The 5th Sunday in Lent, Year B
18 March, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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Since this is the day in Lent when we shift our focus from sin to the remedy for sin, and begin looking forward to the events of Holy Week, here’s an interesting little story that pertains to Maundy Thursday and the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
The Babylon Bee is my number-one online source for Christian fake news. They lampoon anything that is sacred to any group of Christians so, as a Pentecostal colleague of mine says, “it’s an equal-opportunity offender.” Well, last week they ran a story with the headline, “Bottle Of Welch’s Grape Juice Discovered Near Site of Last Supper.” Now for those of you who may not know, there are some Christians– not whole denominations as far as I know, but individuals– who insist that what they called wine in Bible times was really just unfermented grape juice. But that’s absolutely not true, and there’s plenty of evidence to refute it.
The idea of using grape juice for Holy Communion didn’t come up until the 19th century, in response to the growing problem of alcoholism. Some churches decided that grape juice would be an acceptable alternative to fermented wine, so they started offering what they called “unfermented wine” alongside real wine as an alternative. That term, btw, is an oxymoron. If it hasn’t been fermented, it’s not wine, kind of like how if your offering is not ten percent, it’s not a tithe. Anyway, by the end of the 19th century a lot of Protestant churches had quit using real wine altogether. The problem they discovered is that grape juice doesn’t store well– it very quickly begins to ferment. So people tried all sorts of ways to prevent that from happening. Then in 1869 a Methodist pastor/dentist named Thomas Welch discovered how to pasteurize it so that it would keep for a long time. He marketed his product as Dr Welch’s Unfermented Wine, later renamed Welch’s Grape Juice, and Protestant churches became his biggest customers.
The fake news article reports how a group of Baptist archeologists in Jerusalem uncovered a nearly-empty juice bottle near the place where Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal on Maundy Thursday. And for more laughs it quotes the famous evangelical pastor John McArthur as saying that it’s nearly incontrovertible proof that Jesus didn’t use wine for the first Holy Eucharist. There was a bit of juice left in the bottle, the article says, but the Baptist archeologists quickly threw it out when they found it had fermented, and that they also found a stack of tiny plastic Protestant communion cups and bits of saltine crackers. As I said, this is satire, fake news.
You know how people will make up something on the spot when they don’t know the real answer– most of us probably tried that when we were kids. Well, the notion that Jesus didn’t really use wine at the Last Supper was totally made up by people who didn’t know the real reason they use grape juice in their churches. But ask any Baptist or Methodist theologian, and they’ll tell you that, of course, Jesus and the disciples drank wine. Drinking water or fruit juice in those days was risky, because they could be contaminated with potentially deadly microorganisms. And since alcohol killed those things, everybody drank wine. In fact, their wine was so strong that they always cut it with water, which is one of the reasons we add water to it at the altar, that and the fact that when the soldier drove his spear up into Jesus’ heart on the cross, out flowed both blood and water (Jn 19:34). So hopefully, you can see how easy it is to get the wrong impression and to jump to wrong conclusions about important things. It’s always good to have some solid background information before you find yourself caught up in something you don’t understand or don’t know much about.
That’s kind of what today’s Bible readings are doing. As I said, this is the day we shift our focus from sin– our own and all human sin– which is the cause of our alienation from God, and begin to look toward the remedy for it and the reconciliation that Jesus achieved for us all by his death and resurrection. Today is a day of preparation for what’s coming up next week. It’s similar to how the whole of the Old Testament is a preparation for the coming of Jesus, and to how the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday was a preparation for what was about to happen over Good Friday and Easter, as well as providing the way the Church participates in those three days every time she gathers at the altar.
Let’s start with the prophet Jeremiah. Speaking the word that God gave him, Jeremiah says, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.” God had made a number of covenants with his people over the centuries. The first was when he expelled Adam and Eve from the garden. The sign of that covenant was the animal skins he provided them as clothing in token of his promise that he would always be with them and watch over them. Then there was the rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant promise to Noah that he would never again be as destructive of his creation as when he flooded it.
Then there was his covenant with Abraham, that he would make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants and bless the whole world through them. We read about Melchizedek in the second lesson. He’s described in Genesis as “the priest of God Most High,” who came seemingly out of nowhere to bless Abraham for his faithfulness, and in doing so he blessed everything God intended to do with Abraham, including all his many descendants. In bringing out bread and wine (not grape juice) during that blessing, Melchizedek typifies and looks forward to Jesus, who gives his body and blood to the faithful in the bread and wine of the Eucharist (St Cyprian in OSB, Gen 14:18n). In gratitude for God’s blessing, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe (10%) of everything he owned. Shortly after that mysterious encounter, God instituted circumcision as the sign of his covenant with Abraham, the shedding of blood at the point where procreation happens.
