This is an edited and updated version of a sermon delivered at an outdoor liturgy on Sunday, August 29th, 2004 at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival in Cheltenham, England. I offer it here again because this year Passover and Maunday Thursday coincide in the same week.
This week, Jews and Christians celebrate and re-enact their two foundational meals: Pesach (begun Monday) and The Lord’s Supper (Maundy Thursday). Each meal gave birth to a people:
- Passover signaled the liberation of Hebrews from the imperial straightjacket of Pharaoh’s Egypt (Ex 12);
- Eucharist (itself originally a Passover meal) gathered Christians around the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet who Caesar’s imperial execution stake could not vanquish (Mk 14).
As long as these meals are celebrated, our two peoples—cousins who have been estranged for too long—are born again and again. They are among the oldest ritual meals still continually observed in the world.
The Passover and Paschal Feasts have so much in common:
- Both meals commemorate a journey of faith that, in the old saying of the Black Church, “makes a way out of no way”: Exodus march and discipleship path.
- Both are meals of memory, in which the central exhortation is “Remember!” “Why is this night different from all other nights?” ask Jews reverently (Ex 12:14, 42). “Do this in memory of Him…” say Christians solemnly (I Cor 11:23-26).
- Both were “last meals” celebrated by communities on the run, hunted by imperial authorities. Passover was eaten in haste by Hebrew slaves with their bags packed, fixin’ to go feral as they busted a move for the border (Ex 12:11). Eucharist was offered by a prophet marked for death, shared with a handful of betrayal-bound disciples in the attic of a Jerusalem safe-house.
- Both meals inaugurated actions of disarmed resistance to empire, which eventually became historical watersheds, animating countless future slave revolts, and inspiring many subsequent believers, famous and forgotten, to embrace the via crucis.
- Both rituals acknowledge blood as the power of life over death: the blood of lambs on door-posts (Ex 12:7, 13), the blood of the Lamb who was slain to ransom every captive (Rev 5:9).
- And both meals proclaim the unique characteristics of the God of the Bible. This God stands in solidarity with the marginalized: Yahweh who hears the cry of the oppressed, Christ who lives among the poor. This God cannot be named or tamed by imperial civilization, then or now, and is patron of no royal family, then or now. This God is undomesticated and inconvenient, and promises to all who follow the Way deliverance from bondage to slavery, sin and death.
So this week we honor these two meals, which together symbolize what it means to be “Freedom Bound,” a biblical double entendre: Bound for freedom, and bound to the Freedom Struggle and its cost. The meaning of freedom is contested, however, in our day. The modern, western myth of freedom long ago came unhinged from the biblical story, and thus from the beginning had a darker side: freedom to conquer, to exploit, to dominate. Today freedom for citizens of the First World too often means little more than unfettered consumerism, or the license of the few to have more than their share, or imperial ambition.
Our two biblical meals remind people of faith, in contrast, that God’s freedom calls us to self-restraint, servanthood and justice for all. Indeed, the Exodus Passover is followed by another meal: of manna in the wilderness, a story that instructs us to “gather only enough, so that no one has too much, and no one too little” (Ex 16:16-18). This Torah lesson to circulate the gifts of Creation among all in need rather than concentrating them in the hands of the few, was re-enacted by Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel story of feeding the multitudes in the wilderness (Mk 6:35-44). Surrounded by hungry masses, Jesus “took bread, blessed it, broke it and distributed it” (6:41)—the exact ritual action repeated in the Last Supper.
Standing ever between Exodus and Eucharist are poor folks hungering for bread and for the Bread of Life. The ethos of these Meals of Remembering is betrayed whenever freedom is interpreted as license to tolerate the affluence of a few and the poverty of many. The biblical freedom story, spun in the distant Sinai past and reiterated by a Nazarene under Rome’s boot, calls us rather to steward rather than pillage the earth; to distribute rather than to hoard her gifts; to serve rather than to rule; to give life rather than to take it.
The tale of these two meals is God’s extraordinary invitation to turn the world right side up, coming in the form of the most ordinary thing people do: sharing food together around a table. Let us not imagine that these sacred meals are some sort of religious entitlement, or empty ritual, or venue for strictly private spirituality. Rather, when we Jews and Christians come to our respective table of Memory, we are part of a legacy that invites our embrace, an ongoing struggle to take back the Freedom story from empire-builders and profiteers, and to restore it among Kingdom-seekers and prophets.
Upon these two liturgical feasts, representing one great biblical tradition of remembrance, we can confidently stake our lives, our aspirations, our vocations. And on a faithful practice of meal and memory we can rebuild our peoplehood to be truly Freedom Bound, that the history of liberation may also have a future.