Texts: John 13:1-17, 31b-35;
Ex 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Cor 11:23-26
PREPARING FOR THE SACRIFICE WHICH TRANSFORMS SACRIFICE
Here we are at the beginning of the Three Days that retrace the pivot point for all of human history. We began our Lenten journey reflecting on our human origins (Lent 1A). The incredible wisdom of the story of humanity falling into sin in Genesis 2-3 — it helps us to understand how our human story begins with getting stuck in rivalry, estrangement, stinking thinking, and finally violence. The story of the serpent and the woman doesn’t just show us simple disobedience: eating from the tree from which God told them not to eat. No, the serpent convinces them of a conspiracy, of how God is somehow against them. They’re convinced, without any evidence, that God is holding out on them with the precious knowledge of good and evil. Wow! The fruit of that tree suddenly becomes super desirable. They eat, and they think they know good and evil, right and wrong, in the same way that God knows them. Wrong! Instead, we fall into the sin of Us-vs-Them thinking and its deadly consequences — lives lived in rivalry, conflict and violence. It’s not long afterward when that same desire leads one brother to kill the other. Abel becomes the first scapegoat.
Tonight, we begin retracing the Three Days in human history that makes possible a do-over, a re-start. What happens when your computer starts acting up? You try a restart. The human restart is much more complicated and unexpected — mainly because it begins with one person letting himself become victim to our usual rivalry, conflict, and violence — precisely, the heart of what we recount in these Three Days. In essence, Jesus takes the place of Abel as the quintessential human scapegoat, and God raises him in order to make possible a new and truer way of being human. It is the story of raising Abel,1 raising all the scapegoats in human history, in order that we might begin to choose a Way of peaceful coexistence which no longer relies on scapegoats.
It is the story — as John the Baptist says at the outset of John’s Gospel — the story of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. God switches places with us by offering us a sacrificial lamb, in order to understand that that kind of sacrifice was never God’s way to Holy Communion in the first place. So at the beginning of the Three Days which change everything, Jesus offers himself to our sacrificial machinery in order to carry-out a self-sacrifice that transforms the very nature of sacrifice itself. Jesus transforms sacrifice into sacrament. It is the prodigious, unprecedented ending of many millennia of ritual blood sacrifice — in order to give us a true basis for Holy Communion, a true basis for living together in harmony as one human family. Jesus enters Jerusalem shortly before the Passover sacrifice of hundreds of lambs and becomes the Lamb of God taking away the sin of sacrificial killing. We no longer need to rely on “scapegoats”2 to form our human communions. Jesus gives us a new Holy Communion based on letting himself become the scapegoat. From now on, our communions can be based on lovingly serving one another as if we are family. In Jesus, we are becoming one human family. It is no longer Us and Them but only Us.
After beginning in the First Sunday in Lent with the nature of our sin in terms Us-vs-Them thinking and its consequences (Lent 1A), we have been treated to lengthy stories from John’s Gospel: first Nicodemus and the need to be born again from above to God’s perspective of only-Us, not Us-vs-Them (Lent 2A). Then we met Jesus engaging not just with a worthy dialogue partner in a Samaritan woman at the well, but through her an entire village of Samaritans, thereby acting out the healing of Us-vs-Them thinking between bitter enemies, between Jews and Samaritans (Lent 3A). Third, we met a man born blind who symbolized humanity born blind to its Us-vs-Them thinking (Lent 4A). Jesus could heal the physical blindness form birth. He was not able to heal the Pharisees’ blindness to their Us-vs-Them thinking. To heal that particular blindness of human beings from our beginnings, Jesus would have to let himself become the scapegoat himself and be raised from the dead — the pivot point of human history that we begin to retrace tonight. Finally, we heard the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to teach his disciples how not to mix fear of death with Us-vs-Them thinking to produce the deadly concoction of scapegoating (Lent 5A). But that is met immediately afterwards by the Judean leadership plotting to make Jesus the scapegoat. Trapped in the fear of death, mixed with their Us-vs-Them thinking about their Roman overlords, Caiaphas states the scapegoat principle right-out-loud: ‘It is better for one person to die than for a whole nation.’
Tonight, we have the story, once again from John’s Gospel, of how Jesus came to transform the unholy communion of our scapegoating into the Holy Communion of serving one another around a family meal. And, once again, John’s storytelling operates on multiple levels of meaning that captures both the new reality of being human in both its positive and negative aspects. The positive meaning is more straightforward. Jesus, their master, gets on his knees to do work only done by servants and slaves. It was common to wash one’s own feet when arriving to an important meal, after walking a dusty road in sandals. But no one else ever washed your feet, unless you were wealthy enough to have servants do it. So once again Jesus turns things upside-down by taking the role of a servant. He flips our usual Us-vs-Them thinking in terms of the powerful being able to make others do the dirty work into the Us-only thinking of mutually serving one another. He transforms the sacrifice of slaves into the self-sacrifice of our Lord, paving the way for a Holy Communion, a new Way for humanity to become one family.
The negative aspect of Jesus establishing a new Holy Communion comes through his self-sacrifice. He lets himself be sacrificed on the cross by the powers-that-be. His body will be broken and blood poured out for us. Jesus famously institutes this at the Last Supper, as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul. But John’s Gospel does not record these Words of Institution for us — only the footwashing. Once again, however, there’s multiple layers of meaning in John’s narrative that includes the reality of sacrifice turned into self-sacrifice, or sacrament. In Exodus 32 (vv.17-21), it describes placing a bronze bowl in the tabernacle, near the place of sacrifice, so that Aaron and his sons, the priests, may wash their hands and feet, before entering the presence of the Lord for the sacrifice. There’s also evidence that in the first century the practice of priests washing their feet had also developed into a practice of their washing the feet of the animals to be sacrificed.3 On the day of preparation for the Passover, were the priests washing the feet of hundreds of lambs while Jesus washed the feet of his disciples? John’s Jesus is setting the example of being community together, being a Holy Communion, by helping one another to be prepared for possibly following Jesus in a life of self-sacrifice — even unto to death. It is about a life of self-giving service that can span the simplest acts of service, like washing one another’s feet, to the ultimate self-sacrifice of laying down one’s life for others.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, on this Holy Night we are consecrated into the Holy Communion of our Lord’s body broken and blood poured out. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews points out, it is a Holy Communion based on a sacrifice like no other: “Nor was [Christ entering the sanctuary] to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:25-26). For millennia upon millennia, human beings sought to found the solidarity and peace of their communities by spilling the blood of “scapegoats,” whether ritually or not. On this night of nights, our Lord gives us a completely different basis for founding our communities in solidarity and peace: by letting his own blood be spilled, as the end of sacrifice and the beginning of sacrament. Two thousand years later we continue to be fed for a life of self-giving service that we might bear a Holy Communion to a broken world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, April 6, 2023
1. On Easter morning (Easter A), I begin with a story of receiving two books from my friend James Alison on computer diskette before they were subsequently published. On Easter I focus on one of those books, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. The other book has the title behind using this phrase: Raising Abel.
2. “Scapegoat” is a term that arises from another ritual in Jewish tradition, that of Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, as prescribed in Leviticus 16. For a thorough investigation of the origins and development of the term “scapegoat,” see David Dawson, Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea (MSU Press, 2013).
3. Wes Howard-Brook cites the Jewish writer Philo in his commentary Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis Books, 1994), pp. 295ff. Howard-Brook even argues that this is John’s intended meaning of the footwashing, more important to his community than a lesson about “humble service,” writing, “But if readers are like the Johannine community — as people in El Salvador, Malawi, and other places are where proclaiming God’s truth is to risk one’s life — ‘humble service’ is a commonplace that requires no exhortation at all. It is the call to help one another face death that is both the challenge and comfort of the gospel.” (300)