by Daniel Harrell
Apropos to this season’s theme of “doors in the Bible,” I came across an organization called “Open Doors USA.” Founded by Brother Andrew, aka the God Smuggler who famously delivered Bibles behind the Cold War Iron Curtain, Open Doors USA supports Christians living in restrictive and oppressive circumstances worldwide. According to their statistics, Christians are currently the most persecuted religious people on earth. From North Korea and parts of China to a huge swath of territory ranging from Nigeria east and north to Iran and Pakistan, millions live in fear of losing their property or their lives simply because they follow Christ. Campaigns of church-burning, clergy-killing, and terror have decimated the historically oldest Christian communities in Iraq, Egypt and Syria. Their suffering has led at least one online rabbi to suggest that Christians have become the new Jews.
According to this rabbi, Christians desiring reconciliation with Jews after the Holocaust were told “if you want to understand us, study our story, learn from our pain.” Christians who do this soon see themselves in the Jewish story. We worship a Jewish savior who saves us through suffering—the preposition being intentional. Though we would all prefer that Jesus save us us from suffering, true rescue only occurs once we endure the weight of mistreatment our faith invites. “If anyone would follow me,” Jesus said, “you must take up a cross to do it.”
Granted, mistreatment for being a Christian is fairly rare in America. You can experience some ridicule and exclusion if you act obnoxious enough, but even then you have to work pretty hard to bring on any serious persecution. Not that I haven’t tried. Just the other day while getting fit for some new glasses, the optician—a smartly dressed, leather skirt-clad, red-spectacled, tattooed hipster asked me what I did for a living. Normally I’m hesitant to share since saying you’re a minister can be such a conversation-stopper, but with this sermon in mind, I considered it research this time. Perhaps I was also emboldened by the optician’s boss, a headscarf-wearing Muslim who examined my eyes. She showed me her faith, should I not at least admit something about mine? So I blurted out, “I’m a preacher of the gospel in church” and braced for a derisive response—the frozen look followed by expressions of confusion and pity. But instead, this hipster beamed a bright smile and replied, “that’s awesome, Reverend, these glasses should help you preach even better.” Not exactly what you’d call being persecuted for my faith.
Of course there are those who think the persecution to be warranted. One respondent to the online rabbi wrote, “Christianity expanded by ruthlessly destroying the cultural monuments of other faiths: starting with the temples of Greece and Rome. The West became a cesspit of brutality, bigotry, Jew-baiting and ignorance as long as Christianity ruled unchallenged. You’ll get no sympathy for Jesus-followers from me. If you live by the sword, you must accept dying by the sword.” That last line actually comes from Jesus himself. When one of his disciples tried to him from being arrested by unsheathing his weapon, he was told to put it away: “All who take up the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus said. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
Jesus doesn’t cite any particular Scripture, referring instead to the entire Old Testament arc that bends toward Bethlehem. From Adam’s sin to Abraham’s faith, from Israel’s slavery and rescue to their rebellion and exile, Scripture sets the table for sacrifice: the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The prophet Jeremiah couched sacrifice in terms of a new covenant whereby the Lord would write his will on our hearts: “I will forgive your wickedness and remember your sins no more.” Jesus points to himself as the embodiment of this new covenant at the Last Supper: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you.”
The new covenant contrasted the covenant based upon Jewish temple and animal sacrifice. Everyday in Jerusalem, the Temple courts swam with blood shed from a daily slaughterhouse of bulls and pigeons and goats and rams, a practice that dated back to the earliest days of Hebrew worship. Here in Exodus, the night before Moses leads Israel out of Egypt, the sacrifice of a lamb, its blood spread on the doorposts of Israelite homes, saves those covered by it. “The LORD will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down.” Under the Old Covenant, blood worked as “atonement,” a term that denotes ransom and cleansing, salvation and reconciliation.
The reason for blood is that blood gives life—just like the Red Cross tells us (and just like you can experience by giving life through our upcoming blood drive—sign up in the hallway after church). Specifically, the Torah teaches that blood is life, which is why Jews were never allowed any direct contact with it. (They used hyssop brushes to spread it over their doors.) Blood is life and therefore sacred because all derives from God. Blood is required for atonement because the paycheck for sin in death. Salvation from death comes from blood, the payback to God for the life that was lost. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” we read in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Genuine reconciliation is costly and painful and bloody.
Bad enough that so many animals died to cover the sins of God’s people, worse that it never really worked. That same book of Hebrews declared it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to fully take away sins. Therefore God sent his only son to shed his blood, but what kind of God demands such a sacrifice? Critics label the cross divine sanction for child abuse, the vengeful violence of a tyrannical God. But such caricatures arise due to comparisons of atonement with human bloodlust. Atonement is not motivated by vengeance but by love. God so loved the world that he sent his son. On the cross, where humans unjustly executed what they thought to be justice, God reconciles us to himself. He suffers unbearable loss for a reconciliation he so eagerly longs for. Nevertheless, such reconciliation is costly and painful and even bloody because it absorbs in itself the injuries committed and forgoes any gratification of retribution or reparation. True forgiveness is not fair, which is why it’s called forgiveness.
