April 6: Passover
The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. Ex. 12:13
As we enter Holy Week it is good to go back and read the account of the first Passover, when God announced He would kill of the firstborn son of every household in Egypt, except those households that sacrificed a lamb died in the place of the firstborn son. God told Moses, and through him all Israel, that blood of that lamb would take the place of the blood of the firstborn son. Thus, death passed over the households of those who trusted in God’s Word and promise.
The blood on the doorposts and lintel was the effective sign. It comforted the people because it held God to His promise. Notice the verse above says it is a sign “for you,” but continues “when I [God] see the blood…” It is there for God to see and be bound to his gracious promises.
Everything comes together, the meaning, the gift, and the effectiveness of the gift, in that blood.
Salvation wasn’t just a matter of getting blood on the doorpost, though. The blood was the main, effective thing, of course, but it did not stand alone as some magically significant thing apart from the rest of the Passover ceremony. The whole Passover preparation played a crucial role in making that blood what it was. You couldn’t just skip all that other stuff and put some blood on your doorpost and call that a covenant from God.
Sometimes in confirmation class we consider goofy questions, like “What if the dog licks the blood off one of the doorposts? Will I still be safe tonight? What if our lamb had a defect we didn’t see? What if our doorpost is already red and blood doesn’t show up?” There are a million such potential questions. But if the promise is to be a sign for the household, everything has to be done, to the degree it is possible, according to God’s institution, with trust that God is faithful. The selection of the lamb, the preparation of the house, the slaughter at twilight, etc. all matter to the purpose of the blood comforting the anxious heart.
We know that Passover, along with all the OT rituals, was “a shadow of the things that were to come; the substance belongs to Christ.” (Col. 2:17) In the first Holy Week, Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, which had been going on annually since that first Exodus about 1,500 years prior. That what the “Last Supper” in the upper room was all about. The rich meaning of the firstborn son, the sacrifice, substitutionary atonement, salvation from death, and the final revelation how Jesus would fulfill his role as “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”-- it all comes together when Jesus, at the Passover meal, identifies Himself as the lamb of the new covenant, instituting Holy Communion. He gives Himself to His followers in His last will and testament before He dies to put that will into effect the next day.
Every Communion service, therefore, is, among other things, the fulfillment of the Passover ceremony. The main thing, the effective thing, is the body and blood of Christ given to us in, with, and under the bread and wine. That is the crucial part, the focal point. But like the Passover, the focal point isn’t the entirety, it is part of a larger ceremony. God gives us this new covenant of Christ’s body and blood with physical elements (bread and wine), His Word of promise (the words of institution), someone to speak for Christ (the celebrant) and at least one other person (the congregation) to eat and drink. The whole ritual goes together as one thing.
Normally, this is not a problem at all. Every Divine Service includes the proclamation of Christ in the Scriptures and preaching as fulfillment of the Law, and the distribution of the fruit of His sacrifice according to His institution of Communion. But what if, like now, we can’t get together? How can we have communion? If we start down the road of asking what “works” we end up in goofy places like our experimental classroom discussions of Passover.
“What if the pastor just consecrated the elements and mailed them to the parishioners? What if he said the Words of Institution online while I have bread and wine in front of my computer screen at home? What if I just ask God privately in prayer to give me Christ’s body and blood via whatever food I have?” The short answer is that anything that separates the eating and drinking from the consecration undermines the purpose of the covenant. Instead of building up faith, it invites uncertainty. Even when we take communion to the homebound, we have the bread and wine, the consecration, the celebrant, and the congregation of one or two eating and drinking all together.
We all desire to receive communion, especially in Holy Week. Not having our usual services is especially painful. I realize churches are doing all kinds of things, some a bit “out there” to try to offer communion during a shelter-in-place order. I have called a special meeting of the deacons for tomorrow evening (via Zoom) to discuss how we will be proceeding in the coming weeks concerning Holy Communion. Wednesday’s email update should fill you in.
In the meantime, please know that your yearning for communion is a healthy spiritual sign, that your salvation does not depend upon receiving it at any particular time, and that God does not limit Himself to only that one way of nurturing your faith. Please also know that offering communion to those desiring it is of utmost importance to us. We will do our very best to find faithful ways to feed the flock with all of God’s gifts no matter the circumstance. As the Passover pointed to Christ, Holy Week reminds us we have a God who died that we might live. He isn’t going to forget about you or neglect you. He paid too much for you for that. That Good News permeates this holiest of weeks.
Thanks to those who participated in the Bible studies via Zoom. My apologies to those who tried to log in but were unable; the error was on my end, not yours. But I eventually got it squared away, and we had a good discussion. It should be much smoother going forward. The pandemic is making this rapidly aging dog learn new tricks when it comes to pastoral practice and use of technology.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana