What Do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day Have in Common?
By Ken Onstot
Scriptures: Exodus 12:21-28; Luke 22:14-20
The question in the sermon title this morning is not one of the questions of faith asked by someone in the congregation. We will get to more questions of faith next week. The question this morning is a riddle I would like ask you: What do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day have in common?
The answer is not one thing but three things, so this is going to be a three point sermon, a rare chance to take notes if you want to. What do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day have in common? First, Commemorating the Past.
During her last two years of life my mother lived in an assisted living facility near our home in Spokane. At that point her memory was beginning to fail. Sometimes when I came to see her she would say, “Oh, I am so glad to see you; it has been so long,” and I would say, “You mean since yesterday?” And she would say, “Oh, did you come yesterday?” And I would nod, and that’s kind of how it went.
But one time when I went to see her, out of the blue she said to me, “I love that song ‘In the Garden.’” “In the Garden” is a song about Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden outside his tomb on Easter morning. Then my mother, without hesitation, began singing the whole song, all the verses including the chorus:
And he walks with me and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
I said to her, “Mom, sometimes you don’t even remember when I have been here. How do you remember all words of that song?” She said, “Sometimes when I sit here feeling sad and lonely, I remember this song, and I know I’m not alone.”
That’s what I mean by commemorating the past. When her memory was failing, my mother was sustained by her faith because she had spent her life commemorating it; not just remembering it, not just reading about it, but commemorating it—singing about it, celebrating it in worship, embodying it in rituals that were repeated over and over.
In our first scripture reading Moses instructs the people of Israel on what to do during the Passover. God was determined to set the Israelites free from slavery, so God sent a plague on the Egyptians to force Pharaoh to let them go. Moses told the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on the door frame of their houses so that the plague would “pass over” their houses and not affect them when it came upon the Egyptians.
Admittedly, this seems kind of weird. Why does God need lamb’s blood to know which houses belong to the Israelites? I will come back to that in a moment. But here is what I want you to notice at this point. Moses does not intend this to be a one-time act. He wants it to be a repeated celebration, an observance passed on from generation to generation. Moses tells the people of Israel,
When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”
More than telling the story of the Passover, the Israelites are told to commemorate it. They are to re-enact it and celebrate it in worship, so that it becomes embedded in their souls.
Independence Day has different rituals—fireworks, parades, and dressing in red, white, and blue, but the idea is the same: to commemorate the gift of freedom we have been given.
Jesus does the same thing at the Last Supper. To help them understand his approaching death, he takes a piece of bread and says, “This is my body given for you.” Then he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He establishes a ritual—an act of worship—that can repeated over and over, so that the meaning of his death would be embedded in our souls.
I have seen this work. I have taken communion to people in nursing homes, people who could not remember who I was or even who some of their family members were but who recognized that little tray of bread cubes and those little cups of grape juice, and who could say the Lord’s Prayer with me word for word. The memory of communion and worship was embedded in their souls where dementia could not get at it.
And that brings me to the second thing all three have in common: First is Commemorating the Past. Second is Anticipating the Future. When the delegates to the Continental Congress signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, they were still a long way from independence. At that point the Continental Army had about 17,000 troops. On the other side, the British had more than 40,000 troops. By the end of the year the British were in control of the very building where the Declaration had been signed. But the Declaration of Independence anticipated a future that did not yet exist, just as the Passover anticipated the future freedom of the Israelites that did not yet exist.
In the same way Jesus’ last supper also anticipated the future. During the supper he says to his disciples, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Jesus’ last supper anticipates the future kingdom he came to bring, a kingdom of freedom, justice, and peace for all people.
But there is one more thing in common between Passover, Communion, and Independence Day. First, Commemorating the Past. Second, Anticipating the Future. And third, and this is perhaps most important point, Making Sacrifices in the Present.
Why did God need the blood of a lamb to identify the houses of the Israelites? Does God need GPS to know where we live? I don’t think so. I think God used the lamb to make a crucial point: that freedom always comes with a sacrifice. Jesus made the same point at the last supper. Freedom from sin, freedom from evil, requires a sacrifice, and when we are talking about evil on a global scale, God had to be the one making the sacrifice. That’s why we believe God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself. The defeat of sin and evil on a global scale requires a sacrifice only God can make.
But it does not end there. Because remembering Jesus’ sacrifice, setting us free from sin and death, forces us to ask, “What sacrifices are we called to make so that others may experience the blessings of freedom and new life that God wants us to have?”
There is a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “A lot of people don’t have principles, but I do! I’m a highly principled person! I live according to one principle, and never deviate from it.” Hobbes says, “What’s your principle?” Calvin says, “Look out for number one” (Complete Calvin and Hobbes, vol. II: 372).
I don’t think that was the goal for which God set us free. We were not given freedom by God so we can be self-indulgent, so we can think only of our own interests. [Slide 6: Blank]
Which brings me back to the question: What sacrifice are we called to make so that others may experience the blessings of freedom and new life that God wants for us all? I have come to know a lot of people in the church who have made sacrifices for their family, even if at times they have had to confront them. I also know people in this church who have made sacrifices for our community and our country, in order that the blessings of freedom and new life in Christ might be experienced by others, including the next generation.
But right now I am also wondering what sacrifices we need to make so that people of other countries may experience the freedom and blessing God wants us to have. As I think we all recognize, that is not happening when children are forcibly separated from their parents in a strange land and taken someplace far away from them. So how do we deal with this? Here I think we need to ask ourselves a deeper question: How do we help people on both sides of our border have a better life? Because as Christians we have to be concerned about people on both sides of the border. We have no choice, because the Kingdom of God has no borders, and when the Bible says “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” it means just that.
We have some great Presbyterian mission workers, as well as other Christian organizations, working in Central America and other places to make life more of a blessing for people in their own countries. But they will need a lot more support than we have given them so far. A lot more. And we may also need to think about the policies we pursue in those countries and the effect they have on the people most desperate to leave those countries.
But as Christians, looking out only for ourselves is not an option. To do so would desecrate the freedom we have been given and demean the sacrifices that made it possible.