As for all the animals, it may ease your mind a bit to know that to sacrifice an animal was to cook it. You didn’t burn it, you grilled it. The lamb that atoned also nourished. The blood was the symbol of atonement, the meat food to eat. Here in Exodus, the grilled meat was eaten along with unleavened bread because the time was short. Salvation was coming tonight. You had to eat and run. No time for meat to stew or bread to rise. You had to be ready for God’s coming. Readiness as faithfulness has been a theme with every door we’ve opened this fall. Spreading the lamb’s blood on the doorpost was a sign of faithfulness too. Why not leave a note or hang a nice Passover wreath? Because blood makes atonement and invites reconciliation. Why strike down the Egyptians’ firstborn? That was execution of justice, payback to God for the life lost in Exodus chapter 1. “All who take up the sword will die by the sword.” The reigning Pharaoh in chapter 1 murdered every Hebrew baby boy as a vicious demonstration of power. Only Moses was saved—a foreshadow of Jesus being saved by the Magi at Christmas.
Not that the Egyptians weren’t offered mercy. The Lord sends nine plagues as warnings—nine chances to change, nine opportunities to repent and believe. (Of course, we also read that the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he couldn’t believe, a tricky detail best left to better preachers than me.) Still, even here with this tenth and final plague, there remains a last chance for faith, a possibility for pardon. Anyone who believed the Lord would be saved by the blood of the lamb, another preview of Jesus. That the lamb had to be young, male and perfect pointed to Jesus too.
This is why Jesus used Passover for his last Supper rather than say, Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. He announced the unleavened bread and Passover wine to be his body and his blood, shed for our rescue from slavery to sin. Sacrifice not only atoned and nourished, but saved and kept safe too. The lamb’s blood on their doorframes safeguarded against God’s destructive plague against injustice and evil as Christ’s blood safeguards God’s people from that day when injustice and oppression and tyranny will be dealt with for good. Why bread and not lamb meat? No one is exactly sure, though deacons everywhere are not doubt grateful that monthly or weekly communion preparation doesn’t require roasting a lamb shank. Most likely Jesus declares the bread his body due to its other connotations. As the Israelites made their way out of Egypt, God provided them daily bread from heaven, manna that they gathered with the morning dew. It is this miraculous provision Jesus alludes to to when he refers to himself as the “bread of life.” The same with wine rather than actual blood. Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation notwithstanding, Jesus takes a cup of wine to symbolize blood but also to remind of the mercies of God that fill and overflow our cups.
And yet more significantly, to tie bread and wine to body and blood is to point to himself as the sacrifice. Blood was separated from flesh in the sacrificial ritual, the blood then spread on the doorposts in Exodus and on the altar in the Temple. As with all sacrifices, the body of Jesus atoned but also nourished, which is why Jesus had his disciples eat his body—leading critics to call the early Christians cannibals. Given the Passover connection, you might have expected Jesus to have instructed his disciples to then spread wine as symbolic blood on their foreheads. But instead, Jesus tells them to drink it. Remember, Jews were strictly forbidden any contact with blood. To even symbolically drink it would have been unthinkable. Blood was life and the purview of God alone. Drink blood? Now we’re talking vampires.
If you were here last Maundy Thursday you heard me tell about the church I attended growing up in North Carolina. In an effort to authentically reenact the first Last Supper, the ministers and elders decided to set up an upper room in an upper classroom of our education building. They spread a table and served matzo and wine instead of our usual Wonder Bread and Welch’s. It was a fairly major move for our little Southern church. The minister had to preach five sermons on the Sundays prior just on how using wine would be OK. As we filed into the upper room and took our places, the cup of wine was passed as the minister intoned, “the blood of Christ shed for you.” The cup eventually passed to this little girl for whom it was her very first communion service. Her parents beamed at her participation; in fact everyone glanced over thinking how sweet she looked. Unfortunately, nobody taught her exactly what communion entailed. For as soon as the minister offered her the cup and said “The blood of Christ shed for you,” the little girl screamed and ran out of the room.
Having taken communion so often, chances are that most of us have forgotten how to be shocked by blood. We tend to keep children away from communion until they “understand” what they are doing, but the truth is most of them probably understand it better than we do, as that little screaming girl showed. She didn’t want any, and had it been the real thing, would any of us have wanted it either? As generally good Jews, aware of all the Biblical prohibitions, the disciples had to wonder whether Jesus had gone completely off the deep end.
And yet for new covenant, the will of God, to be written on the human heart, as Jeremiah promised, it has to get inside. This is what Jesus does. Israel’s story is our story. Though saved by grace and God’s justice from their Egyptian slavery, though fed with the bread of angels on their way to a promised land, they took their grace for granted, chose to worship a golden cow instead of the Lord, going so far as to long for the shackles of Egypt when the going got tough. Faith was too hard and obedience a burden, even once they made it to the Promised Land. Their sins grew so numerous, Jeremiah warned, that “the ferocity of the Lord would not turn back until he fully accomplished the intentions of his heart.” But what were the intentions of his heart? Atonement. Reconciliation. Forgiveness. God so loved the world that he gave his only son and made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” “This is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you and poured into you.” This is radically new. More than a new start or a second chance, Jesus gives a whole new existence, he makes us brand new creations—born again. “Because I live,” Jesus said, “you also will live. On that day (meaning the day of his resurrection) you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Blood is life, yes, and in Christ, blood gives life.