood. As we celebrate this freedom the least that we can do is to remember that Jesus is present with us whatever the day may bring and however we may behave.