“For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
The gospel reading for Lent I took us into the wilderness with Jesus where he was tempted by the devil, and where he “recapitulated Adam’s temptation and reversed his dismal and catastrophic failure.” (Fr. Glenn, Ash Wednesday.) That forty-day period of fasting in the wilderness provides the model for our own Lenten fast. It evokes not only the temptation of Adam but also the forty-year sojourn of Israel in the desert.
Lent IV gives us St. John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. Here Jesus enacts the story of Moses. After he claims “that Moses prophesied his coming,” “the people follow Jesus as he crosses the sea, enters the wilderness, and goes up on a mountain…. The people come around the mountain, and Jesus feeds them bread in the wilderness” (Fr. Sean, Lent IV). The miraculous multiplication of loaves reminds us of the manna from heaven—and not only us, because those who ate the bread made the connection themselves. We know this because the next day they find Jesus and demand more bread: “What sign do you do,” they ask, “that we may see and believe you?” In case Jesus didn’t get the hint, they helpfully add, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus responds, “The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” When they ask for this bread, he responds, “I am the bread of life…. I have come down from heaven” (John 6:22-40; ESV).
This is all a bit much for them—they’re interested in earthly bread. They’re not quite sure what to make of Jesus himself being the bread. They might want to make Jesus their earthly king (John 6:15), but they’re certainly not ready to see the King of Heaven in this carpenter from Nazareth, protesting, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (John 6:42).
At this point, someone with a keener eye for marketing and brand identity than our Lord would see that he’s losing his audience and pull back a little—perhaps tailor his message in a somewhat more seeker-friendly direction. Not Jesus. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” They object to this disturbing idea, but Jesus presses on. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:51-56).
The verb translated as “feeds” in that passage is pretty earthy. One scholar notes it originally described the eating habits of animals and “had a crude connotation reflected in translations like ‘gnaw, munch’” (Brown, Anchor Bible, 283). From any source other than our Lord himself, such language would be irreverent blasphemy. For Jesus’ audience, this is just too offensive to accept. “After this,” notes St. John, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Our Lord’s methods for church growth appear rather counterproductive.
At this point you might be asking yourself if I’m planning to preach on this week’s texts or if I’m just going to keep riffing off the sermons of others. Yes and yes. There are two reasons for this extended digression into prior Lenten readings. First, the Lent IV reading from John 6 sheds invaluable light on both our gospel text from John 8 and the epistle in Hebrews 9. Secondly, these sermons remind us of the enduring value of the Old Testament to the Church. Fr. Glenn has warned us many times to “resist looking for a payoff because looking for a payoff usually distracts us from understanding” (Sermon for Trinity XVII, 2016). But I do have at least one very practical point of application, and here it is: read the Old Testament! That’s it.
Why? Because, while Jesus’ life story discloses God’s relation to creation, that relation is only understood by first grasping what went before. Our Lord’s narrative recapitulates Israel’s narrative. First, Jesus relives Israel’s wilderness wandering, and he reverses Adam’s failure by defeating the Tempter. Next, Jesus reveals his superiority to Moses by miraculously feeding the multitude. The Old Testament lesson for Morning Prayer this past Thursday recounted Pharaoh’s attempt to execute all male Hebrew babies—which foreshadows Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by murdering all male babies around Bethlehem. But before Herod could lay hand on Jesus, the Holy Family took flight to Egypt, which reminds us of Israel’s sojourn there.
This week’s gospel reading culminates in a startling claim: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). “I AM,” of course, refers to the Hebrew YHWH, the sacred name of the Lord God, who first bestowed upon himself that title in Exodus 3—tomorrow morning’s Old Testament lesson.
These are the echoes of the Old Testament in just a few of our Lenten readings. I commend Fr. Dan and the men’s group for their ongoing Herculean task of working through the whole Old Testament, and I’d urge all of you to revisit the felt-board stories of Sunday School. Be attentive to the Old Testament lessons in Morning and Evening Prayer. Because knowing Jesus means knowing his story, and his story is the story of Israel.
Let’s turn to the epistle.
“CHRIST being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.”
The book of Hebrews, from which our epistle text is taken, begins, “Long ago, at many times and in many places, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (ESV).
The author asserts the supremacy of Jesus over angels in the first two chapters and over Moses in the next two. The fifth chapter introduces the central claim of the book—that Jesus, as the great High Priest, accomplished the redemptive sacrifice once for all, through his own blood. In Jesus, then, we find the culmination and completion of all the liturgies, rituals, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Hebrews 7 teaches that our high priest Jesus is now “exalted above the heavens” where “he always lives to make intercession for” “those who draw near to God through him” (7:25-26).
Our epistle text begins in Hebrews 9. The passage immediately preceding it describes the regulations for worship in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). The Tabernacle was the place in which God’s presence would specially dwell with Israel. It consisted of a courtyard, and within the courtyard was a tent divided into two sections. The first section was called “the Holy Place;” but “behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place,” the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:2-3).
Later, an immovable Temple would replace the mobile Tabernacle—and it is worth noting that the dispute depicted in today’s gospel “takes place within the temple walls” (Fr. Sean, Passion Sunday, 2016).
After describing the basic layout of the holy places, the author of Hebrews notes that “the priests go regularly into the first section… but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” Only one man, once a year, enters the Holy of Holies, which remains closed to him at all other times and to the rest of us always. And, our author concludes, the sacrifices thereby offered “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Hebrews 9:6-9).
This is where our epistle text begins: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12, ESV). St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus died, “the curtain of the temple”—the division between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place—“was torn in two, from top to bottom” (27:51).
At this point, two questions might present themselves. First, how could the sacrifice of Jesus accomplish what the sacrifices of the Old Covenant could not? The answer depends upon who Jesus is. That, as I’ve said, is a fundamental concern of the Book of Hebrews, and it is one reason why the Book of Common Prayer pairs today’s epistle and gospel. The human being Jesus is also the one true God, the “I AM.” The human blood and flesh of the Incarnate Son of God—these secure eternal redemption for us and for all creation.
The second question is how we humans partake of his victory. The answer is that by being in him, by abiding in Jesus, we enter with him into the Holy of Holies. Shortly after our text, the author of Hebrews exhorts us that, “since have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:19-22).
We participate in Jesus through the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. We first came to abide in him when “our bodies [were] washed with pure water.” We were “baptized into one body,” as St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:13. We continue to abide in him when we feed on his flesh and drink his blood, as Jesus made explicitly clear in John 6. By these instruments of grace we are freed, as our epistle says, “from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrew 9:14).
And that is my final point: freedom consists in service. We once were “slaves of sin,” as St. Paul says, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:20-23).
We are freed from sin, from “dead works,” from the futile and empty striving that leads only to death. But what is this freedom? It is service to God, fruitful work that builds the kingdom of heaven and that leads to our own sanctification. Let us understand Lent, then, not as a season in which our freedom is curtailed or limited, but a season in which we can more consciously and fully experience true freedom through service to God.