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Love is Life

Sermons

Shed For You

April 17, 2011

Bible Reading

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

(Exodus 12:1-13)


While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

(Matthew 26:26-29)

Reading from Swedenborg

“And they shall take of the blood.” We can see that this means holy truth that is prompted by the good that innocence does, since “blood” means holy truth emanating from the Lord, and this is “the blood of a lamb,” “lamb” standing for the good that innocence does.

(Secrets of Heaven 7846)


What is “truth prompted by the good that innocence does”? The good that innocence does is good done out of love for the Lord. That is, when we are caught up in love for the Lord we are caught up in innocence. That is why the people in the third heaven are more caught up in innocence than others—they are caught up in a love for the Lord. Because of their innocence the people there look to others like children; yet they are the wisest of all in heaven because innocence dwells in wisdom. For them, the truth prompted by the good that innocence does is not truth disclosed by faith but good done because of caring, since people in the third heaven do not know what faith is. This means that they do not know what truth disclosed by faith is. You see, they have a feel for the truth that comes from faith, which means that they know instantly whether something is true. So they never analyze something to see whether it is so, let alone argue about it. Anything that is felt in this way cannot be reduced to the form of data.

(Secrets of Heaven 7877)

Sermon

Taking a cup and blessing it, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood, blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28)

There is no obvious relationship between drinking from a cup of wine and having one’s sins forgiven, even with the explanation that the wine stands for the Lord’s blood. One way a connection has been made is to regard the blood as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of the Father, and this has proved both persuasive and comforting to many. It does not hold up very well under close reading, though, because the picture it gives of the Father is problematic, to say the least. The best we can do with it is to visualize the Father as torn between righteous wrath and love, and using the Son to make a kind of end run around the wrath.

It works, though, for people who have lost hope because they believe with all their hearts that God is angry with them and that they deserve punishment for their sins. Such feelings are not easily argued away, and when the emotional focus shifts from a figure of unforgiving righteousness to that of a compassionate shepherd, the relief can be a true blessing. Lives have been turned around in this way.

All the same, this comes at a cost, a cost perhaps most simply described as the loss of an infinite, omnipotent God who is both loving and wise, a God in whom there is no tension between justice and forgiveness, a God who never punishes because transgression punishes itself. Turning to the Son seems to be turning away from the Father. Close to the heart of John’s gospel, though, is Jesus’ insistence not only that he is doing the Father’s will, but also that it is actually the Father who is doing the works (John 14:10). Jesus was not trying to change the Father’s mind or deflect the Father’s intent. He was expressing the Father’s mind and carrying out the Father’s intent. The goal of his life was in fact to become totally one with the Father.

There was only one way to do this, and that was to lose himself. Mark’s account of the crucifixion shows passersby challenging him to save himself: “He saved others—himself he cannot save” (Mark 15:31). He could have, but he had taught that anyone who tried to save his life would lose it, and that only by losing it could it be found (Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24). This was no hyperbole. He meant what he said. He really meant what he said. He had talked that talk; now he was walking that walk, the walk that explained the talk.

There was no way to avoid this. Few experiences are more destructive, more disillusioning, than being devoted to the ideals presented by an inspiring figure and then discovering that this wonderful role model is a fraud. Sexual abuse by the clergy is very much in the news these days, and it is not restricted to any specific denomination or any religion.

There was a case not too many years ago of a Buddhist guru who was found to have infected any number of his trusting followers with AIDS. In general, the more the laity trust the clergy, the more possibility there is of that trust being betrayed. “If the minister says this is right, who am I to argue?” When that trust is betrayed, it hurts; and the deeper the trust, the deeper the hurt. Jesus had taught that what was right was to lose one’s life. He made no exception for himself, claimed no special privilege. Instead, he accepted a special responsibility, an immense one. The effect of backing down on this central, critical point would have been profound disillusionment. It would have sent the message, “If it hurts too much, compromise.”

No, again we come up against that dialogue with Thomas, who protested that the disciples did not know where Jesus was going and therefore could not know the way. When Jesus replied “I am the way” (John 14:6), he told them. When he accepted the cross, he showed them.

