(Sermon 5 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)
For the last 5 weeks we’ve explored the concept of Matthew as a liturgical document developed to follow the Jewish liturgical year.
All four of the Gospels place the beginning of the Passion narratives – the beginning of the death and resurrection of Jesus – at Passover. The celebration of Passover begins just two weeks into the Jewish liturgical cycle and celebrates the birth of a nation as Moses frees the Hebrews from over 400 years of slavery in Egypt.
(For the full video of the sermon, click here.)
For Matthew, the corresponding story is how Jesus shares the Passover meal with hisdisciples and he takes us all the way through the crucifixion and after-death experiences of Jesus. Then the cycle starts over again and we see how the chapters of Matthew line up consecutively with the major Jewish holidays and the Jewish liturgical cycle.
While this is only a theory, I find it a very compelling theory once one has examined the evidence.
For now, we’ll take a look at the two Sabbaths leading up to Passover (Mt. 24-25), Passover itself, and how Matthew transforms it the story of the Last Supper. This, then, ushers in the whole final chapter in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and is perhaps the birthing point of something different, the birthing moment of a new movement eventually to be dubbed Christianity.
In Matthew 24 Jesus talks about signs that will occur to signal the end of times:
- the destruction of the Temple, how no stone will be left one upon another
- wars, famine and earthquakes, which are the labor pains of the new age
- Noah and the flood and how people must remain vigilant as they don’t know when the end will be.
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells parables of judgment
- the bridesmaids waiting for their bridegroom
- the servants who were entrusted with money to hold for the landowner
- the story of the sheep and goats who are separated at the day of judgment based on who had fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, visited the prisoner, and clothed the stranger.
I’ve never quite understood the parables of the end of the world and of judgment that we find in Matthew 24-25. They never meshed for me with the God that Jesus proclaimed.
However, if we understand that in the synagogue they were listening to the stories at the beginning of their liturgical cycle, which included the stories of Noah and the complete destruction of the world… and if we understand that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t future conjecture (in the year 85 CE, when Matthew was written it had in fact recently happened – about 15 years earlier) and the fear and horror of that war and destruction was still fresh in their minds… and if we understand that the Hebrew Scriptures predicted the end of the world before the coming of the Messiah, then we can understand these passages differently.
Matthew uses chapters 24 and 25 to set the stage for the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. The Last Supper story (in Matthew 26) was the gateway into that knowledge.
In Matthew 26, what Christians think of as the institution of communion, are clearly pieces of the Seder meal that is shared on the Jewish Passover.
Passover is 8 days long and begins with a Seder meal and the re-telling of the story of Moses freeing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. A Seder meal consists of many symbolic foods that relate to the Moses story, as well as a number of blessings, but there are two pieces that would look really familiar to any Christian. Early in the Seder meal unleavened bread is blessed and broken, and four glasses of wine are drunk during the meal, including one at the end that is blessed and then drank.
Also within the ancient Exodus story is the lamb that is sacrificed, its blood put on the doorposts of the Israelite’s homes so that the angel of death will pass over those houses during the last plague that killed the first-born of every family – human and animal alike. For Matthew, Jesus symbolically becomes the new paschal lamb, banishing death in a different way.
Birth of a New Nation
I imagine it was hard to put Jesus into a box and label what or who he was. Instead they used concepts and stories that they knew and painted an interpretive portrait of Jesus, thus sharing their “truth” of what they’d experienced in Jesus.
You’ll recall how Matthew re-frames Jesus as the new Moses. Note the similarities below:
- Saved at birth from Pharaoh
- Power over water (split the Red Sea)
- Went up mountain to get laws from God
- Moses face shone because he had “seen” God
- Spent 40 years in the wilderness
- Had three major crises in wilderness
- Fed multitude with manna
- Moses saves the people from slavery in Egypt
- Passover celebrates story of Exodus which marks the beginning of the nation of Israel
- Fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s genocide
- Power over water – in his baptism and walking on water, calming storm
- Sermon on mount and transfiguration
- Jesus face shone at transfiguration
- 40 days in the wilderness
- Three temptations in wilderness
- Feeding the 5,000 and 4,000
- Jesus is the Messiah
- Last Supper is a Passover meal, it is the doorway to the passion narrative and thus marks the beginning of Christianity
This Last Supper makes the connection between Jesus and Moses one more time. Set at the Passover meal, we remember how Moses freed the Hebrews to become their own people, to develop a religion and a culture all their own. He freed them to form a covenant with God to follow the laws in exchange for being God’s people.
In the Last Supper meal, Matthew switches the focus to Jesus… when you break bread and drink the wine at this meal “remember me”(Jesus not Moses). It is not the blood of the lamb smeared on doorposts that ushered in a covenant with God, now Jesus’ blood (in Matthew’s interpretation) becomes the Covenant.
But this new covenant is not about following the laws. The new covenant Jesus offers is a different kind of freedom from a different kind of slavery. Following the teachings of Jesus led to freedom from slavery to institutional rules, ego, fear of God and punishment, fear of exclusion, and perhaps most of all fear of death.
If we need to cast Jesus in a Savior role, this is what humanity was saved from, and to.
- Saved from a blind life of obedience to rules … and saved to a faith-based in personal experience of the Divine, Oneness with the Divine.
- Saved from a life of divisions and oppression, of who’s in and who’s out… and saved to a life where there is a place for everyone at the table. Every life is sacred.
- Saved from a life of fear of hell and death… and saved to an understanding that our essential selves are more than our bodies and exist within the Divine essence. Death of our bodies is not the death of our spirits, our energy, our love and goodness.
Sadly, the institution church through the ages has replaced this non-violent, compassionate, wise Messiah who gave everything he had in love, hope and joy, and who wanted, really, to save us from ourselves, with a Savior whose only role was as a human sacrifice for a God who demanded punishment and restitution, to save us from a sin that was based in myth, and has held humanity hostage to fear, sin and death. (I know that was a really long sentence… deal with it.)
And then the institutional church simply replaced the Jewish laws with Christian laws and required everyone follow them, as well as certain belief structures, in order to be acceptable to God and achieve eternal life. But what Jesus taught was that eternal life, the kingdom of heaven, is available right now and is within each of us. Oops. The church has forgotten to mention that.
The rules, the belief structures, the notion of being saved from Original Sin have nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with controlling people and perpetuating the institution. Because, you see, if people would come to understand the essential message of Jesus… love God, love one another as you love yourself, and that the “Way” he taught was to recognize our oneness with God and God’s oneness with us, there would be little need for a church. Or at least not church as we’ve known it.
Search the depths of yourselves, know the truth that you are light, and you are love, and it will change your life and change the world. That was the power of Jesus that had to be destroyed.