Thursday, March 28, 2013

Until the Kingdom of God Comes

Luke 22:7-23, 28-30
Maundy Thursday
William G. Carter

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 

            We know this story. We hear the heart of it at least once a month, every time we break the bread and pour the cup. Tonight we hear it in its expanded context. It was a Passover banquet. That means the matzoh was baked, the lamb was roasted. Bottles of wine are uncorked and friends have circled around. Passover is celebrated with serious joy.

Around a family table, the celebrants recline in freedom. They sing the psalms of God’s saving power and recount the story of how God brought them out of slavery. This is a night of serious joy. The carpenter pulls on a clean tunic. The fishermen scrub their fingernails a second time.

But why is this Passover different from all other Passovers? Jesus seems to have made secret arrangements for the meal, probably because his life is at risk. His friends do not know this will be their last meal with him. All they know is that this will be a Passover feast. They remember Moses standing up to Pharoah, and God sending Ten Plagues to soften Pharoah’s will. They recall how the angel of death “passed over” the homes where lamb’s blood was smeared over the door. Regardless of whatever precautions they took, they had no idea that the first-born Son of God would be struck down by the angel of death in a matter of hours.

Just then Jesus makes it plain. “I wanted to have this meal with you before I suffer.” Or to translate more accurately, “I really, really, really wanted to do this.” I need to do this, I deeply desire to do this - with all of you – before I suffer. This is the moment when the Twelve friends realize that something deep is going on. Both his intensity and his sense of a deadline (“before I suffer”) reveal that meal’s importance.

But then Jesus said something unusual, something to which I never paid much attention, something he says twice. “I won’t eat the meal until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. I won’t drink the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” It is the Last Supper before he suffers, but then he will eat it again “in the Kingdom of God.”

He has spoken of the Kingdom many times. Forty-two times, to be exact, just in the Gospel of Luke. God’s Kingdom is an invisible dominion. The Kingdom is not in some other place, said Jesus; it is already among us. We don’t see it – but it has begun. Children belong to the Kingdom, and people who become like trusting children will enter it. Kingdom is the banquet where poor, crippled, blind, and lame are honored guests. Kingdom is where prodigals are forgiven and Samaritans are our neighbors. Kingdom is where God presides over all things and human willfulness is set aside. This is how Jesus speaks of the will of God working itself out, both in our lives and beyond our lifetimes. God rules like a Sovereign. The Kingdom starts small, like a seed, and grows until it takes over everything.

Tonight Jesus adds that the Kingdom comes after he suffers.

A lot of Christian people have had a lot to say about the sacramental Supper that we share tonight. They have written books, outlined doctrine, even divided churches over their views of this Supper. What strikes me tonight is that this is a Kingdom Meal, right here in the midst of our own human suffering. Jesus has gone through his suffering – his body was broken and discarded, his blood spilled.

We recount the story tonight and tomorrow. It resonates with our own awareness of how broken the world is. We remember yet again how cruel people can be to one another, how otherwise good people will cash in their friendships, to say nothing of how addicted we are to violence. It is disturbing but it is not defining. Bad things happen on this dark night, but God’s goodness is still here, and it continues to advance.

This begins, after all, as a Passover meal. The Jews know Passover. Passover is the feast of freedom. Passover means that nobody enslaves anybody else. Passover means that nobody puts down, oppresses, or takes advantage of anybody else. Passover means Pharoah can’t force you to make bricks, or force you to make more bricks without any straw. Oh no! God hears human suffering, and brings us out of that bondage. Even though Pharoah still has his brick factories, even though his taskmasters still afflict and demean, Passover says there is another way.

It can be hard to see. It is difficult to claim. Ask the man who works in the storeroom at the Big Box Megamart. Once he had his own business, was his own boss, but then the economy unraveled. After weeks of looking for a job, he landed in the Big Box storeroom. Now he punches somebody else’s clock. He goes in when they tell him to go in. He would like to join us for church on Sunday, but he has to work when they tell him to work. Otherwise the groceries don’t get bought, the bills don’t get paid. Talk about Passover, talk about freedom; it can sound like a distant dream . . . except it is real. We can flourish even in the midst of the affliction because it does not own us.

Jesus breaks the bread, the Bread of Affliction. He breaks it just as his body will be broken. He says, “I give this to you,” because there is something more to life than suffering.

He pours out the cup among his fellow Jews, and declares, “New covenant!” Jewish Passover will become the model for all human relationships. No more brutality. No more oppression. Jesus says his suffering will create a new fellowship between people and their God. After his suffering is finished and past, he will eat and drink with his friends again.

These sound like Easter hints before Good Friday. I take them as that and a whole lot more. We gather for the Lord’s Supper, not the Last Supper. Tonight we hear of Christ’s suffering and take stock of our own. But we affirm that He is here, in the midst of us, because his suffering is past and the Kingdom has come near quietly. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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