This brings us to a critical point. Jesus had taught not only that those who tried to save their lives would lose them but that those who lost their lives for his sake would save them (Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24), and that qualification, “for his sake,” makes all the difference in the world. Jesus did not give up his life for his own sake but for the sake of his disciples— which at least potentially includes everyone in the world, including us. He was not showing himself the way. He was showing us the way. He was giving his body for us, he said, allowing his blood to be shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

Still, what is the connection between giving up life and the forgiveness of sins? Perhaps the simplest way of making the connection is to say that when we let go of our lives we let go of the bad as well as the good. We stop trying to rate ourselves on some spiritual or moral spreadsheet. The past is a wonderful resource for learning but an unbearable burden to carry. When we stop blaming ourselves, we can begin to hear what it has to tell us; and if we listen carefully and honestly enough, it will tell us something about what we should be doing in the present.

We may on occasion find ourselves grateful for some lapse, some sin, because it has showed us something about ourselves that we were keeping hidden. That could well be the surest sign that the sin has been forgiven. It has not been paid for—the Lord never punishes us. Something good has come from it, and part of that good is that we have stopped punishing ourselves. That option is always open to us. We might recall the story of Edison telling a visitor to his laboratory that all his “failures” had been successes because they had taught him what didn’t work.

Sometimes we cannot figure out why we reacted as we did, and that, too, can be a good thing. It is a clear signal that we do not understand ourselves completely, and that we need a measure of curiosity, an open mind. If we do, then one of these days another reaction may switch on the light for us.

The main thing throughout this often devious process is that we keep focused on trying to follow the way—to hear what the Lord is trying to tell us. This is where our third reading comes in, with its emphasis on “good done out of love for the Lord.” How do we actually feel about the Lord? If we were making a list of those we love, would the Lord come to mind? Here we may turn for a moment to the Psalmist. “One thing have I desired of the Lord: that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his holy temple” (Psalm 27:4). “Give to the Lord the glory due to his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2). “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Psalm 90:17). “Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:6).

Beauty and love go hand in hand, with love in the lead. Love sees in the beloved beauty that others do not see. It seems as though beauty awakens or stirs love; but it would be more realistic to say that love is constantly looking for beauty, and that beauty gives love the opportunity to come forth. If we actually love the Lord, we join the Psalmist in seeing the Lord as beautiful. Some of the world’s most beautiful music has been written for religious purposes. “Anything that is felt in this way,” our third reading tells us, “cannot be reduced to the form of data.” Not many sermons, however enlightening, would be described as “beautiful.”

It is when we feel the beauty of the Lord, the beauty that cannot be reduced to statements of fact, that we see as the Lord sees and are therefore moved by love for each other, feeling joy in the joy of others and sorrow in their sorrow. That is when we are most fully innocent, innocent in the fundamental sense of doing no harm. That is when we stop punishing ourselves, because punishment does harm, hurts. The highest angels are caught up in innocence because they are caught up in a love for the Lord, a love that goes hand-in-hand with an awareness of the beauty of the Lord. This is a kind of other-worldly beauty whose light suffuses this world. It is the pearl of great price that prompts the merchant to sell everything in exchange for it.

At the Last Supper, the Lord offered his disciples the bread and wine as symbols of his own being. It is hard to imagine a more compelling way to say, “Take me into yourself.” The apostle Paul verbalized this in his letter to the Philippians (2:5ff.): “Let that mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”; and he went on to describe that “mind” as being self-emptying, not regarding equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbling himself even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus simply said “Take, eat.” “Drink this.” Let my flesh and blood become one with yours. Feel as I feel, and see as I see—then you will speak and act as I speak and act. “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12).

Our theology tells us again and again that the human nature the Divinity assumed in the Incarnation was just as weak and flawed as our own, so that throughout his life he was tempted as we are, growing gradually, little by little, toward that full union with the indwelling Father. In other words, he was laying down his life in little ways time after time, giving his full, loving attention to those around him, tending to his own needs only in order to be able to minister. That is why he was able to lay his life down so completely when the time came.

We rarely find ourselves in situations that call for radical self-sacrifice, but we have countless little opportunities. In fact, the people who do respond heroically in times of crisis often report that they have surprised themselves. We tend to take our habitual behavior for granted, and self-forgetfulness is habit-forming.

“This is my blood...which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This is Jesus saying, “I give you myself, now and always. I give you nothing but the love and understanding that I have been giving you ever since we first met. As for your sins, my only longing is to find what good can be brought out of them. That, if you will, is my definition of ‘forgiveness.’”

Amen.

Prayer

O loving Christ
who died upon the tree
Each day and each night
I remember your love.
In my lying down
and in my rising up
In life and in death
You are my health and my peace.
Each day and each night
I remember your forgiveness
Bestowed on me so gently
And generously
Each day and each night
may I be fuller in love to you.

- J. Philip Newell, from Celtic Prayers from Iona

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole