Another excerpt from Entering the Biblical Story at the Eucharistic Table
A talk given by Gil Bailie
I want to talk about the Last Supper...
So Jesus has very little time. He gets to Jerusalem and it looks like the hour is approaching. There is no more time for sermons – there is no more time for explanations – there is time for very little, what is he going to do? It is very important to Jesus that he leaves them capable of receiving the truth, which will be available to them after the cross. So what does he do? He has a pass-over meal. And the pass-over meal is about getting out of Egypt. Some of what I am going to do below will be in a campy/Monty Python way…, but I think that there is something incredible here that we have not come to grips with.
I am going to reverse the order – let us start with the cup. He takes the cup and He says, “This is the cup of my blood which will be shed so that sin may be forgiven.” He is interpreting the cross. This is the cup of my blood, which will be shed so that sins may be forgiven. Now remember, when Jesus shows up, we humans have always had a way of taking away sins. We take away sins by putting it on the back of our scapegoat, getting rid of it and feeling righteous. Jesus is about to destroy that way by showing us the face of the innocent victim. What happens if he destroys that system and walks away and does nothing else? What happens, and in some extent is what is happening, which is, we begin to choke on our own unforgivenness, which is a synonym for resentment and virtually a synonym for sin. Unforgivenness, the world is filling up with unforgivenness. When we look out and read the morning paper and we see the 6 o’clock news we see this ignorance and sin and insensitivity and all of the rest of it. Sometimes we establish some sort of moral stance about it, but if we look at it as Christians what we see is this crying out of this massive unforgivenness...all the terrible things that are going to happen in the future are going to be committed by unforgiven people.
And Jesus has thrown everything off by destroying the system that used to take away the sins of the world on the cheap at the expense of the scapegoat. And so the unforgivenness festers, and festers. Jesus is now giving us another way of taking away sin. The Biblical God is not going to take away sin with a wave of the wand. Why? This has to do with the whole theodicy question, ‘why does God allow all the terrible things to happen in the world?’ God is not going to take away sins by the wave of the wand because that would rob us of our freedom and our dignity. God wants love and love has to be freely offered. And if you are going to create enough freedom so that love can be freely offered you are going to have to live in a world made perilous by what people do with that freedom. You cannot have it both ways. God has put all his bets on love, and therefore on freedom and therefore, what we do with that freedom can be a catastrophe, but God is not going to take away our sins by robbing us of our freedom because it would rob us of our covenantal love for our Creator.
How is He going to take it away then? He will take them away instantly if we ask that they be taken away. All we have to do is, first of all recognize our sinfulness, our complicity, that is to say, hear the cock crow and ask for forgiveness. The key is to ask for forgiveness. And we can’t ask for forgiveness until we recognize our sinfulness. And we can’t recognize our sinfulness until we go to the pit of that little machine that use to wash it away and we see what we have been doing. We hear the cock crow and we have that moment of conversion.
And so His blood is shed so that sins may be forgiven, not taken away on the cheap, but forgiven because we have recognized them and asked for forgiveness. And then Jesus says, “Take this and drink it. This is my blood.” He goes back to the question which Jesus asked about His own passion when people asked him, ‘who is going to sit at your right hand?’ He asks, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” That question is asked at the end of Mark’s Gospel – at the Eucharist in Mark’s Gospel it said He gave them this cup and they all drank of it, and they all died a martyr’s death. It is that kind of implication.
In the Eucharist we are offered that cup, why? It is because we are incorporated into the forgiving mission of Christ. When Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, you have the keys to the kingdom whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven and whose sin you retain, they are retained - we should understand how significant this statement is. It seems silly to introduce a baseball metaphor at this point, but if a pitcher lets a couple guys on base and the manager decides to put in another pitcher, and somebody gets a hit and those guys come in, they are on the ERA of the pitcher who got pulled out. When Jesus says, whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whose sins are retained; they are retained. He is saying, I think, all the unforgivenness that you could have solved and didn’t is on your ERA – it’s on your record. You are in charge of all the unforgivenness that you could forgive and don’t. Can you drink this cup? Can you drink this cup? What does it mean to drink this cup in order that sins might be forgiven?
All this means, I think, is that we must be able to step into that place, not that we are going to become martyrs, most of us do not have the courage for it, but martyrs in another way. The word means to witness. Simply to be the kind of person who when something begins to swirl, when the melodrama gets set in motion, when accusations are made we can, at the risk of our own reputation, our own standing in the community, our own livelihood whatever it happens to be, can we step into the breach and absorb some of that animosity and break up the little knot that is forming? Not by going in as John the Baptist would do and fighting it back in the other direction. But simply by stepping into that world and absorbing that tension (like the old Rolaids commercial, absorbs 47 times its own weight in access stomach acids…). Can we be the kind of people that can move into that place, and drink the cup and be part of Christ forgiveness? The world is going to choke on its own unforgivenness if we don’t. That is our role in the world. This is not cheap forgiveness. The forgiven one has to hear the cock crow, and we shouldn’t go around being lily-white liberals that we are forgiving easy and never being part of the cock crowing. People have to hear the cock crow - we have to hear it. Jesus, when He forgives people, He always says, “go, and sin no more.” It is not forgiveness on the cheap. So it is a subtle process, it requires character and dignity and courage and most of all it requires an enormous moral generosity. So Jesus is inducting us into service for history in a world which is going to now increasingly be deprived of its old mechanism for taking away its own sins on the cheap. He is bringing us into this mission of taking them away in such a way that not only honors our dignity and our freedom, but also rehabilitates us.