Then came the covenant with Moses after God freed his people from foreign slavery. Through Moses God gave his people the law, which included a system of ritual sacrifices, chief of which was the commemoration of the Passover when God passed over the houses of all those who had killed a lamb, smeared its blood on their doorposts and ate the roasted meat, and God spared the lives of the firstborn sons of all those families. In their place he sent his own Son at the proper time. Hand in hand with that was the Day of Atonement when the high priest offered the sacrifice for the sin of the whole nation, the perfectly spotless lamb, which also pointed toward Jesus, whom John the Baptist would identify as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29, 36).
Bloodshed is the central feature of every one of those covenant rituals. And the underlying premise, according to the Rev’d Dr Peter Leithart, is that “Human beings can live as God intended only if flesh is put to death.” That doesn’t mean that God ultimately wants to wipe out all humanity. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have protected Adam and Eve, or put Noah’s family on the ark, or blessed Abraham him with countless offspring, or freed the Israelites. He wants to deliver his creatures from the evil that humanity is capable of, and from the death that we’ve brought upon ourselves. At the root of all of that is the corrupt desire to be more than God made us to be– that was the first sin, committed by our first ancestors– to be greater than we are and to have more than we need. And when we try to do that for ourselves, it’s always at the expense of our neighbor. To make ourselves greater, we have to make others somehow lesser than us. We put them down, we take from them, we even kill them. But as Dr Leithhart points out, every attempt to make ourselves more than human really ends up making us more inhuman. So ultimately, he says, God “aims to prosecute, condemn, and execute mortality,” to destroy death itself. That’s why bloodshed is an essential part of every covenant God has made with his people.
Now it’s important to keep in mind that each of those covenants didn’t replace the ones that went before. Instead each was a step forward in preparing God’s people for the greatest and final covenant that he would make with his people, the one Jeremiah describes in today’s first lesson. It’s not like the one God made with Moses, he says, a covenant of laws that the people repeatedly disobeyed, and sacrifices that couldn’t really accomplish what the people needed. That doesn’t mean it was a pointless exercise. Life under that covenant was an exercise in faithfulness and obedience. St Paul describes it as a schoolmaster designed to keep the people on track until the ultimate covenant was to be established (Gal 3:24). In this new covenant, God says to Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” No longer will the law need to be drilled into them by their teachers, God says, because he’s going to write it on their hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. But before that can happen there’s got to be more bloodshed, another death, and the gift of new life. And then, along comes Jesus.
He came, not to replace all those OT covenants, but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17) by undoing everything his creatures have done to damage our relationship to God and to alienate ourselves from God. In the first place, Jesus is the opposite of Adam and Eve who, with the devil’s help, tried to make themselves equal to God, whereas Jesus was not concerned about his own status at all. He didn’t exalt himself, as it says in the second lesson, but was appointed by God the Father. St Paul says that he emptied himself in becoming one of us. Setting aside his status as the Word God spoke to create everything, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
Speaking from eternity God says to Jesus, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (cf Psalm 2:7), a declaration that he echoes at Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration. And he declares him to be “a priest for ever, in the order of Melchizedek.” That’s a clue as to who Melchizedek actually was. He was a theophany, an Old Testament manifestation of God himself, more specifically of the Son of God, since he was sent to speak the Word of God to Abraham. That puts his priesthood in a higher order than any of the priests of Israel, including the high priest, who was sort of like the Pope in the Jewish priestly hierarchy.
In fact, in the chapter before today’s reading, Hebrews describes Jesus as our “Great High Priest” (which can also be translated as “Mega High Priest”), because he was able to do what no other priest could do– “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” In the verses leading up to today’s reading it describes how the high priest did his duty in the temple, “offering gifts and sacrifices for sins.” And because he’s as weak as everybody else, Hebrews says, “he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people” (Heb 1:1-3), which is why it says further on in Hebrews that “every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins” (10:11). That’s the big limitation, that’s the best a human priest could do. But Jesus, being both fully human and fully divine, and also perfectly without sin, is uniquely capable of offering the one perfect sacrifice that can take away all sin for all time, and of being that one perfect sacrifice. His alone is the bloodshed and the atoning sacrifice that gives life to the world.
All the blood poured out on God’s altar before Jesus, and all the best animals offered up, were just a preparation for what Jesus came to do, and just a symbol of the innocent life God wanted to give his people. But what Jesus did in offering his divine life on the cross really does wash away our sin and fill us with his life. And when his Church offers up the bread and wine that Melchizedek first brought out, doing it in the manner Jesus taught his disciples the night before he died, we participate in his death, we are washed clean from all sin, and are filled with his divine life.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. All this is what he’s talking about, and what we’re getting ready to see and to participate in once again beginning next Palm Sunday. So I hope you can all participate in Holy Week as much possible, and to invite others to participate in it as well. For just as Jesus is our Great High Priest, what we’re about to share and to celebrate is our great high act of worship. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+